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Vizzard mask Michael Fortune

'Only for Hallowe’en surviving in America, it probably would have died out here'

We have an underlying lack of confidence in Ireland and continually throw the baby out with the bathwater, writes Michael Fortune.

“THEY DIDN’T HAVE a feckin’ clue who we were.” I’m sorry to say the ancient tradition of people not knowing who the feck you are on Hallowe’en night is on it’s way out.

For the past two decades we have been greeted at Hallowe’en with maskless little darlings, masquerading around as princesses or Spiderman, most of whom are accompanied by their casually dressed parents.

Now, I’m the proud owner of three young girls aged seven, five and three, and I too bring them around to the neighbours’ houses on Hallowe’en night, but with the following conditions: we dress up also, they cover their faces to disguise themselves and they have to do something to get something.

Reclaiming our Hallowe’en tradition

Now I’m far from being a purist or a knit-your-own-yogurt type and I enjoy the cultural uncertainty when old and new collide and rejoice in the haphazard and the non-formulaic. I’m also the first to admit that I’ve embraced the whole cheap non-traditional Hallowe’en decoration tat from China with my girls, but I will draw a line under one thing and that is Hallowe’en as fancy dress.

For the past two decades I’ve been banging on about reclaiming our Hallowe’en tradition and highlighting how it was brought to North America by us, the Irish, and the Scots to a lesser extent. I’m delighted that we are eventually claiming the tradition back, but in the same breath I am raging that we are losing those fundamental aspects of the tradition: role-play and disguise.

From earliest times, dressing up at Hallowe’en was always about disguise and people not knowing who you were. As a child in rural Wexford in the 1980s disguising yourself was the true excitement behind the night. However, with the advent of costumes in the States during the 1960s, the fad of fancy dress developed, making its way here where it became widespread. Curiously we are now imitating a skewed version of what was once our own tradition.

I don’t blame America for the problem

IMG_5123 Michael's daughter Nellie going to school on Friday complete with frozen bag, plastic pound shop axe, pillow case and straw mask. Michael Fortune Michael Fortune

The tradition of dressing up and covering your face with a ‘vizzard’ (mask) was strongest along the eastern part of the country, where it had strong links with Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man. There was never a set costume and people would dress up in old clothes, homemade masks, socks to cover your hands, wear oversized boots or anything to disguise themselves.

As I said I’m not a purest and I can’t see anything wrong with continuing this formula by wearing a black plastic bag, a scream mask, and an old bra over an army coat.

I also don’t blame America for this problem and I think it stems from an underlying lack of confidence where we in Ireland continually throw the baby out with the bathwater. Don’t get me started on the loss of local accent.

In fact you could argue that only for Hallowe’en surviving over there, it probably would have declined here like so many of our other mask-wearing traditions in the 1960s such as the Blackmen, the Horners, the Collicks and the Christmas Mummers and Fools.
I firmly lay the blame for this cultural shift on the parents as they allow consumer peer-pressure to work and they buy these costumes.

Missing a trick

I think we are missing out on a great opportunity by not wearing masks. For one night only, why can’t we encourage them to be step out of their skin and let them change their voice and feel the power of wearing a mask and the anonymity that goes with it. After all won’t we all be ourselves for long enough?

In the same way that Hallowe’en was never about fancy dress, it was never about horror, blood, guts and gore either. It was a turning point in our old Celtic calendar where we went from light to dark and in this moment we remembered and connected with our dead. And it was at this twist in the year that we divined our future through games and the food we ate.

Take for example the humble barmbrack which we traditionally made at home and in which objects were placed to predict your future: a key for a new house, a coin for wealth, a ring for marriage, a stick to symbolise marital strife etc. However, since the commercial production of bracks for the masses, all we get now are wedding rings. Why? Because darkness isn’t as attractive as smiles and gloss.

Now come Tuesday night miserable old me will have that awkward moment when the neighbours’ children call to the door wearing no masks and because their doting mammies are looking on I can’t say where are your fecking masks lads? Instead I’ll reluctantly give the them sweets and money, close the door behind them and pray for their lost and wretched little souls.

Michael Fortune has cut many furrows with his work for almost twenty years, and his pioneering practice has widened the conversations regarding the intersection of traditional and contemporary cultures in Ireland and the general appreciation and understanding of culture in all it manifestations, especially in the area of folklore. Since 2016 he presents a regular slot on the Sean O’Rourke Show on RTE Radio 1. More info at

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