Sunday, October 31, 2010

Bounty of Autumn, A Buttercup Bear, and Beliefs of the Banshee

It's Hallow E'en or Samhain this night, October 31. All over the countryside children will be dressing up as ghosts and witches and wandering around from one neighbouring house to another, wailing blood-curdlingly as they go. It's a nice custom in many ways, and although much altered by modern commercialism and international influences, it is still the acknowledgement of the Celtic New Year's Eve, when the veil between the Otherworld and ours is very thin indeed, and spirits walk abroad. That's where the original custom of dressing up as ghosts, or carving frightening faces to put in the window, came from - the reasoning was that if the real spirits passed by, they would see the lighted turnip grimaces, or notice a white wraith flitting past a front door, and leave those houses alone, since they were clearly already being dealt with.

Here is a nice picture by Daniel Maclise of Hallow E'en celebrations at Blarney in the 1830s. Some are bobbing for apples in tubs of water, some are scrying for the future, others are cracking nuts or enjoying a jig. I remember Snapapple myself - extraordinarily difficult to take a bite of a fruit that is dangling and swaying at the end of a string, especially with both hands held firmly behind your back. But if you did get a bite, that ensured good luck for the year ahead.

We loved the barm brack too - that round traditional fruit bread with special charms baked into it. The ring was the most prized, never mind that we were all far too young to consider marrying in the next twelve months. The pea, bean, stick and rag were received with laughter, but not taken very seriously. Today, unfortunately, doubtless due to health and safety regulations, only the ring remains, carefully wrapped in layers of paper, so it's immediately evident on slicing into the brack. Ah well...

Most of the orchard didn't do too well this year - we had an extraordinarily cold spring and then the driest summer on record, so the venerable trees took a year off, and why not? But this little crabapple excelled itself, the thin branches bent almost to the ground under the weight of tiny scarlet fruits

When the winds started to howl yesterday, though, and the leaves were flying everywhere, it was time to pick the bounty of autumn and see if just one little pot of spiced apple butter could not be made. Every time it's opened, that brave little tree will be celebrated.

It's time to share bounty with others too, open up the stash and let other people have a chance to work with some of the beautiful stuff I've been storing. I've been harangued by many of you about Shetland yarns, and now that we're moving inexorably towards the gift giving season, and you're all starting to get into the mood to make this a handknit year, it was decided that really some of the Shetland should be skeined up and put on eBay.

When you come to skeining them up of course, very few are exactly the same thickness.

Here, for example, are a lovely deep green, a natural white, and a rich blue, all 2/9ths which is almost fingering weight. I'd use this for socks, only I wouldn't because it might not wear that well. Better to use a Shetland/nylon blend for the knee-length kilt hose and there is plenty of that in the stash. These are better suited to lovely light but cosy winter shawls, or those divine sweaters with Fair Isle yokes.

Really fond of these two subtle tweedy Shetlands. The one above is Pine, with Maelstrom below. Finer - let me just check - yes, 2/16ths (I can't remember what that means either, did know once, but forgot - the main thing to remember is that 2/9ths is the thickest and the higher the number goes, the finer the yarn. Doesn't it have to do with dividing the 2 into the 16, which gives you 8 metres to the gram - or something? That would make sense.) Anyway these would be exquisite for traditional shawls. Even if I sell lots, I will still have enough left for myself to double up and make sweaters. One done in wide bands of each of the two shades would be good - they're close enough to make it very effective.

And this pairing is my absolute favourite - two 2/17ths Shetlands in Mist (above) and Persian (below). It will break my heart to part with even an inch of yarn from these two cones, but I can't use it all. So skeins are going up on eBay tonight or tomorrow, whenever there's a minute. Now that I think about it, it will be tomorrow, because of the night that's in it.

Now the other day I went down to Gougane to say goodbye to everyone at the cafe and hotel as they closed up for the winter. It's a strange year they work down there - non-stop round the clock from spring to autumn, and then total quiet in the darker months. That's when they catch up on everything else that had to be put on hold when all the visitors were streaming in. May you enjoy your time of leisure and sitting by the fireside!

Afterwards, Sophy Wackles and I crossed the stream on the old clapper bridge,

and went up the hillside to enjoy the beautiful clear afternoon air. Can you see the old green lane down there on the left hand side of the picture, winding away into the Back of Beyond?

The holly berries are ripening fast and were gleaming beautifully against the clear blue sky. It did your heart good to see them.

We met this splendid ram by a ford. Will you look at the style of him, with one short horn and one dramatic show-off?

And finally we came back down to the secret lake as the sun was setting over the mountains to the west.

Now this next bit may be a little too much for those allergic to cutesy stories or saccharine, so if one of those you be, then look away for the following couple of paragraphs, OK?

We went to the recycling centre yesterday (yes, after I picked the crabapples, sharp-eyed, aren't you? Doesn't take all day to strip one tiny tree). The howling winds and driving rain ceased temporarily to allow us to rush from container to container, dropping off the different items. And then, I glanced at the huge skip for total rubbish, the unreclaimable, unrecyclable kind. It was full of sodden soggy stuff as usual. But perched on top was - of all things - a small, buttercup-yellow teddy bear. All on its own. Wearing a tiny red shirt and no more against the elements.

