How the Púca Festival is Helping Ireland Retake Halloween

For most of our lifetimes, Halloween in Ireland has solely been celebrated in the American fashion, meaning trick or treating in the local area, dressing up as monster of movie characters, and carving “Jack-O-Lanterns” (makes me cringe just writing that).  Don’t get me wrong though, it is a tonne of fun for people of all ages, and it has always been one of Ireland’s favourite holidays. However, it has always largely ignored the original Irishness of the celebration. In 2019, a festival was started with the sole intention of celebrating the true Celtic origins of Halloween, the Samhain festival. It’s called the Púca Festival, and after it’s cancellation in 2020 due to covid restrictions, it’s due to return with a bang in 2021.

What is the Púca Festival?

The Púca Festival is the first festival of its kind in Ireland, and the world. It’s a seven-day event (increased from 2019’s 3 days) which is held along Ireland’s Ancient East. It is developed by Failte Ireland in partnership with Meath and Louth county councils, along with events production company Curated Place, who have worked on events in many countries across north-western Europe, including the UK, Iceland, and Norway. One of their most notable festivals is the Spectra “festival of light” in Aberdeen. Its aim is to claim Halloween back under its original guise and bring this important ancient Irish festival back to the land of the living. According to Curated Place director Andy Brydon, the Púca festival organisers do their utmost to steer clear of the Americanised version of Halloween, and rather focus on the spiritual and folkloric aspects of it. A fear that may come to many people’s minds is that the festival will be an overly commercialised cash-grab, and its sole purpose will be to make money from these ancient cultural traditions. However, the festival organisers have stressed, and proved in 2019, that this is not the case. The Púca Festival focuses on the interpretation of ancient cultural traditions in a more modern way. The Púca Festival organisers also hope to attract more tourists to Ireland during the underappreciated (albeit chilly) autumn months, as well as drawing some attention away from the main tourist hotspots of Dublin, Cork, and Galway. They expect to receive visitors from all over Europe and North America this year, but due to lockdown restrictions, the primary focus has been on domestic visitors. According to Azeta Seery of Failte Ireland, the project lead, the Púca Festival is about “so much more than just Halloween in terms of Ireland’s global positioning, it’s an event that celebrates Ireland as the home of Halloween.” “From a tourism standpoint, the festival has been set up as a motivational driver for international visitors” she added.

Why the “Púca”?

Here in Ireland, we have no shortage of mythological creatures to choose from. From leprechauns to banshees, there were plenty of choices when it came to choosing the festival name. So why specifically the Púca? According to Seery, a huge amount of research was conducted during the naming process. “It wasn’t an easy task, we had six A4 pages, front and back full of suggestions.” The list was whittled down to around four, and then surveys were conducted both in Ireland and abroad.  The Púca came out on top because of how easy it is to say for both Irish and international visitors, and because many other European countries have some version of the Púca in their own folklore. “Phonetically, everyone could say it.”  “I suppose the mischievous part of the character didn’t hurt either. Even though it’s a festival about celebrating Halloween, it’s also about having fun.”

How is the Púca Festival different from other Halloween festivals in Ireland?

Irish people love Halloween so there is no shortage of festivals around the country. They are mostly focused on kids however, coinciding with the school year’s mid-term break makes it a perfect way to keep kids busy, and the Americanised version of Halloween has drifted in in terms of trick or treating, for example. Because of this, there are (rightly) many Halloween events dedicated to children. Other events which Seery describes as ‘scare-fests” also very much have their place and are perfect for teenagers and older groups who want to have more of a thrilling experience. Things like haunted houses and horror movie screenings are right at home during Halloween. There is also the Bram Stoker Festival which takes place in Dublin. This celebrates the more Victorian and Georgian sides of Dublin and how it influenced Stoker’s creation of Count Dracula.  Púca, on the other hand, differentiates from all of these other festivals because they talk about the origins of Samhain. “We do not target families, we don’t target that thrill seeking audience, what we want to do is spread the truth about where it all began.”

