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.