The rain was threatening once more, and the winds were picking up again. What would you have done? Bless DH, he ran with me, and held the back of my jacket as I leaned out precariously over the drop and just managed to snatch the little creature as the clouds delightedly opened their floodgates. As we rushed back to the car, I noticed that the little fellow wasn't even wet yet. He must have been thrown there in the previous five minutes or so.

When we got home, and had regained our breath (and DH had finished making gentle fun of me), I sat him on a mossy little wall to take his picture. Then I noticed that there were some slight marks of paint or something similar on one furry foot. Otherwise he was totally new. Even the shop tag was still attached, for heaven's sake.

Call me hopelessly sentimental (don't all shout at once, I knew it already) but what kind of person throws out a buttercup-yellow teddy bear just because they spilled something on his fat little leg? Who could abandon such a jolly little fellow on top of a huge skip of rubbish? What would have happened if I hadn't come along? What would that little bear have been thinking? OK, OK, this has gone far enough, back to sensible reality.

Yes, of course there is no doubt whatsoever as to the next step. A lovely Aran sweater in warm soft wool. Mini-sized. What else would one do? But what colour, what colour, what colour? Help!

Oh, De Book, De Book! Happy to relate, it is selling extraordinarily well, and the O'Brien Press are enchanted that so many of you in other lands are ordering it too. You're petkins, the lot of you! Anybody experiencing delay in receiving their specially signed copies, I've been checking on a daily basis with the nice girl at O'Brien's. The books are sent out via DHL, a most reputable company, but delays can occur in the best regulated organisations. Rest assured that if yours really doesn't turn up, Richard and I will sign fresh copies and get them on their way. And, as usual, if anybody else wants a personally inscribed copy, make sure you let me know, with the name and address used to order, at the same time you put in the order to O'Brien's. That way I can tell them to hold that book until we can sign it for you. If you don't let me know, they might just send it out unpersonalised, and I'd hate that!

And, I'm utterly thrilled (if a little daunted) to say, it looks as though that new book, on Irish folklore and traditions, may well be in the offing. The publishers have asked for a sample few pages by next week, and I've decided to write them on the banshee.

She's a strange enigma, the banshee (bean sidhe, or fairy woman). Every single man, woman and child in Ireland knows of her, and you don't have to go very far into the countryside to find someone who either has heard her chilling wail or knows someone who has. She's been around as long as our folklore has been recorded, and probably a long time before that. Yet throughout the ages, she has totally resisted change, the kind of alteration gradually forced on, for example, the goddesses Brigit and Danu, or the ancient spirit wells by more modern religions. The banshee remains determinedly, unalterably of the Otherworld, and calls to our deepest instincts.

Just to test the water, so to speak, I started asking around in neighbouring villages over the past few days, and was astounded to find how many people who, once they were sure I wasn't trying to make fun of them, admitted to family experiences of hearing the banshee. In one rare case, the girl told me that her father in law, who was at the time in the army, was driving back from manouevres in the early hours of the morning with the rest of his battalion, in an army truck. He was at the wheel, and as they came to the outskirts of the town, he saw something strange fluttering in front of an upstairs window in a tall house. At first, he thought it was a sheet left out by accident - and it was only as they drew nearer he could see it was the shape of a wraithlike woman, all blowing robes and long hair. The lorry windows were shut, so he didn't hear anything, but drove frantically on to the barracks where his men, who hadn't seen anything, had to help him down, he was so shaken. The next morning he checked, and of course discovered that a woman had died in that house in the early hours of the morning.

It is very unusual to hear of an actual sighting, since most records are of hearing the long-drawn-out keening wail which is said to raise the hairs on the back of the neck instinctively.

I hold no personal belief one way or another on banshees, but what exasperates me beyond measure is the smug and instant solution offered by non-believers that the country folk must have heard a fox vixen wailing or a barn owl screeching. Do they really have the nerve to claim that those who live in the countryside, close to nature in all its forms, would not recognise the bark of a fox or the cry of an owl? To my mind, the hairs rising on the back of the neck is telling evidence. That can't be brought on by ordinary sounds (I remember well the same instinctive reaction happening to me one night, many many years ago, in Transylvania, sleeping in a tiny tent and hearing the howl of wolves in the next valley. It was a strange sensation to feel the hair prickling.)

Best image I can find for you (yes, it's the one from Darby O'Gill, but I think it's a pretty good representation, going on the evidence).

What is or was the banshee? And why is she as powerful an image in modern Ireland as she was in ancient times? Not (and this is the odd thing) as a sort of bogey with which to threaten children, but almost as part of everyday life, part of the family as it were. And why is it heard as often (if not more so) by complete strangers as it is by members of the family where someone is about to pass on?

Celebrate Samhain, the Celtic New Year tonight. Build up the fire, put candles in the windows, and leave out some food for beloved departed relatives. And try a game of Snapapple too. May the year ahead be full of good things for you.