Oíche Shamhna Shona Daoibh!

That means ‘Happy Halloween’ in Irish – more or less. Samhain – pronounced ‘sow-in’, with the emphasis on the sow, literally means ‘summer’s end’, while Oíche Shamhna is ‘the eve of Samhain’ (Shamhna is the genitive form of Samhain). If today (I’m writing this on 31st October) is Samhain’s eve, then  tomorrow – 1st November – should actually be Samhain. And that’s true because, in Ireland, Samhain is also the name of the eleventh month. And, before we move too far on, I should tell you that those difficult words Oíche Shamhna are pronounced ‘Ee-hyeh How-nuh’ and the correct way to say the whole title of this piece is ‘E-hyeh How-nuh Hun-uh Dee-iv’ literally summer’s end evening, happy, to you all – I’ll bet you’re sorry you asked! So, we are on the eve of the eleventh month, and it’s always been a time of great celebration in Irish culture: the time of the year when we begin to sense the darkness creeping in; the trees are losing their leaves, the sun is getting noticeably weaker, and it’s a season of dampness, mists and grey shadows. No wonder, surely, that the imagination turns to arcane, otherworldly – even ghoulish – matters. And no wonder, also, that this time is associated with the spirits of the dead – and the Other Crowd.

Our little community of Ballydehob in West Cork takes Samhain very seriously – of course! So I thought I would give you a short overview, mainly in pictures, as to what you can expect to find in the village on this day. Earlier in the week I gave a talk about folklore, customs and traditions in the Bank House Talks in the Vaults series and – to acknowledge that we were nearly at Samhain – Finola provided barm-brack for everyone.

While preparing the talk, I reflected on this time of the year – and what it had meant to me when I was growing up in England. There – back in the 1950s – we had no concept of Halloween: we didn’t even know the word. For sure, we had a celebration at around this time (the beginning of November), when we lit bonfires and got excited by throwing firecrackers and bangers around. We called it ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ (sometimes Bonfire Night or Fireworks Night). We made ‘guys’ – life-sized effigies – which we carried around the town collecting pennies to buy fireworks with (and we later burnt those ‘guys’ on the bonfires – it all seems a little gruesome now). As I got older, I was told (but didn’t really understand) that it was all about celebrating the fact that a man had been prevented from blowing up the Houses of Parliament in London with gunpowder. This was a fascinating concept to me and I could never understand (and still don’t) why we remembered a man who failed to set out what he intended to do, while the then attractive spectacle (to me) of succeeding in blowing up the Parliament would, surely, have been a much more justified cause for remembrance and celebration . . .

When I moved to the western counties of England I discovered that the Bonfire Night celebrations there were far more elaborate, probably far more ancient, and included blazing tar barrels being pulled through the narrow streets by crowds of young people. These seemed much closer to the outlandish atmosphere of Halloween which we find in Ireland now. Here’s a couple of pics showing the spectacle which happens at dawn every early November in Hatherleigh, Devon, where I lived for many years.

Anyway, I’ll let you have a look at the images which we have taken in Ballydehob this week, and you can see for yourselves what a dynamic, exciting and explosive place we live in! Thank you to the many residents, shop owners and publicans who have joined in and worked so hard to bring this ancient Irish festival to life today.

A very special event this year was the transformation of Bank House – Ballydehob’s former bank and now a centre for community events owned by the village – into a very scary ‘blood bank’, where visitors were invited to sample nasty food and to donate blood via the spine-chilling doctor! It was a unique experience!

The topsy-turvy world is an aspect of folk culture that goes back a long way – and deliberately sets out to upset the norm, making us all feel a little less comfortable. This is Budd’s cafe in Ballydehob today.

Ballydehob Garda Station has a haunted look about it this week! And the display there included a very appetising stew… (Pics above)

Remember that celebrations take place every year at this time around the world. In Mexico, for example, they have a ‘Day of the Dead’ on November 1st:  Día de los Muertos. It is a time to remember the ancestors, and welcome them back to their homes. During Day of the Dead festivities, food is both eaten by living people and given to the spirits of their departed ancestors as ofrendas (offerings), and decorations. In some parts of the country children in costumes roam the streets, knocking on people’s doors for a calaverita, a small gift of candies or money; they also ask passersby for it. The fiesta (which can last for three days) is filled with marigolds, the flowers of the dead; muertos (the bread of the dead); sugar skulls; cardboard skeletons; tissue paper decorations; fruit and nuts; incense, and other traditional foods and decorations. All this bears a remarkable similarity to the goings on in Ballydehob – and all over Ireland – today: skeletons and skulls are very much in evidence!

So I’ll leave it up to you to wish all your family, friends and ancestors Oíche Shamhna Shona Daoibh! next time you are involved in Halloween activities. But remember, also, the ancient origins of this festival, and the fact that very much the same thing – honouring the ancestors and the coming of the dark time of the year – is being enacted all across the world at this time.

The Turning Year in Rossbrin

We are fortunate to live in a rural idyll: our immediate environment is immersed in the natural world. In fact, I suppose it is ‘Nature tamed’ – as we have pasture all around us as well as banks of gorse and rock: even a few trees which manage to cling on to the shallow soil all through the winter gales and (occasional) summer droughts. As the years go by we feel we become more closely entwined with the cycle of everything around us – we get to know personally the fox, pheasants and rabbits that pass by our window, and the myriad of birds that feed here, forage in the Cove or just show themselves to us on memorable occasions – Spioróg the Sparrowhawk is so handsome when she is resting on our terrace wall while on her deadly missions, and our choughs frequently perform wild dances in the air to entertain us. This year was special for me because, for the first time, I saw a hare amble around the house, alert with erect ears, before loping off into the next door field.

