This Halloween spare a thought for the forgotten turnip…

As we approach Halloween, we should remind ourselves that as a people who have fought and continue to fight to preserve our rich cultural heritage protecting cultural traditions going back hundreds of years, it is with irony that one observes this week a cultural tradition that the Irish exported to the United States, now being exported back to us in a watered down ‘Americanised’ form which we now accept as our own culture without any of the rich cultural heritage of the original form. I am of course talking about the Halloween ‘Jack o Lantern.

It is believed that that the custom of making jack-o’-lanterns at Halloween began here in the Celtic speaking regions of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, “turnips” were hollowed out to act as lanterns and often carved with grotesque faces. Halloween was also the festival of Samhain was seen as a time when supernatural beings and the souls of the dead, roamed the earth and the belief was the lanterns were used to ward off evil spirits. Sometimes they were used to frighten people and set on window sills to keep harmful spirits out of one’s home. Some even believe that that the jack-o’-lanterns originally represented Christian souls in purgatory as Halloween is the eve of All Saints day (01 November) and All Souls Day (02 November).

All Hallows Eve came to North America, like everything else, carried by European immigrants to the New World, the holiday exploded in the United States and Canada with the wave of Irish and Scottish that came over during the mid 19th century. These new American’s couldn’t find their usual produce to carve at Halloween, so they turned to the pumpkin.

So back to present day here in Ireland, as we watch our shops selling imported Pumpkins and our children participating in the ‘Americanised’ version of Halloween, not to forget our own cultural links to the Halloween and spare a thought for the Humble Turnip.

Patrick Murdock is a dual qualified Chartered Surveyor and qualified Tax Advisor original from and currently in based Newry. An independent free thinking liberal at heart, prior to establishing his own specialist consultancy, Patrick has built a twenty year career working for a number of global advisory firms and continues to work across markets in the construction, property and final services industries and has considerable experience and practical knowledge of working day to day in the UK, Northern Ireland and ROI markets.

  • file

    Have you actually ever hollowed out a turnip? It is a day’s work, and fair play to my Da who used to do it for us when we were kids. Hollowing out a pumpkin is five minutes’ work and, in this respect and in this respect only, the US contribution to the celebration of Samhain is most welcome! By the way, happy new year – Samhain also marks the end of the Gaelic (not Celtic) year.

  • Food First

    Old enough to remember this as kids the glorious days of simple pleasures

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Knife & Spoon – Agree it’s hard work !

  • Smithborough

    Used a pumpkin for the first time this year for making a Halloween lantern. All I can say is that it makes the job a lot easier! Sadly I can see why our traditions are on the way out.

    When I was small, back in the mists of time, we would have dunked for apples as a traditional Halloween game. Does anyone else remember any other traditional Halloween games?

  • Ciaran74

    Yeah, the hands would have to be rested a few times before the turnip was finished. I’m 42 and it was my job but I haven’t passed it on. If I can find a turnip, I’m going to do it!

    My Dad used to string an apple up from the frame of a door and stick 2p’s and 10p’s in it. Same as dunking, hands behind the back and you kept them if you managed to get them out with your teeth. Ouch!

    A hole in a black bag for your head, and your face blacked out for the doors. You were loaded if you had a mask! Ah the craic!

  • William Kinmont

    The turnip takes all day thus occupying the kids who are off school . my wife however took a health and safety approach so we have 3 pumpkins on the window sill and 3 kids quickly back to arguing over the xbox.
    School by the way takes a christian ethos and will not mention halloween to the kids or in correspondance re the holiday. No decorations no discussion apple bobbing no education at all arround what is a fairly widespread tradition in our society. Easter and Christmas get plenty of coverage from the school as to the associations that christians have attached to those pagan festivals guess the pagan stuff is too close to the surface at halloween.

  • Big Yellow Crane

    Same with ours. A born-again busy body banned It.

  • Brian O’Neill

    Carving out a turnip was next to impossible. There must have been a load of people ending up in casualty with cuts.

    I like trick or treat. Giving out sweets is cheaper than the old tradition of giving out money 😉

    In America the new thing now is trunk or treat. They don’t want kids wandering around in the dark so cars park in a local school and the kids go round each car.

  • William Kinmont

    out of interest is the school being populated with evangelically leaning teachers

  • Máire

    November in Irish is Saimhain. The Night when the doors between this world and the next opened and the dead spirits roamed the earth playing tricks. 
    I remenber my parents hallowing out a turnip. It took both of them in turns the best part of the day to do it.
    We used to go tricking on neighbours houses after dark. There was no option for treats back then, that idea came later. A crowd of children and young teens roaming our local rural area, to the bemusement of our elders. Everyone tricked within their own small townland.
    We also had apple dunking and the apple hanging from the door jamb. We had another with three saucers, one with clay, one with water, and one with a ring. A person was blindfolded and asked to pick a saucer. Clay meant death, water was a trip abroad and of course the ring was marriage. The old threepence or ring in apple tarts.
    There was also, for those who were cuples,  putting two peanuts beside each other on the old solid fuel range. If they burned out together the couple would stay together, if one jumped off as happens with the heat, the couple would separate. 
    At the end of the night there was the inevitable ghost stories told. The problem then was some were too scared to walk home afterwards and the younger ones were too scared to sleep. 
    It was all good innocent harmless fun.

