My informant is my aunt from rural Ireland. She related to me a tradition common in Kerry in particular, but spread out over time, called bob-apple or swing-apple. As a child, I also partook in these games, common around Halloween time, which involved either bobbing one’s head in a basin of water to try and catch an apple with your teeth, or tying an apple to a string and hanging it so that you had to try and bite it, both without using your hands. She learned this from experience in school, and has passed the tradition down to her children. For her, it is one of the fondest memories of her childhood.She is signified in this conversation by the initials J.O.
J.O.: So both of these games were things we’d play around Halloweentime, I’ve never heard them played at any other time of year, and I think it’d feel fierce strange to have it at any other time. So on the last day of primary school before the Halloween break, when you’d get a week off school, the teacher would bring in a load of apples and some basins and sometimes string. And what he’d do is fill up one of the basins with freezing cold water and then put one apple for each student into it, so they’d float on the water.
A: Did the water have to be cold?
J.O.: Yes, that was part of the fright of the whole thing that it was freezing, and it’d be harder for you to catch your breath between bobs. Then what the teacher would do is to put each child’s name into a hat and pick people out one by one to bob for apples. And then when he’d call someone you’d have to put on a blindfold and keep your hands behind your back and try and fish for the apples with your face. And you’d want to go fairly early on when there were loads of apples as they’d be easier to get, and you could corner one easier. The later it got, the more the apples could float around and it’d be harder to get a grip on one. The last few people were absolutely hilarious, though, as it could go on for a good ten or fifteen minutes just watching them root around in the water for an apple. If you were taking too long or the day was almost over the teacher might guide the apple over to you with a stick, but that was funnier sometimes as the person with the blindfold wouldn’t know the apple was coming and it could hit them in the face. The audience could tell you whether you were hot or cold, too, hot being closer to the apple and cold being further away. At the end you were allowed to keep the apple, which was a luxury as the only time we got apples was when we robbed them from neighbor’s orchard, but I heard the rich people would put sixpence in some of them. That was another variation of the game, actually, but they were mostly Dublin people so they had more money. The teacher would also bring in a box of sweets and you could have two, so it was probably the best day of the year at school.
A: And you mentioned a variation earlier, called swing-apple?
J.O.: Yes swing-apple! The premise was pretty much the same, but what would happen was the teacher would set up an apple swinging from a rope from one of the beams of the ceiling, and he’s call on people to try and get it with their teeth without using their hands, and they were blindfolded again. The first person to take a bite was allowed to keep the apple. Looking back, it was a breeding ground for germs and the like, but I suppose they were the times.
This piece of folklore was related to me over FaceTime, as my aunt is in Kerry and I am in California.
Firstly, apples have long been associated with Halloween when we consider other traditions such as caramel apples, traditionally only eaten at Halloween. There is also an element of practical joke in this, as the people who have to go last are the butts of the joke, but there is no harm in it. The idea of Halloween as a liminal space between dead and living, and when a lot of societal rules are broken, such as the idea of actually ‘taking candy from a stranger’ by trick-or-treating, plays into the bob-apple tradition as you would not normally be sanctioned to skip classes in favor of a game, especially one that made a joke out of the last few people. Therefore, the setting of the performance is important, as well as the time of year. That the participants are children also suggests that Halloween has, over time, become more of a children’s holiday, especially with the tradition of trick-or-treating.