The Legend of Sean na Gealaí/Stingy Jack: From Mischievous Crook to Piteous Spook

Written by Helen de Búrca October, 2023

As the Autumn days pass by, it’s time to whip the Uggs out from under the bed, rewatch Gilmore Girls for the umpteenth time, sort out accommodation plans for Oireachtas na Samhna and – most importantly – buy the first pumpkin spice latte of the year!

It’s not just those sinful lattes that make pumpkins so popular at this time of year, of course. Pumpkins can be seen everywhere in Autumn, welcoming us at the doorstep with their frightful faces and ghoulish grins. We call these jack-o’-lanterns, or ‘Seán na Gealaí’ in Irish.

The Legend of Sean na Gealaí/Stingy Jack: From Mischievous Crook to Piteous Spook

But did you know that jack-o’-lanterns are of Irish origin? The pumpkin was named after Stingy Jack, a figure from a Dublin urban legend in the eighteenth century.

Stingy Jack was a drunkard long ago. It was said that Jack was a beastly man, even beastlier than the devil himself – a rumour that greatly annoyed the devil. Outraged and envious, the devil came to Jack one night to collect his soul and take him to hell. Jack was cunning however, and he managed to trick the devil.

As a last request, Jack asked the devil to pick an apple from a tree for him. The devil, seeing no problem with this, climbed up the tree to pick an apple for Jack. As soon as the devil was up in the tree however, Jack quickly placed a ring of crucifixes around it, trapping the devil.

Furious, the devil demanded to be set free immediately. Jack cockily countered that he would only let him go provided that his soul would never go to hell. The devil acceded to his condition and Jack set him free.

When Stingy Jack eventually died years later, he wasn’t admitted into heaven due to all the sins he had committed during his life. When he reached the gates of hell, the devil wouldn’t accept his soul either, staying true to the promise he had made. However, he took pity on poor Jack and tossed him a coal from hell to make a lantern for himself.

Ergo, Jack’s soul was condemned to purgatory, to live out his immortality alone in the plane between heaven and hell, with nothing but a hollowed-out turnip lit with the coal the devil had given him to light his way. And so from that point on Stingy Jack was given the nickname Jack O’ Lantern, or ‘Seán na Gealaí’.

Whenever a will-o’-the-wisp was spotted at night it was believed to be Seán na Gealaí walking around with his lighted turnip. It became tradition for people, like Seán na Gealaí, to create lanterns of their own out of turnips and carve horrible faces into them to scare off any evil spirits. This custom carries on to this day, but with pumpkins in the place of turnips as they’re much easier to carve.

Now, the next time they run out of pumpkin spice lattes at the café, maybe you should take a moment to think of poor Seán na Gealaí, and remember that you don’t have it nearly as bad as him!

Halloween, with all its wild and wonderful traditions, is a central theme in Irish folklore. If you, like us, are enthralled by the supernatural realm, its spirits and superstitions, why not join us on a mystical journey through the dark realm of Irish folklore and register for one of our popular ‘folklore courses’?

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