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Fire beats pumpkin - CISS to reclaim Halloween as Celtic festival

Friday 18 October 2019 1:19pm


Fire will feature, but pumpkins and costumes will not, when the Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies holds special events in late October to reclaim Halloween as a Celtic festival.

The Centre’s public celebrations will begin outside the Dunedin Public Library at 5:30pm on Halloween night (31 October), when the Dunedin Fire and Circus Club performs a fire dance to welcome the oncoming of our Celtic New Year.

Attendees will then move to the Library’s Dunningham suite for a special performance of renowned Irish poet Cherry Smyth’s work Famished. This will be the first time the polyvocal work is performed in New Zealand.

Cherry Smyth

Famished presents an innovative understanding of the Irish Famine and the postcolonial legacy for the Irish in Ireland and the diaspora.

The work tackles how colonialism was instrumental in starving the Irish people and the silence generated by trauma and shame that ensued. Famished is dedicated to the Earl Grey Orphan Scheme of the late 1840s, through which 4,114 Irish workhouse girls were sent to Australia. Only two ever returned.

Watch a clip of Cherry Smyth's Famished here.

What is Samhain?

Eamon Cleary Chair in Irish Studies Professor Sonja Tiernan says the event is aimed at raising awareness of how Halloween – which is now perceived by many people as having North American origins, and is most often associated with costumes and carve pumpkins into creepy faced lanterns – is in fact derived from the Celtic festival Samhain.

“Samhain is one of the most important in the ancient Celtic calendar and is celebrated in Ireland and Scotland from the evening of 31 October into the next day. November 1 was seen as the Celtic New Year. Samhain marked the end of the light (summer) and the beginning of winter (the dark.) This overlapping moment in time meant that passage between this world and the Otherworld was possible, if not probable.”

Professor Tiernan

Irish Folk Lore published in 1870, warned that ‘on All Hallows’ Eve, hobgoblins, evil spirits, and fairies, hold high revel. . . many mortals are abducted to fairy land. Those persons taken away to the raths are often seen at this time by their living friends, and usually accompanying a fairy cavalcade.’

To ward off evil spirits huge fires were lit in prominent outside spaces in towns and villages, leading to the customary Halloween bonfire. In order to confuse any spirit who sought revenge on a living person who had wronged them, people wore masks to disguise themselves which now inspires the dressing up element of Halloween. In the spirit of Samhain all are welcome to the free event.

Where and when

31 October, 5:30pm to 6pm – fire dancing by the Dunedin Fire and Circus Club – outside the Dunedin Public Library, Moray Place; 6pm – Cherry Smyth’s performance of Famished, Dunningham Suite – 4th floor Dunedin Public Library.
Click here for event details.

Famished Public Seminar: Tuesday, 29 October

On Tuesday, 29 October, Cherry Smyth will also deliver seminar drawing on Famished (Pindrop Press, 2019), her book-length poem that explores the Irish Famine (1845-52) and how British imperialism helped cause mass starvation and the largest refugee crisis of the 19th century.

Inspired by the current migrant crisis, which evokes the ‘coffin ships’ that crossed the Atlantic, Famished details the impact of the Famine on women particularly and how famine followed the Union Jack. If the Famine happened now, the Irish would be in the boats, prevented from landing on the shores of the UK.

The seminar will outline the role of dehumanisation central to all famines and the postcolonial legacy of trauma, silence and shame. Cherry will also discuss her collaborative performance with a musician and vocalist to create the power of collective lament.

“‘Because I didn’t know what a million was, I started to count.
Because I couldn’t believe the silence, I started to carry stones,
seeking somewhere to set them, make a structure, a steadying wall.” – from Famished

Where and when

Tuesday, 29 October, 5:30pm, Moot Court Lecture Theatre (10th floor Richardson Building, Dunedin campus)