  • William Kinmont

    my aunts used to bake money in the apple tart. coins got so hot they would burn the bake off you if you wearnt carefull

  • Máire

    Dunked for coins too. That was a bit more difficult than the apple and for the more experienced dunker

  • Donagh

    “Samhain was seen as a time when supernatural beings and the souls of the dead, roamed the earth and the belief was the lanterns were used to ward off evil spirits. Sometimes they were used to frighten people and set on window sills to keep harmful spirits out of one’s home.”

    First time I ever heard this explanation. As a child we always placed a lantern in the window to guide the souls of our Departed back home.

  • Abucs

    As the ‘Englisc’ pagans converted to Christianity it made sense for them to celebrate the Christian remembrances such as pascha at times of their own festival days roughly known in the ‘Englisc’ culture as Easter. It is important to realise the pagans were in control as they converted to Christianity. It was not a Christian imposition on them, otherwise it would be known as pascha as it was in Christian Europe. The pagans conquered much of Christian Europe (the dark ages) and then after many years adopted the religion of the people they had conquered. From this beginning began the rise of the modern world.

  • William Kinmont

    There is alot of imposition going on now in schools Indoctrination rather than Education.
    Halloween is completely blanked as the school believes it dangerous and the celebration of evil and the devil. I have asked. I think it is a widespread tradition that has evolved over time like Christmas and Easter as you say with some christian input and some pagan and other influences.

  • james

    Are we looking at the next red line issue for Sinn Fein, here? There can be no return to Stormont without… Irish Turnip Act??

    The pumpkin, being Orange, is totally, totally unacceptable. Not indigenous to this country, and clearly genetically inferior, and from an inferior culture – so we’re just following the strict orders of our voters…. no Assembly without an ITA!

    – Access to turnips must be guaranteed for all, all year-round, even in remote areas.
    – All restaurants required to offer at least one main meal containing turnips, and be at all times staffed with at least one server who is already an expert on turnips or is willing to attend catch-up training courses.
    – a junior minister with the brief of expanding use of the turnip in school meals. (We cannot, by the way, have an amalgamated Minister for the Consumption of all Vegetables – the ITA must be a standalone office, in recognising the thousand-year Irishness of the turnip. If you want a minister for your own preferred vegetable, good luck to you – but no other food item deserves to share a plate with the supreme turnip).
    – Ten percent of arable land to be given over to the production of turnips. Heavy, ring-fenced subsidies are to be made available for this. Agricultural ministers are not entitled to come out and monitor the growth of turnips – that would be a cultural humiliation quite beyond the pale. You’ll just have to take our word for it.

    Happy Hallowe’en from Carol ‘n’ the Adams family! 🙂

  • Abucs

    As someone involved in education I couldn’t agree more that (to some extent) schools have become battlegrounds for indoctrinating students which has caused a great dumbing down of education not just in Ireland.

  • William Kinmont


  • Sean Danaher

    Growing up in Dublin I can agree that carving out Turnip lanterns which we did every year was a real chore. Pumpkins are at least 10 times easier.
    Apples, oranges and nuts used to be standard Halloween fare going around the neighbourhood as a child with “help the Halloween party”
    We also used to bob for apples
    The big treat possibly was Halloween barmbrack with a ring, a pea, a sixpence, a rag and a stick. The ring meant you would be married first; the sixpence wealthy; the rag poor. I don’t remember the pea and the stick.

  • Big Yellow Crane

    Just the head mistress for now – as far as I know.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    That’s enough!

  • Peter Moore

    I wrote about my own limited research (as a former archaeologist) in my little blog:

    Samhain is also supposedly the Gaelic pagan New Year, the word is thought to be derived from the Irish samhradh
    (summer) so that Samhain means ‘summer’s end’. It was seen as a liminal
    time when fairies and other spirits could more easily come into the
    physical world; these spirits and fairies were known as the Aos Sí – in Irish Aos Sí means ‘people of the mounds’ (the mounds are known in Irish as the ‘sídhe’ from which Sí
    is derived, hence it is no coincidence that many sites associated with
    ancient ritual, burial and religion are mounds). Due to the belief that
    mounds are where these supernatural race are believed to have retreated,
    they were also known as the Síth (which is probably where Star
    Wars got that derivative from!). With the doorways to the ‘other world’
    supposedly open at Samhain and through these mounds, it is the opposite
    of the summer festival of Beltane (which was for the ‘living’)
    and was, essentially, a ‘festival of the dead’.

    There are several archaeological sites associated with Samhain; Oweycat cave (Roscommon) – part of the much larger archaeological landscape of Rathcroghan – Oweycat is believed to be the entrance to the underworld and the Síthe.

    The passage tomb complex at Loughcrew (Meath) where the sunrise illuminates that passage of Cairn L.

    (Hill of Ward) and The Hill of Tara, at the latter, the Mound of
    Hostages is mooted to align with the Samhain rising sun although modern
    interpretation places more importance on Tlachta (named after the goddess/druid Tlachta from Irish mythology who is said to have given birth to triplets on the site)

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Equality for Pagans!!!!

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Whither Lord Summerisle?