Spreading Samhain around the world

The Púca Festival organisers also want to let the whole world know that Halloween started in Ireland, because surprisingly few people know. Even in Ireland many people are surprised to learn about its origins. To a certain extent, we already helped spread Halloween around the world. During the Irish diaspora when thousands of Irish people emigrated to America, they took the Samhain traditions that would eventually become Halloween with them.  The hope is that the Púca Festival will help people move away from this. Seery said:  “There’s no plastic, there’s no Americana, it is a distinct and unique proposition to differentiate this perception of what modern Halloween looks like as opposed to what it is that we’re hoping to develop, which is, again, Samhain. We want the Irish people to relate to it, we want to spread it to the world, the fact that it started here. We want people to celebrate that originality that spans for so long, and to come back to do it as part of the Púca Festival” Even though the organisers have been focusing mostly on promoting the festival within Ireland, there still is an expectation that there will be international visitors from around Europe and North America. Also, despite no major provisions being made for international media, there are 25 different media outlets coming in from six different markets, as well as 10-15 influencers, and seven broadcast crews. So, news of this festival is going to spread regardless. Asian countries have also shown a lot of interest, with countries like Japan will be hosting some virtual events this year. There are some markets however, that the organisers need to be a little bit more tentative with, including middle eastern countries where a lot of terminology used by the Púca Festival would be Haram which is something that is forbidden by Islamic law, and also heavily Christian areas like South Africa and the “Bible Belt” of the United States, where these pagan celebrations are at times associated with Satanism.

Púca Festival 2021 sites

The Púca festival is not about putting on a scary mask and traipsing around a field, although if that’s what you want, you’re free to do so. The schedule of events will provide entertainment for all ages. Even though it is still very kid friendly, it offers a lot more entertainment for adults. Each of the four festival locations offer different events relevant to the history of that particular area. Here are just some of the thing’s attendees can expect. Azeta Seery, and all other festival organisers do not try to claim that Meath, Louth, or anywhere along the Boyne valley is the confirmed birthplace of Halloween, as many other sites around Ireland also claim this. The focus of the festival is instead around Ireland as a whole being the home of Samhain. Other sites in Roscommon and Kerry were considered as possible locations for the festival, but the sites listed below were the only ones that already had the infrastructure to support large amounts of footfall – proximity to Dublin does have its perks…

Where will the Púca Festival 2021 be held?

The festival is held around historical areas that have major relevance to the Celtic festival of Samhain. In 2019, there were events in Drogheda Co. Louth, and Trim and Athboy Co. Meath, which are all historically significant locations for the festival. For example, Tlachtga, now called the Hill of Ward in Athboy, is one of a few locations in Ireland that claims to be the original birthplace of Samhain.  In 2021, events will still be held at these three locations, with the addition of events at Slane Castle.

Drogheda

The main festival musical hub, the county town of Louth is the main spot for anyone who wants to enjoy live performances and late-night mischief.  Events are being hosted at various locations in the town like Old Mollies, The Crescent Concert Hall, The Loft, and The Weavers to name a few. Festival attendees can look forward to musical acts like Brian Kennedy, Aoife Scott, Lemoncello, and Jiggy. For those hoping for more traditional styles, you can enjoy “The Fear Dearg Trad Session” with acts like HuckleJerryFinn and the Ramblers free of charge.   For lovers of comedy, there will be a “Púca Comedy Night” featuring Joanne McNally; and for those looking for something a little spookier and more understated, you can attend some “Candlelit Tales”, at the Droichead Arts Centre.

Trim

The town of Trim and more specifically, Trim Castle, will be the host to some slightly different events to those in Drogheda.  If you enjoy old and sometimes grizzly tales, you can join Cynthia Simonet for the “Murder Hole Tours”. Here you’ll get to hear the dark side of the castle’s history and the people who lived there. Also, on the days leading up to Halloween night, you can enjoy a specially commissioned light display which can be enjoyed from the balcony of Trim Castle Hotel. Lovers of music will not be left completely by the wayside however, and those who cannot make it to Drogheda will be treated to a performance by the legendary Jerry Fish’s Electric Sideshow.

