Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Tales At Hallow'E'en

Well, I said we should tell ghost stories tonight, and I shall do my best. I hope you do too - recollect those family traditions, those anecdotes, those old stories from your part of the world, your culture, and bring them here for all of us to share.

It's Samhain, the eve of the Celtic New Year, and, just as Angeluna reminded us, the eve of the Day of the Dead in Mexico and other cultures. When Christianity set about taking over other countries and other religions, it realised that it would be difficult to shake the instinctive inherited beliefs of millenia, and so they simply adapted these to reflect Christian values. And so Samhain became All Souls and the first day of the Celtic New Year became All Saints (instead of All Ancient Gods). But they couldn't shake the firm belief that this is the time when the veil is thinnest between this world and the Otherworld, and that spirits walk abroad this night. That's why we put frightening images outside our doors in the shape of carved turnips or pumpkins, and why children dress up as evil spirits - so that the real terrors, passing by, will see these imitations, mistake them for the real thing, and pass on, thinking that the house already has its complement of visitations.

We have so many beliefs still current in Ireland that it is easy to see Christianity is only skin-deep. Barely below the surface everyone believes in the older ways, the older traditions. Like the banshee, the Pouka, the death coach with its headless coachman, the gateway to the Otherworld through the old rath or fairy fort which can be seen everywhere in the countryside. I myself have talked with educated academics at universities here who simply and matter-of-factly claim to have the banshee in their family. (That means they are one of the old families - not necessarily high born or titled, simply old Irish families - to whom the banshee comes with notice of impending death.) One girl told me that she had heard the banshee herself when her grandmother was lying dangerously ill. "It rapped at the front door three times," she said, "but the one thing you must never do is open the door. Otherwise the person being called will surely die."

Then there are the families to which the foxes come. When the current holder of the family name is near death, foxes collect silently around the house, coming from far and near, and sit motionless and ghostly, holding vigil throughout the night. The Foxes of Gormanstown are just one example.

No, I've never seen a ghost. I've certainly felt great evil and great terror in some places, and once... but that isn't really relevant. Not even that interesting.

Let me tell you about the Pouka or Puca or however you would prefer to spell it. He's a huge black horse with glittering emerald eyes and he gallops around the countryside at night looking for mischief. He is in no way as dangerous or evil as the Scottish water-kelpie that will drag you down into the loch if it can. The Pouka simply likes stirring things up. If he finds you wandering the bog road at night, when you should be tucked up at home in your bed, he may well throw you up on his back and off with him across the shoulders of the mountains, giving you the most terrifying ride of your life, until he turfs you off on the far side of the hill, sore in the bones and very much wondering how on earth you are to make your way home again.

When you think about it, the Pouka makes a great deal of sense. After all, a man spending a little too long at the crossroads pub and then weaving his unsteady way home, might well need an excuse as to why he didn't get home until morning, with his clothes all muddy and torn and bearing the signs of a night in the ditch... We have plenty of places commemorating the Pouka around here - the original Irish name for Beaufort, just outside Killarney, is Lios na Phouka or the Fort of the Pouka; and Carrignapouka Castle,or, The Rock of the Pouka, is only a few miles down the road, standing on a rocky outcrop in the middle of green fields.

I played quite happily there as a child on family excursions, exploring the dark damp interior, clambering up the spiral stone staircases, looking out over the countryside from the parapet, but wouldn't necessarily go there tonight to hear the sound of fiery hooves treading around those rugged rocks.

Hallow-E'en or Samhain is a very important night in Ireland and we've made our preparations here chez Celtic Memory in the approved fashion. The turnip has been carved, and is even now sitting firmly on a little wooden stool outside the front door, to deter evil-minded spirits from entering.

On the table in the dining room I have placed a very big, wide, shallow bowl, and in it are the rosy apples, the oranges, the nuts and the autumn leaves. This year, in honour of you and our kinship of the fibre, I have also included some of the yarns most appropriately coloured for the festival.

Later on this evening we will crack the nuts and drink to those who have gone before, remembering them with love. We'll probably take a rain check on the snapapple and the bobbing for apples, since those involve rather a lot of wet floor not to mention drenched clothing, but a candle will burn in the window (ok, ok, safely encircled in a lantern) all night, to guide any lost souls on their way.

The one place I would really not want to be tonight is Leap Castle in Co. Offaly.

