“Customs vary wi’ the times, At Hallowe’en..” So wrote John Mayne in his poemHallowe’en which was first published in 1780. This work was a major influence on Robert Burns’ more famous poem of the same name which appeared in 1785. Mayne’s wise observation that Halloween customs vary (like all cultures and languages) with the times, has not been widely accepted. Instead Halloween has become a sort of battleground over identity, politics and nationality, with dubious claims thrown into the mix that its origin harks back to the pre-Christian age.
It is perhaps not a surprise that the nation which dominates the present Halloween narrative is Ireland, it being the only one of the four nations to have a massive, influential cultural revolution in the shape of the Gaelic Revival, which merged nationalism, mythology and eventually (after much bloodshed) polity. These customs date back many centuries, spanning the British Isles and transcending the homogeneous “nation”. They pre-date standardised education systems and thus buckle the now coalesced narrative. When they become political, history tends to be the first victim.
All of this means that our understanding of Halloween is blurred. It’s time to focus the lens.
There are so many unsubstantiated claims and assumptions relating to this festival, it’s difficult to know where to begin. My main research focus has been on the Jack O’Lantern. Let’s start with that…
The celebration of St. Patrick’s Day as a National Holiday in Ireland was first practised in Limerick in 1902? To mark this the shops and pubs in the city were closed. In 1903 there was a Ball held at Sarsfield Barracks, and the Limerick Pipers’ Club played at an ‘Irish Night’ concert at the Athenaeum. By 1912 the day was well established on the local calendar.
An account of St. Patrick’s Day in Limerick (Limerick Chronicle, 1912)
There is a dual celebration this year, owing to the day falling on a Sunday. All the large business houses in the city are closed and employees are thus enabled to enjoy a little relaxation from the toils of business.
The day is being observed with becoming fitness. The weather is exceptionally fine, and large numbers are abroad enjoying the sunshine which lights up the atmosphere. Everyone, young and old, are sporting the shamrock, and the day is being honoured in the best possible fashion. In the various churches of all denominations, special services in honour of the Patron Saint are being held and are attended by large numbers.
At St. Mary’s Cathedral, where the Union Jack flies from the Tower, the song being sung is “The Hymn of St. Patrick” (Muspratt) The day is being observed by all classes. The ships in port are dressed in celebration of the day. In the evening at St. Michael’s Parochial Church, the Rev. G. Nolan, Professor of Irish at Maynooth, will be preaching to a large congregation. A few showers are beginning to fall. The sobriety of the people is remarkable. Due to the coal strike, the Railway Company will not be running any excursions, but many plan to journey out of town by one or other of the ordinary trains. The principal attraction outside the city being the Point-to-Point Races at Newmarket-on-Fergus which will be well attended.