Athboy

For lovers of history, Athboy’s one event allows guests to attend a 30-minute guided tour of Tlachtga with medieval Ireland expert, Dr. Ciara Ni Crábhagáin. Tlachtga, or “The Hill of Ward” is said to be one of the earliest sites to host the Samhain festival. It is the place where the first light of the Celtic new year shone. Tlachtga is one of the few sites in Ireland that undoubtedly hosted celebrations around Samhain over 2000 years ago. So, it holds huge historical significance. If it wasn’t for the pandemic, Athboy like other festival sites, would be host to spectacular processions and parades. Unfortunately, there will be no processions this year due to Covid-19 safety concerns.

Slane

The newest addition to the Púca Festival, Slane castle will be host to an event suitable for attendees of all ages. As well as being the centre of the “Big spectacular” as Azeta Seery calls it. “Púca Illuminations” is a ‘A Halloween-themed experience of light and audio-visual installations along an illuminated walking trail’.  It takes place on the grounds of Slane Castle and Distillery and is a 1km long walking trail which ends with a performance from aerialists LUXE. Samhain, at its core, was always a harvest festival, and the events taking place in Slane highlight that perfectly with the service of incredible food produced in the Boyne Valley. You will also be able to enjoy the Slane Whiskey Pop-Up Bar which will serve tea, coffee, beer, cider, and of course, whiskey.  Unlike the other festival sites, Slane doesn’t have any archaeological ties to the Samhain festival. It was chosen as a venue for the festival purely because it’s practical. It’s a control site where the event organisers can manage the health and safety and safely control crowds. Seery says: “Slane castle is an event site in itself. It had everything we needed to be able to stage this in a safe way in adherence of our guidelines to allow people to come in and be safely managed.” However, even though Slane castle itself is not a historic Samhain site, all of the installations used for the festival are themed around Celtic folklore. For a full list of Púca Festival events, as well as information on tickets and accommodation, visit the official website

When will the Púca Festival be held?

The Púca Festival, unlike the three-day event it was in 2019, will take place over a seven-day period from October 23rd until 31st. Kicking off the day after covid restrictions ease.

Púca Festival Associated Events

Aside from the main events listed above, the Púca Festival will also have a huge range of associated events that can be enjoyed at all of the main four festival locations. Here are just some of the events to look forward to.

An Evening of Slane Irish Whiskey and folklore with Candlelit Tales

Taking place at Slane Irish Whiskey Distillery, this event includes:
  • A brief local history of the stable block that became the distillery
  • A whiskey tasting
  • A storytelling session
  • Free cocktail
  • Access to the Púca Festival Trail

Feast of the Spirits at Slane Castle

This is an opportunity to enjoy a fantastic dinner at Slane Castle, to celebrate the food and drink produced in the Boyne Valley region.

Halloween Events at Droichead Arts Centre

Droichead Arts Centre in Drogheda will be producing the Leanbh Children’s Festival 2021. Which will include several kid-friendly events. There are of course many many more events to discover, and you can learn all about them here.

The future of the Púca Festival

Being a nation of proud people, the Irish love to celebrate anything and everything Irish. Saint Patrick’s Day is always the first thing that comes to mind when talking about Irish pride. Christmas too, obviously, considering our history of Christianity. Halloween however, being the oldest Irish celebration of all, has been incredibly Americanised and Christianised since its inception over 2000 years ago. What the Púca Festival wants Irish people to do is relate to Halloween, to take ownership of it, and to remember that it came from our past, and that our ancestors over 2000 years ago were celebrating this festival. It signalled the harvest and the end of the Celtic new year. Now of course, we celebrate the new year a couple months later, and do so by counting down from 10 and shifting some randomer at a bar. This is a far cry from lighting a hilltop bonfire to keep the otherworldly creatures at bay. What a difference a couple of millennia make. The Púca Festival as a whole is still incredibly new, and as it prepares to happen for the second ever time, we can all look on excitedly for how it will grow in the years to come. The organisers are extremely passionate about it and are determined to retake this holiday as something that is uniquely Irish. Even though the festival will likely be returning to a three-day event from next year onwards, there is undoubtedly a lot more to come. Halloween is in good hands. As Azeta Seery says “We’re not going anywhere”.  

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Thomas Cleary

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