This crumbling pile has the dubious reputation of being the most haunted place in Ireland. It is supposed to have been built on an ancient Druidic site which didn't help for starters; and in the centuries that followed the lords of the castle tended to treat their enemies in fairly unpleasant fashion, dropping them into oubliettes, murdering them out of hand, generally giving aristocracy a bad name, you know the kind of behaviour. Perhaps that started it, perhaps something far older had always been here, but gradually Leap began to get the reputation of a place you didn't want to spend too much time. Some of the most unpleasant rumours surrounded a rather horrible apparition that looked half like a decayed human skeleton, half like a skeletal sheep, and that stank of corruption. Experts in psychic phenomena think it may be a kind of primitive ghost that attaches itself to certain very old places - in this case, perhaps the original Druidic site.

Well, ok, I'll tell you about that time. It isn't really a ghost story because I didn't see anything and nothing really happened. But it's something that will always stay with me. And yes, it concerns Leap Castle.

It was when I was living in England and happened to buy a cookery book about Irish food. In the centre, along with some recipes from the Midlands, it showed a picture of this castle with the caption, 'The most haunted castle in Ireland.' I was intrigued, and on the next visit home, made a special trip up to see it.

It was one of those heavy misty days you get in Ireland, with no sun visible. The castle lay in a little dip below where I had parked, surrounded by heavy scrub and furze bushes. I used my binoculars to scan it - it looked deserted, half in ruins. Hardly surprising - it had been deserted for centuries after all. I particularly noted the heavy arched front door which was barred and chained. I remember wondering why it needed to be chained. Then I left the car and set off down the narrow muddy track that led to the castle. There was no other means of access except on foot, and mine was the only car in the rough car park that morning.

As I descended through the tall furze bushes I lost sight of the castle and didn't see it again as the path twisted and turned, until I had come right down to the bottom. The air was really heavy here, and seemed to press against my consciousness almost like waves. I came to the edge of the bushes and out into the open ground in front of the castle.

The front door was open.

I had heard nothing. There was no other car, no sign of life other than myself for miles around. I had seen clearly through the binoculars that the heavy door was barred and chained. Yet here it stood, chains hanging down, bolts drawn back, opening into a yawning blackness beyond that beckoned invitingly.

It seemed like several hours but was probably only a few seconds that I stood there. Then, very very carefully, I stepped backwards, one foot at a time, towards the shelter of the bushes. I kept moving backwards until I was within the enclosed space of the path again. Then I turned, feeling strangely sick as I did so, and walked steadily up, up, back towards the car.

I remember thinking, 'Don't run. Don't hurry. Don't let them know...' What I meant I haven't an idea, but I do remember that's what I thought. I knew I mustn't make a frantic break for it. I must keep calm.

I reached the car. I got in, fitted the key in the ignition with some trembling of my fingers, shut the door and locked it. Then I gunned the engine and drove away from that place as if the Hounds of Hell were after me.

And I have never been back.

See? Not much of a ghost story is it? No phantoms, no midnight encounters. But I will never forget how I felt that morning. On the very rare occasions I told someone, I would then wait wearily for the inevitable, 'Oh but you must have been mistaken... Oh but there must have been other people wandering round.... Oh but...'

They weren't there. I was.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jo, what a wonderful ghost story! That gave me the chills! There were some old castles we visited while in Ireland (again I will have to ask my dad which ones) that I got some very strange feelings as well. ALthough I could not have gone to that place alone like you! I remember walking back from an old Church Ruins back to a castle by myself, (and it was very strange because you had to walk through a cow pasture and i pictured myself being chased by a Bull) and I kept getting a strange feeling that I was not alone - and not just with the cows nearby!

Well Happy Halloween to you and thanks for sharing your wonderful stories and Irish tales!

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, *always* go with that 'gut' feeling...it'll save your arse every time. Aye, an experience worth having though, eh?
That's a great looking turnip, and the offering bowl is truly lovely, quite inviting.
Here's to the new year (needles raised).

Anonymous said...

Good one! I should have saved my poor excuse for a ghost story for today but I entered it on the last posting and I'm too lazy to type it again.

pacalaga said...

Don't let them know, indeed. Yikes. I might have bad dreams now. (I am a wimp about things like that.) I am from the new world, in the Wild West, and we don't have many haunted places around here. And I know better than to look for the few that are here!

rho said...

You HAVE to go back on a beautiful day to see if you get the same feeling. I so wish I were there we could go together. But that would be a great place for "Most Haunted" to do. Watching their 3 hour finale late tonight - I love it - it makes me laugh.

You grow some BIG turnips there!!!!

I'm trying to think of local stories - and the only one I can come up with is Devils Rock -- there is a rock in the woods near where I grew up that has a shape on the top of it that looks like a cloven hoof - the legend is that the Devil jumped on it and left his footprint when he was trying to get someone to turn over their soul -- someone who tricked the Devil and it was in a fit of fury that he jumped up on the rock.

