Full moons and black art in rural Ireland

Published Wednesday, October 14, 2009, 12:40 PM

There is a full moon over Clare tonight. It is almost as bright as day still after an orange and ochre twilight.

There is a small breeze and the leaves that are falling in whispering legions are dark shadows now against the moon's face, even though they will be gold and yellow and russet and rustling in the morning.

I hear a cock pheasant somewhere up in the hills behind me as I appreciate it all for a couple of minutes before going back within. It is very serene.

An English couple we met on holidays early in the summer called in for a night last week. They stayed for a night and we had a good one.

When Linda was leaving she left a box of Yorkshire teabags behind as a small gift. We had liked the strong tangy tea that much.

I make myself a cup of it and that reminds me of Barney McElgunn, who could read your fortune from the falling leaves of autumn up in north Leitrim.

I'm not talking about reading the tea leaves. I'm talking about Barney sending the girls and women outside to his haggard (garden) to gather a handful of leaves.

And then he would spread them out on the oil clothed shiny surface of the big table. He would shuffle them to and fro with big fingers that were already deformed and twisted a bit by the hard

spadework. After a while he would tell their fortunes.

I saw him doing it twice, the first time for my mother and her old school friend. Barney was a cousin of my mother's friend.

Years later, in a superstitious society, I heard whispered stories that Barney was a man not to be trifled with. The claim was that he had knowledge of what they called the Black Art.

I'm still not sure what the Black Art is, but a general perception is that it comes more from below than from paradise. We'll leave it that that.

All I can tell for certain is what I saw and heard as a young boy after the pair of excited women came back into the kitchen with their handfuls of fallen leaves for Barney.

He was a married man then with a grown family. It is my recollection that his wife was there, but she was sitting quietly by the open fire reading the Leitrim Observer newspaper most of the time.

Most of the fallen leaves were from a big sycamore in the corner of the yard. Others were from hazel bushes in the hedge, from apple trees and sundry others.

The sycamore leaves were the largest and most colorful of all. They are a shamrock shape, and at this time of the year they bear every color of the rainbow when they fall.

They made a mound in front of the two middle-aged mothers. Barney read my mother's pile first, and naturally I listened intently.

There was nothing of the Black Art to me in what he told her, but then I was young. It was all the usual fame and fortune stuff, except once near the beginning when he said something to her in almost a whisper that made her giggle like a girl and go red in the face.

It was like he told her something about some boy she met as a girl before she met and married Sandy and had five kids. He did tell her that she would live a long happy life and would go to her God without much pain.

In fairness that came true. She died peacefully as an octogenarian. Not much Black Art there for sure.

But when it came to reading the leaves of his clanswoman even I noticed that the atmosphere changed a bit.

It had been fun with my mother. This was heavier stuff by a degree or two.

Near the beginning of the process Barney asked her to select one of her leaves and crush it up in her right hand before handing it to him. She did that, and Barney did not look at any of the other leaves afterward, just concentrated on that sycamore leaf.

Having been crushed up tightly, it slowly began to expand again so that it appeared he was opening it up with his eyes somehow. She was a farmer's wife and much of what he said had to do with a farmer's business like, "Ye will sell well in November."

But in what was a shock, he warned her that she should be on the alert for an accident with the farm's shotgun from the time she went home that night, and all the years afterwards.

His own wife's Leitrim Observer rustled with interest at that. There was nothing really unusual about the rest of what he said.

After a while the leaves were thrown in the open hearth and we were on the road home inside the hour cycling easily under a moon like the one that is shining outside now.

It would have easily been nearly 20 years later when my mother telephoned me in Waterford City to tell me that her friend's husband had gone out to the hayshed the previous day with his shotgun.

The family, she said, were circulating the story that it had been an accident, but it was a suicide all right.

Did I remember what Barney McElgunn said when he was reading the leaves?

“Yes Mammy,” I said. “I do remember.”

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