Gather 'round the campfire: November is Ireland's Month of the Dead

Published Wednesday, November 4, 2009, 11:33 AM

November is still the official Month of the Dead in Ireland.

People go to their chapels and visit the peaceful graves of their dead, say a certain ritual of Hail Marys and Holy Marys and gain for the dead a plenary indulgence which releases them instantly from Purgatory and into Paradise like a shot.

As a child that was a powerful feeling to have walking home afterwards. We used to parcel out our dead relatives and neighbors between us and free them all from their sufferings. Many of you did the same thing.

As the November evening began to fall, I remember, the graveyard would get colder and a bit eerie too. The butty spire of our chapel would starkify itself against a white sky.

The benches would be sibilant with all the whispered prayers. If you looked upwards you could almost see the freed spirits streaking happily towards St. Peter. We called them the Holy Souls.

It was because of that connection between this mortal world and the afterworld, and because the clocks were turned an hour backwards so the evenings were longer and darker, that November was also the traditional time for telling ghost stories around the parochial firesides.

The connection was strengthened by the simple Halloween games and pranks that started the month off. There were no pumpkins then (what were pumpkins for God's sake?), but mostly houses hollowed out a big turnip and put a candle within so that the grinning visage overlooked the fortune-telling and the blind-mans-buff and the dipping of faces into the tin basin to catch the floating apple between your teeth.

Later there was often the first of the ghost story sessions that would keep going on many' s the night through the long dark winter. They were special.

They happen so rarely now. It's years and years since I was part of one such session.

One school of thought is that they perished because no man walks home along haunted roads any more with a few drinks taken the way he used to. He drives home behind powerful headlights which have banished all the dark coaches with saturnine drivers that used be met about every wet dark night.

And the Headless Horsemen seem to know better than to challenge Mercs and BMWs and Saabs. They have disappeared too.

And because the men who used tell ghost stories are driving the homing cars, they don't hear the strange rustling sounds from the hedges that used start off so many of the yarns.

And the engines are too loud as well for them to hear the haunting wail of any banshee that has survived into this New Ireland. (They are out there all right, have no doubts about that, but few have time to hear them any more).

I do often feel sorry for them! They are still out there foretelling the passing of O's and Mac's like myself, but they've been sorta disconnected from the modern consciousness. More's the pity.

The old November ghost stories were mighty. They were part of that thick folkloric thread of life and living that was so richly served by older men who were the born storytellers of a vibrant oral tradition.

They could wind their voices around the cracklings of a hearth fire or the tickings and tockings of an old clock in a nobly theatric fashion. Their pauses and changes of volume were Shakespearean.

They could frighten you out of your skin with their ghosts and goblins and witches and banshees. The stories were made much more believable somehow because they could always name the person or persons who met the Headless Horsemen or coachmen, usually their fathers, uncles or grandfathers or grandmothers.

And the geographic placement of the event was accurate to the nearest yard -- "just where the oak trees meet across the road on the bend before McGoldrick's cottage".

You tried never to pass such locations at night ever afterwards. And you even speeded up in daylight!

A typical story of the type is one I recall hearing while lying in my bed with the door open in the bedroom off the kitchen. Like so many more it did not feature pure ghosts as such, but a judgment from above on people who wronged a decent man.

And this man called Pakie was a decent farmer with a strong weakness for drink, and an even stronger weakness for cards. And he had the best farm in the parish -- "the same 40 acres that the McGreals have now over in Tattymacall" -- and he was inveigled into a big 25 game by an unscrupulous neighboring family who coveted his land.

The strongest card in this game is the five of trump, always called The Fingers. The main cheater in the group was the pregnant mother of the house.

Through the evening she kept concealing the Fingers inside her cardigan and deployed the powerful card to devastating effect against poor Pakie, who was meanwhile being supplied with glasses of whiskey. In the small hours of the morning he had lost his farm and signed a paper to that effect.

He then went home and, in the best tradition of such stories, hung himself from an oak tree in the haggard.

("That tree is still standing just behind the new bungalow. You can see it for yourself. It's the oldest tree maybe in Ireland and 'tis unlucky to stand under it.")

Two weeks after that the woman had twin boys and, the Lord between us and all harm, didn't both of them have 10 fingers on each hand. And they both died inside five weeks!

A lot of the stories were like that. They were parables of their era.

The tradition does continue, but it is a lot less strong nowadays. But even since I came down to Clare I've encountered the famous fairy tree at Lattoon on the Limerick-Galway road that made international headlines by being spared when they were building the new motorway there.

And I have been shown empty houses allegedly built on fairy highways which no human family have ever been able to occupy. And I've seen a tomb on the Clare/Galway border that they have never been able to seal because of the alleged unhappy spirit within.

And I know a certain pub which has always been dogged by bad luck up to modern times because it is said a priest with a drink problem was once deliberately led astray there in a shameful way, being supplied with drink if he took off his clothes and danced on a table. And one of his colleagues cursed the house after.

But the best I've heard in Clare in recent years in a rare story session was the grisly tale of a farmer from the south of the county who went to the Limerick Market with his horse and cart to buy a sow. He bought a mighty big young sow for the right price late in the evening and was delighted with himself.

He set off back for home, in the parish of Tulla, a good long drive, and when he got close to home he stopped at a well-known public house (still trading away healthily) and consumed a fair quantity of porter.

That, though, was no problem because his old horse knew her way home by herself. It had happened before. So when the farmer passed out asleep on the front of the cart the old mare kept going all the way home to the front street.

In the morning, though, the horrified family discovered that the sow (by then sleeping away happily!) had devoured holus-polus all the upper half of him!

And the storyteller said that any of us who did not believe the story could go to Tulla graveyard and see the proof there on an old headstone. There was no name on it, he said, but there was clearly outlined the profile of a pig.

That stone is still there and the man told the truth!

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