Magic in the air as an autumnal moon rises over Ballycotton Lighthouse in County Cork. RollingNews.ie photo.
By Ray O’Hanlon
Some moments you keep forever.
One of mine goes back a good many years to a country laneway in County Wexford.
It was around the time of Halloween, the end of October, the beginning of November.
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It’s a standout time in the calendar, a cusp between one season and the next.
And in the specific context of All Hallows Eve, between the earthly and the unearthly.
But that moment in time. Unusually, there was no wind, not a zephyr. You could hear for miles so the scratchy call of the nearby pheasant was carrying far beyond the leafy corridor we were sharing.
And leafy it was as it had been windy a couple of nights before and there had been a big, final, fall.
There was a whiff of smoke in the air, a farmer burning something. And at the edge of this still world, somewhere, there was a tractor on the way from here to there.
The world seemed to in a pause, waiting for what would come next.
And autumn is yet a pause, even in today’s fast moving Ireland.
That moment from years past, that picture in the mind’s eye, well, it’s still out there. Faster paced Ireland might be, but the island, in the year’s tenth and eleventh months, still finds itself wrapped in mists and shadows, legends and stories, traditions that reach back millennia.
All Hallows Eve derived from pre-Christian Celtic times and was adapted in relatively recent times – that being somewhere between a thousand and fifteen hundred years ago – to fit into contemporary religious belief.
It is the eve of the day when the holy and sainted are venerated.
But somewhere along the way the day itself, and more importantly, the night, became an occasion for the unholy and devilish to be unleashed on the world.
And what better place than Ireland, the home of saints, scholars, ghostly spirits and even Bram Stoker, author of the original gothic novel introducing the world to Count Dracula.
Suffice it to say, Ireland’s strong bond with Halloween has led to the emergence of new festivals to go with the ages old festivities.
One such festival being launched this year is the “Púca Festival – where the Hallowe’en story begins.”
Here’s this from Tourism Ireland, a worldly entity yes, but always one ready to get into the spirit of things: “Three breathtaking nights of authentic Hallowe’en music, food, light and spectacle are set to unfold in Ireland’s Ancient East at the all new Púca festival.
“The inaugural festival celebrating Ireland as the home of Hallowe’en will be vibrant and contemporary in feel but strongly rooted in the traditions of the country where Hallowe’en’s traditions all began.
“Taking place from 31 October – 2 November in three historic towns in two Irish counties, Púca promises an unforgettable celebration of all things unearthly.
“Named after a shape-shifting spirit from Celtic folklore, the festival will capture the original and authentic spirit of Samhain – ‘summer’s end’ in Old Irish.
“Púca will salute the Hallowe’en spirits with atmospheric processions, stunning light installations, established and up-and-coming names in Irish music as well as delectable harvest-inspired food experiences.
“The festival kicks off in the town of Athboy, County Meath, with The Coming of Samhain (31 October), a recreation of the symbolic lighting of the Samhain fires in the shadow of the heritage site of The Hill of Ward, one of the earliest sites to host Samhain.
“Meanwhile in Trim, also in County Meath, the stunning Trim Castle and its surrounds becomes the spectacular stage for three supernatural nights of music, light and Hallowe’en fun from 31 October. “The grounds of the castle will come to life each night with a host of illuminations and interactive interventions – from aerialists and Púca performers to castle projections to laser shows – as well as the Púca Food and Craft Market.
“The castle will also play host to a world-class selection of musicians, including Jerry Fish’s Púca Sideshow (31 October), Just Mustard, Pillow Queens and AE MAK (1 November), and Kormac and the Irish Chamber Orchestra (2 November).
“Bringing Drogheda, the third festival hub to life, will be a haunting three-day programme of music, film and light installations. The town will play host to projection artists de:LUX, whose artworks over the three festival nights will draw inspiration from tales of Irish folklore and the spirits of Hallowe’en.
“According to Irish folklore and more recent archaeological evidence, Hallowe’en can be traced back to the ancient Celtic tradition of Samhain. Samhain was a festival marking the end of the Celtic year and the start of a new one. It was believed to be a time of transition, when the spirits of all those who had passed away since the previous Oíche Shamhna (Night of Samhain) moved onto the next life.
“Samhain was the last great gathering before winter, a time of feasting, remembering what had passed and preparing for what was to come.”
Well, all that sounds worth checking out. And of course there’s lots more. Ireland for Halloween is beginning to match being in New Orleans for Mardi Gras.
Suffice it to say, the former is not a holiday that would work well on, say, July 31.
The early descent of darkness is a critical component as All Hallows Eve embraces the visitor in a mystical body hug. But light as well as darkness is a critical ingredient in Halloween.
The Jack-O-Lantern, familiar in America, is said to be a human recreation of the will-o-the-wisp phenomenon sometimes observed in peat bogs.
The lantern would serve to keep away evil spirits on a night when, tradition had it, the spirits of the dead would rise and wander about the place.
In Ireland, and up until comparatively recent times, a lantern would be carved from a turnip.
The carving took an age and the New World most definitely came to the rescue with the pumpkin version. Anyone in Ireland carving a turnip these times is taking hallowed tradition to a hollowed-out extreme.
Now all these festivities and gatherings surrounding an Irish Halloween are generally in built-up places with lots of people about.
What about not so built up places with very few people about?
Now that would be an Irish Halloween of the long ago sort.
So imagine a cottage on its own, a Jack-O-Lantern in the window (sure, a turnip) and little prospect of kids pounding on the door roaring trick or treat, their hands out for all things sweet.
Step outside the door and beyond the light cast by the turnip/pumpkin.
It is a still night with a new moon, which of course means no moon.
So it’s dark, stygian almost.
A slight breeze catches a few fallen leaves and they begin to turn in a circle at your feet.
The breeze is not so strong that it disperses the bank of fog that is rolling in from fields that roll away to the invisible horizon.
A fox barks, an owl hoots, and you have the sense that you are not alone.
And of course you are not alone.
The spirits of millennia past are gliding over the landscape and one of them moves in your direction. You don’t see it; rather you sense it. You shudder. Time for a Dram Bram!
Yes, time to step back inside and plan the next morning’s walk down the leafy laneway under the now bare trees reaching into the autumnal sky, and higher into the mystical heavens above them.
Welcome to Ireland in a time of year that was created with Ireland in mind.
More at www.discoverireland.ie