Imagine a horned human figure walking towards you through the shady woods, and you can begin to visualize the long-standing Irish Halloween tradition known as Puca Party. Add bonfires, outdoor feasts, scavenger hunts and fire dances, and you have a festive October party spread over four nights.
The Irish know a thing or two about Halloween, which isn’t much of a surprise, considering they invented holidays over 2,000 years ago. A land of folklore and magic, the Celts have never been the type to turn their backs on a party. And Halloween—or Her hand (AKA summer’s end), as it was known, was one of four festivals the Celtic people honored to mark the changing of the seasons.
The Celts believed that the boundary between the afterlife and the earthly world was most fragile at this time of year, as autumn faded and winter approached, allowing the souls of the deceased to cross. and walk among the living. Despite how scary it sounds, people gave their all to this festival, lighting bonfires and throwing a huge harvest feast to feed the dead. Masks and costumes were worn to welcome good spirits or hide from bad guys – and, if legends are to be believed, there were quite a few lurking around.
Among the most infamous mythological creatures was the púca (ghost in Irish), a strange, shape-shifting specter from Celtic folklore who came to life over the ancient new year, taking the menacing form of a horse, a goat , a donkey or a hare. Other times, the púca would appear in human form dotted with telltale animal features like fur, horns, a tail, or oversized ears. The púca rose after dark and, depending on the luck of the draw, brought good or bad fortune to those it encountered.
The verdant rural valleys and rocky mountainous landscapes of Ireland served as the púca’s primary hunting grounds, where it roamed the lanes and hills of countryside seeking to change the lives of unsuspecting locals. Hiding from the púca has become something of a national pastime, with generations of children warned to watch out for the sleazy prankster.
A terrifying human hybrid beast with an appetite for children? Sounds like a cause for a party.
Where to find the Púca Festival
Today, the word “púca” has much less sinister connotations. Every year, revelers go 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, he’s finally back in action after a long two-year hiatus.
County Meath has long been home to many Irish myths. Ancient world manuscripts have revealed that the prehistoric Tlachtga (pronounced “clack-da” and also known as the Hill of Ward), near the town of Athboy, was the site of the Festival of Fire, the one of the first gatherings of Samhain. According Geoffrey Keating, 17th century Irish chronicler“The fire of Tlachtga was instituted, during which it was their custom to meet on the eve of Samhain to offer sacrifice to all the gods.”
So it seems fitting that Athboy throws a hell of a Puca Party. An immersive, otherworldly experience, the annual event is dynamic, fun and steeped in tradition. Irish entertainers, storytellers, contemporary Irish musicians and comedians occupy four stages named after four figures from Irish mythology – Boann, the goddess of the Boyne; Morrigan, the goddess of war; Fear Dearg, the evil fairy; and Púca on the central stage – to entertain the masses throughout the three days and four nights of the festival.
The nearby town of Trim, home to Trim Castle dating back to 1173 (plus, fun fact, a key filming location for 1995s Brave heart), is also a hub of the festival. Here, the shindig officially begins with the arrival of the Samhain spirit procession, where revelers can make their own mask, join a spirit group and, torch in hand, take part in a lively parade through the city streets that ends at the illuminated castle walls.
Treat yourself to tricks and treats galore
What’s a party without snacks? Púca festivals are hotbeds for traditional Irish Halloween fare. Stock up on barmbrack (a yeast bread studded with dried fruit), colcannon (mashed potatoes infused with kale or cabbage) and fragrant baked apples, plus all the local themed offerings at Trim Jack O’Lantern Harvest Market.
In keeping with the púca’s propensity for playfulness, there will also be plenty of cheeky attractions like banshee bingo, comedy witch trials, werewolf games, self-guided scavenger hunts and traditional handfasting ceremonies, a Celtic ritual where the hands are tied together to symbolize the linking of two lives. And like in the old days, Samhain Circus promises to present a spooky cabaret with hair-raising acts, high-flying acts and live fire dancing.
Samhain Fires crowns the festivities, beginning with an intimate fire-lighting ceremony at Tlachtga that pays homage to traditional Samhain rituals, followed by a procession to the grand finale: a spectacular celebration fueled by fire and music in the town of Athboy.
It all starts on October 28 and lasts until October 31, after which the púcas and all their mystical pals gather their things and retreat to the Otherworld, lying in wait until they can reappear and satisfy their desires. If you decide to head to County Meath to see for yourself this year, be sure to bring a disguise to shield you from the prying eyes of the Specter – it certainly gives a whole new meaning to ‘masking’.