I like your stories better.

Anonymous said...

Goose bumps!!! Quite chilling and I totally believe you. What was the story that was so evil you wouldn't tell?

Day of the Dead is a celebration of the dead, and a thumbing of the nose at death, which I forgot to mention. Therefore the sugar skulls with the living's names on them.

Well, I am typing away between knocks wearing my costume, a mishmash of whatever I could grab, black Moroccan robe with a huge Indian shawl covering most of my face, rings on every finger, dangly earrings, spooky make-up. Have had about 100 little (and not so little) tricksters so far, and the night is young. A very nice Hatshepsut who made her own costume, an adorable little unicorn, and a weird and very creepy ghost have all made appearances. A Mexican man who said he had just moved here and wanted to find a nice street to bring his children. Found some spooky jelly eyeballs which I placed in a huge caldron that are being given to everyone, along with chocolates of course. Hung that cobweb stuff everywhere, all over the door and the porch lights, evil stuff, it keeps grabbing my costume and will pull for 20 feet before something gives. Those hours of perfect arranging gone in no time. Never again! Though it does look pretty cool hanging from the chandeliers. Candles everywhere, no lights. And my cats peeking out through the "cobwebs" to see who are all these people? Ooops, there goes the door again.

LaurieM said...

It gave me a bit of a chill. My imagination is running wild with ideas about that door and what you may have found if you had walked through.

We have a ghost here in London, Ontario, in the Grand Theatre. The original owner of the theatre, Ambrose Small, went missing under suspicions circumstances and is now said to haunt the theatre. As a child I performed in that theatre and we scared each other with ghost stories.

You can read more here: http://www.corrystuart.com/Ambrose%20Small.html

Peg-woolinmysoup said...

Jo - thanks for the spooky story of the deserted castle. You were brave to even go there alone in the first place! Were all the hairs on your body standing on end?
You must grow large turnips in Ireland, as most of our turnips in the shops here would make very small jack'o'lanterns!

knitspot anne said...

oooh i love that story. gives me the shivvers

Another yarn said...

My dad's family is Irish and so growing up I didn't hear the tales of boogeymen or anything like that. No, my dad told me stories of banshee's as a child. And we were living on a lake. Aligators when mating sound JUST like a banshee. Many a sleepless night were had in my room growing up.

Thank you for your wonderful postings! My hope is to one day make it to Ireland.

Happy Samhain! ~Tracie

Ms. Knitingale said...

I'll be sleeping with a nightlight tonight....I felt chills as soon as I read the part about the door being open. Dear Jo--how glad I am that you didn't go in!

A very Happy Samhain to you, and may any evil spirits that may be afoot pass you right on by.

Erica said...

Wonderful ghost story! It is nice to know that I am not alone in the "there's just something not quite right about this place" feelings. When I would stay at my Grandmother's farm I would often go for an early morning run and I would always stop at the same spot on the gravel rode because I would get chills if I got too close to this old wooden barn. I just figured it was all in my head at the time. At any rate, I do think I have a friendly spirit of sorts in the house I currently live in. Just little weird things. I am often misplacing things in the house to where I will ask myself "where in the ___is the ___?" The object that I was looking for will show up in an odd spot, especially when my kids are sleeping/after I clear the living room so I can vacuum. I'll go to put the vacuum away and there it will sit, right in the middle of the floor that was completely object free... I hear the odd noises, I've seen my infant swing swaying by itself when there was no one near it or no breeze... that would cause it to move... The other day the straps to little miss' carseat had been moved out of the center of the seat so I could lay her in without fuss... Now that I write this I am probably cementing the thought "she is off-her-rocker" in your (and other people's) minds but what the hey, today only comes once a year... I'm sure it could just be an overactive imagination, but I always say "thank you", just in case...

Faren said...

Thanks for that wonderful, spooky, eerie (sp?) tale. Stories about seeing ghosts I tend to disbelive, but tales like that... I've had a few times where I felt uncomfortable (this place is bad vibes) and some this is a really powerful, mystical place (Stone henge being numero uno)but the only ghost is Uncle Jerry. Not my uncle, but a friends in High School. He would drink your beer, and smoke your cigeratte when you weren't looking, things like this happened quite often. You could also smell him, not quite a stale beer smell(he died in a car wreck from drunk driving) more like a warm hops smell, wasn't unpleasant. You could feel him as a cool patch of air on a hot summer day. But every so often he would tickle you, at a slumber party he got a whole roomful of girls giggling....ok, that doesn't sound to unusual does it? But it really did feel like someone was tickling me. Looking back, I could easily discount half of it as coincidence, but the other half....was pretty damn convincing.

