This column was published in the Oct. 29, 2014 issue of the Irish Echo.
By Maura Mulligan
The moment I sat at the table my chair shattered. All four legs and the stretchers connecting them flew in different directions. A little spooked, but unhurt, I took a friend’s hand, lifted myself off the floor and adjusted my goddess costume.
Friends at the table fussed. “Are you hurt? What on earth happened to that chair?” The restaurant manager commanded a staff member to find another chair. He asked if I was okay. “I think so,” I managed.
I celebrate the ancient festival of Samhain with friends every year. Guests dress as someone from our Celtic past and bring the character to life with a story, song or dance.
This was our first time meeting in The Landmark Tavern, a saloon in Hell’s Kitchen that dates back to 1868. I liked the squeaky door that leads to the second floor dining room. The brick fireplace and dark wood furniture made me want to be there on this night of ghosts. Now, I wasn’t so sure anymore.
When my chair was replaced, the wait staff continued taking orders as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I too, acted as if nothing went wrong. I wasn’t physically hurt, but felt threatened in some way.
Maybe, I thought, the Confederate Civil War soldier who was stabbed in a fight and staggered up to the second floor (where we were) didn’t approve of our using the bathroom where he died in the bathtub that still sits in the middle of the floor. Or maybe George Raft, the Hollywood gangster who roams around the old mahogany bar didn’t like my costume?
While trying to calm myself with a glass of merlot, I thought about the Tavern’s third ghost, the young Irish girl who came here during An Gorta Mór – the famine. She died of cholera on the third floor when this pub was a flophouse. Maybe young ghosts don’t like it when we, the living tell stories about the dead, I mused.
But I didn’t really believe in ghosts. Did I?
As a child in County Mayo, I had asked my grandfather if ghosts were real. “Arragh,” says he, “they are and they aren’t.”
Samhain, according to old Celtic beliefs is the time when the veil between this and the other world is lifted and the dead return to the homes they once occupied. In rural Ireland where I grew up in the 40’s/50’s it was customary to greet the returning spirits with a jack-o-lantern carved out of a turnip.
So, in the company of ghosts real or imagined, yours truly in the guise of the goddess, Danú, most ancient of all Celtic deities, decided it was time to forget about the broken chair and get the festivities started.
Revolutionaries, artists, historical, and mythological figures were they’re waiting to tell their stories. As we recalled our rich heritage, and learned from each other’s research, I tried to concentrate on the presentations but couldn’t help wondering if the resident ghosts had other plans for me.
Lady Wilde, poet, nationalist, and mother of the more famous Oscar, asked how I was feeling. “A little threatened,” I admitted. I talked to Nancy, one of the wait staff, who told me about an occasion when she served two young men who were there for dinner.
“Both water glasses shattered at the same time,” she recalled. “No one was even touching them. The glass went all over the burgers and beer.” Her colleague, Louis confirmed this remembering that he had to clean up the table while Nancy replaced the food and drinks.
Well, that didn’t make me feel any better. Back at the party, I was glad when revolutionaries and warriors showed up. Sword in hand, Cousin Eileen stormed to the fore as the fierce Scottish woman warrior, Scáthach. She, who trained the great legendary hero Cuchulainn, flew in from Dún Scáith (Fort of the Shadows) to tell of her many powers. With her likes around, I felt a wee bit safer.
Some months later I ventured back to the Landmark on a Monday evening and was warmly welcomed and given the best table near the musicians gathered for their weekly seisiún. The manager, Michael was hesitant to speak of possible resident ghosts but he did say that, “people sometimes sense something on that second floor.” He was glad I wasn’t hurt but couldn’t explain why the chair exploded as it did.
October 31st is just around the corner and I am once again making plans for a Samhain party. Although some friends are hesitant about returning to the ghostly pub, it’s my opinion that since Celtic poetry is our theme this year, the ghosts, if they exist, will feel less threatened by the presence of Yeats, Heaney, Burns, Cáitlin Maud and their likes. We aim to have a spooktacular evening.
Maura Mulligan is the author of "Call of the Lark," a memoir. (Greenpoint Press).