person at bonfire
Photo courtesy of Púca Festival
Photo courtesy of Púca Festival

Join Bonfires and Outdoor Feasts Where Halloween Was Born

Scare away ghosts with fire. And banshee bingo.

Imagine a horned human-like figure stalking towards you through the shadowy woods, and you can start to visualize the longstanding Irish Halloween tradition known as the Púca Festival. Add in some bonfires, outdoor feasts, treasure hunts, and fire dancing, and you’ve got yourself one festive October party spread over four nights.

The Irish know a thing or two about Halloween—which comes as no real surprise, considering they basically invented the holiday over 2,000 years ago. A land of folklore and faeries, the Celts have never been ones to turn their back on a celebration. And Halloween—or Samhain (AKA summer’s end), as it was known—was one of four festivals the Celtic people honored to mark the changing seasons.

start of festival
Púca Festival

The Celts believed the line between the afterlife and the earthly world was at its most fragile during this time of year, as autumn faded and winter beckoned, allowing the souls of the departed to cross over and walk among the living. Despite how creepy that sounds, people went all out at this festival, lighting bonfires and throwing a massive harvest feast to feed the dead. Masks and costumes were worn to welcome the good spirits or hide from the evil ones—and, if legends are to be believed, there were quite a few of those lurking around.

Among the most infamous mythological creatures was the púca (Irish for ghost), an eerie, shapeshifting spectre from Celtic folklore that came alive during the ancient new year, taking on the menacing form of a horse, goat, donkey, or hare. Other times, the púca appeared in human form strewn with revealing animal features like fur, horns, a tail, or oversized ears. The púca rose after dark, and depending on the luck of the draw, would bring either good or bad fortune to those it encountered.

fire ceremony
Púca Festival

Ireland’s verdant rural valleys and stony mountainscapes served as the púca’s primary hunting grounds, where it would wander the country lanes and hillsides looking to change the lives of unsuspecting locals. Hiding from the púca became something of a national pastime, with generations of children warned to watch out for the shady prankster.

A terrifying human-hybrid beast with an appetite for kids? Sounds like cause for a party.

Púca Festival parade
Púca Festival

Where to find the Púca Festival

Today, the word “púca” has much less sinister connotations. Each year, revelers hit up the Púca Festival in County Meath, just north of Dublin, to celebrate the harvest and commemorate the Emerald Isle as the true birthplace of Halloween. There’s music, dancing, and feasting—all served with a generous side of mischief and mayhem. And this year it’s finally back in action after a long two-year hiatus.

County Meath has long been the cradle for many Irish myths. Old-world manuscripts revealed that prehistoric Tlachtga (pronounced “clack-da,” and also known as the Hill of Ward), near the town of Athboy, was the site of the Fire Festival, one of the original Samhain gatherings. According to Geoffrey Keating, a 17th century Irish chronicler, "The Fire of Tlachtga was instituted, at which it was their custom to assemble on the eve of Samhain to offer sacrifice to all the gods.”

fire ritual
Púca Festival

It seems fitting, then, that Athboy throws one hell of a Púca Festival. An immersive and otherworldly experience, the annual event is vibrant, fun, and strongly rooted in tradition. Irish artists, storytellers, contemporary Irish musicians, and comedians take over four stages named after four figures of Irish mythology—Boann, the goddess of the Boyne; Morrigan, the goddess of war; Fear Dearg, the faerie of mischief; and Púca on the central stage—to entertain the masses throughout the festival’s three days and four nights.

The nearby town of Trim, home to Trim Castle dating to 1173 (plus, fun fact, a key filming location for 1995’s Braveheart), is also a festival hub. Here, the shindig officially kicks off with the Arrival of the Spirits Samhain Procession, where partygoers can make their own mask, join a spirit group, and, torch in hand, take part in a lively parade through the streets of the town that terminates at the illuminated castle walls.

Púca Festival night
Púca Festival

Indulge in tricks and treats a plenty

What’s a party without snacks? Púca Festivals are hotbeds for traditional Irish Halloween foods. Load up on barmbrack (a yeasty bread studded with dried fruit), colcannon (mashed potatoes infused with kale or cabbage), and fragrant baked apples, as well as all the local themed offerings at Trim’s Jack O’Lantern Harvest Market.

Púca Festival
Púca Festival

In keeping with the púca’s proclivity for mischievousness, there will also be plenty of cheeky attractions like banshee bingo, comedy witch trials, games of werewolf, self-guided treasure hunts, and traditional handfasting ceremonies, a Celtic ritual where the hands are tied together to symbolize the binding of two lives. And just like in the days of yore, the Samhain Circus promises to showcase a spooky cabaret complete with hair-raising, high-wire acts and live fire dancing.

Samhain Fires caps off the festivities, beginning with an intimate fire-lighting ceremony at Tlachtga that pays tribute to traditional Samhain rituals, followed by a procession to the grand finale: a spectacular fire- and music-fueled bash in the market town of Athboy.

Púca Festival concert
Púca Festival

The whole thing kicks off on October 28 and lasts through October 31, after which the púcas and all their mystical buddies gather up their belongings and retreat back into the Otherworld, lying in wait until they can reemerge and satisfy their urges. If you decide to make the trek out to County Meath to see for yourself this year, make sure to bring a disguise to keep yourself safe from the spectre’s prying eyes—it sure gives a whole new meaning to “mask up.”

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Ciara McQuillan is a freelance food and travel writer who has been featured in The Irish Times, CN Traveller and The Gloss Magazine, among others. She loves cooking but really loves eating. Follow her on Instagram.