Anonymous said...

Delurking finally, here. ;) And re inevitable comments, well - I got goosebumps!! All over. Of course, I'm a neo-pagan. [g] But my mother had a few fairly major experiences, and I've got a touch of Something, and there are more things out there than scientists can measure. Blessed Samhain!

Martina said...

That gave me shivers. I am so glad you followed your instincts and left. Who knows what lurked there. I like the Samhain rituals you mentioned. I for one have never understood why christians think that Halloween is the devil's day. The thin veil. A time to honour the dead. Is there symbolism in cracking the nuts in the honouring? The seeds of life? Regeneration? Tell me more!!

gwtreece said...

Great ghost story. That is a big turnip.

Anonymous said...

What a great story! Thanks for sharing it. here is to a great new year.

Kit said...

I believe in evil spirits and I'm glad you got away while you can because I'm pretty sure you would have been lost if you'd gone in. :)

Happy November first, however you celebrate it!

pacalaga said...

I looked it up after I got home (cuz the ones with "possibilities" are scarier than anything) and was both happy and disappointed to see that Leap Castle is now owned and being renovated by Sean and Anne Ryan. Apparently after the ghosts harmed him twice, they settled down and now generally coexist peacefully. Sean gives tours. :-)

Dez Crawford said...

I grew up Irish Catholic in the very haunted city of New Orleans, so I was thoroughly immersed in ghostliness, both authentic and legendary, al my life. My great-granny from County Clare was a Murphy whose mother was a Bodaugh. That is ALL I know.

I do know we've all had one experience or another with the banshee before the death of a relative. Either in the form of a vocalization (keening or shrieking)or the knocks.

There is a saying around here, "There are two kinds of people in this world ... people who don't believe in ghosts and people who have seen one."

But it's not always the visible ghost that's the most frightening ... your story of the castle gate just shivers my timbers. BRRRRR! Very well written. You were wise not to run. Negative elements from the other side obtain energy from fear. Never show them your hand. Back away slowly and calmly, as you would with an aggressive dog.

I have experienced a LOT of strange things in my life. I could go on for days. I much prefer the scientific approach of TAPS (Ghost Hunters), or the documentary style of the series "A Haunting." I do not like the sensationalized "Most Haunted" types of shows.

I have had "the divvy" since childhood -- I "feel" things and smell things and also "just know" things about locations: if someone died violently there, etc.

I have also seen a few apparitions in my life. A notable one was a brief apparition of a deceased and beloved friend, who startled me (oh yes!) but did not cause genuine fear, only sadness that I could not prolong the "visit" for a moment, if only to say how much I miss him.

But once I saw a black ... THING ... a semi-human form in the deepest, darkest shade of black I have ever seen. A complete absence of light, and, unlike a shadow, an absence of transluscence as well.

It made me dizzy and nauseated to see it. It was NOT a shadow, it was very distinct, but I don't know what it was. It retreated swiftly away from me in a flowing, almost liquid manner when I looked sraight at it. Its manner of motion reminded me of the way a large silk scarf might move if it were being pulled through a small hole and you were watching it disappear into the hole.

This was at the home of a dear friend who lived in a very actively haunted house, lots of poltergeist activity, in which a number of events were witnessed by people ranging from extremely skeptical adults to profoundly gullible pre-teens. I fall into the open-mided skeptic category -- I always look for the logical explanation first, of course, but I allow for the Sherlock Holmes rule.

I was paralyzed with fear when I saw that thing. I will never forget it. This was in 1994 and I still shiver to think of it.

Thanks for sharing your wonderful Irish stories -- I am intrigued by the ghastly human/sheep skeletal thing, it sounds much like a primordial, skeletal ghost-thing greatly feared in the beliefs of some American Indian tribes.

Hugs, and a Happy Samahin to you. We celebrated the New Year with our avante-garde pumpkin and kept vigil on the front porch for trick-or-treaters. And of course left a candle burning all night as well as a handful of treats for the passing spirits, which were gone at morning.

However, I suspect raccoons.


LornaJay said...

Purely technical question here: Samhain and the pronunciation thereof.

Is it Sovvan, Samman, or something different, please?

kelli ann & lorie said...

*shiver* glad i stopped by-- it's been a great visual (if a bit of a whirlwind) tour!! hugs, and yes, time must be made for knitting. hear, hear!!