Collect blackberries after Halloween at your peril

Outdoor Living

FRUITY FABLES Celtic folklore attributed magical properties to some of our wild plants at this time of year.

Nature and Rewilding
Pat Fahy

Halloween, also known as All Saints Eve in the religious calendar, or Samhain in Celtic tradition, is past us now.
The eve of All Saints Day is dedicated to remembering the dead including saints (hallows), martyrs and all the faithful departed. Samhain is a time when the boundary between this world and the otherworld could more easily be crossed. The evenings have grown darker, and  magic and witchcraft are at their most potent.
Traditionally, Samhain wasn’t about the wearing of costumes, although some say they may have been used as disguises from the fairies. The aos sí (the fair folk) needed to be appeased to make sure that the people and their livestock survived the winter. Offerings of food and drink left outside for them. The souls of the dead were also thought to revisit their homes seeking hospitality and a place set at the table for them.
Like modern day Christmas, Samhain was a time of great celebration. Rather than being seen in a negative way as the end of the summer, it was regarded as the start of the Celtic New Year and marked by games and storytelling around the fire, with all sorts of fortune telling and attempts to divine the future. No doubt it was easy to see signs when most experiences that were unexplained were attributed to mysterious forces of enchantment.
For anyone with an interest in nature and the supernatural world, Celtic folklore attributed magical properties to some of our wild plants at this time of year.
In Ireland it was widely believed, for instance, that ragwort was used like a horse by the fairies. Their favourite time for doing this was on Halloween, and there are many stories of poor unfortunates being abducted and forced to ride around with them all night only to wake up in the morning, worn out and clutching a fistful of ragwort.
By times they were more generous. A widely told tale relates how a fairy once took a man with them on their magical journeys, giving him a special cap and telling him to hop up on a ragwort like it was a horse to fly around. Before he knows what’s happening, he’s landed in a wine cellar in a foreign country. Naturally, he drinks his fill, but next morning he’s on his own and arrested for breaking into the cellar and sentenced to be hanged. However, just before the deed can be done he remembers the special cap, manages to reach into his pocket and put it on his head. Straight away, he’s lifted up into the air and brought back to the place where it all began.  
Another wild plant, the elder, was thought of as an otherworldly tree, a dwelling for the fairies and witches. It was thought to be good luck to have one near the home, to provide protection against them.
Fern seed collected at midnight on Oiche Shamhna was said to give a person invisibility if they wanted to enter a house to plunder, it being a night of divilment – but all the powers of evil and darkness would employ unearthly sounds, screams, whirlwinds and apparitions, to make that person lose their resolve and usually their minds in the process.
Collecting blackberries after Halloween night would be done at your peril. The shapeshifting Púca would be out after dusk blasting them with a curse and turning them inedible. (Sure, it’s only a coincidence that the first frosts are seen at this time of year, when blackberries are overripe.)
If you have an interest in learning more about our nature-themed myths, legends and folklore, head to Niall Mac Coitir’s books ‘Ireland Wild Plants’ and ‘Ireland’s Trees’ for a glimpse into the enchanted world of our ancestors, their world as wondrous as their most colourful imaginations.
Pat Fahy is Biodiversity Officer with Westport Tidy Towns.