I have written about Rossbrin Cove many times before: look at A Moment in Time, Tide’s Out and Words on Roaring Water, for example. That sheltered natural harbour and the old mine road up on the hill above probably give us the most pleasure because we visibly see the year change and turn every time we walk there. Just now the days are rapidly shortening, and the autumnal influx of wading birds is returning. One we keep a particular eye out for is the curlew – a threatened breeding species here in Ireland. We see many on and close to the water, particularly at low tide, but these are probably migrants rather than resident breeders.

The year is turning – from late summer into early autumn, and the colours are changing from rich reds and purples – fuschia and heathers – to the more sombre yet equally attractive yellows and browns of furze and fern. Finola has closely followed the wildflowers right through from the spring – she is still finding and identifying every imaginable species – it’s a complete world of its own!

We have been seeing some exceptionally high and low tides here in Rossbrin. I’m always fascinated to see the mud-flats revealing bits of discarded history, while I am convinced that the huge remnants of dressed stonework on the north-east shore are the vestiges of once-busy quays, dating either from the medieval period, when Sir William Hull and the Great Earl of Cork owned the lands around here and set up thriving fish-processing ‘palaces’, or – at the latest – when the copper mines were active up on our hills and on Horse Island in the nineteenth century.

The real turning point comes at the end of October – Samhain – when the old calendar enters the ‘dark year’ (the ‘light year’ begins on May 1st –  Bealtaine). We know we have long, dark nights to come – time to huddle down by the stove – but there will be bright days as good as any in the year for walking, exploring and breathing in the Atlantic breezes. And the Rossbrin sunsets will be magnificent!

Snap-Apple Night

November - a time for Fire Festivals

November – a time for Fire Festivals

Hallowe’en is big in Ireland. It has always been celebrated and is, of course, an opportunity for children in wonderful spooky disguises to go out collecting sweets and treats. But this – the ‘Day of the Dead’, and traditionally the beginning of the winter – has generated far more elaborate customs than any I have encountered before. Have a look at this parade which takes place in Shandon, Co Cork.

The origins of Samhain (Oiche Shamhna in Irish) seem to be an old Irish festival marking the first day of winter and the ending of the farming year. All crops had to be in and safely stored – hay, potatoes, turnips, apples – and cattle and sheep were moved from mountain and moorland pastures and brought closer to the farmstead; milking cows were brought inside for the winter and feeding with stored fodder began. Turf and wood for the winter fires must have been gathered and dried. If fires were lit year-round – for cooking – they had to be allowed to go out for the one night and were then lighted again in the morning: this custom still survives in some Irish households.

Fire is an essential element in the festival. The word ‘bonfire’ is supposed to be derived from ‘bone fire’ – the burning of the bones of the animals slaughtered before the onset of winter once the meat had been prepared and preserved to keep the larder full through the cold bleak months to come. It’s no coincidence that in England bonfires are lit in early November to ‘remember’ Guy Fawkes and his plot to blow up the House of Lords in 1605: this was just a continuation of fire festivals that already happened then – and are still happening now. When I lived in Devon I came across (and took part in) traditions of pulling burning barrels through the streets (Hatherleigh) or carrying burning barrels through crowds of spectators (Ottery St Mary). West Country carnivals were common at this time of the year, and many were accompanied by flaming torches and fireworks. It has always seemed necessary to ‘lighten’ and warm the darkening year with fire.

Tar Barrels in Hatherleigh, Devon, 2012

Tar Barrels in Hatherleigh, Devon, 2012

November, from Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkes 1999:

‘…The Month opened with Snap-Apple Night and tales of púcas and little folk. From the rising of the moon on November Dark the mackerel would make their way to deeper water; it was the end of the seine season. With the crops all in and hill grazing finished, fires were set on the hills and preparations made for the winter. There was little employment for the months ahead…’

Snap-Apple Night by Irish painter Daniel Maclise, 1833

Snap-Apple Night by Irish painter Daniel Maclise, 1833

Continuing tradition - a modern Snap-Apple, by Coca Cola

Continuing tradition – a modern Snap-Apple, by Coca Cola

‘…The first game of the night was always ‘Snap-apple’ when an apple was hung from a beam in the kitchen and all the children took turns to ‘snap’ the apple. Sometimes the apples were put in a half barrel of water and you had to take one out with just your teeth, with your hands behind your back…’

Two Hallowe’en tales from Northside of the Mizen:

…One fine Halloween, Neddy Hodnett (Gurthdove) was crossing the land on the way back from scoriachting (visiting friends and neighbours), when he came across a Narry the Bog (a heron) at Hodnett’s Sleabh. He caught it and put it under his coat. Neddy knew that Dan Thade Coughlan was out scoriachting and he also knew what route across the fields Dan would take, so he hid in a beillic. It wasn’t long before Dan came from the east, and as he passed the beillic, Neddy knocked a screech out of the Narry. Dan leapt out of his skin with fright and with a roar he leapt over the ditch and away out of sight. Dan didn’t take long to arrive home and he told everyone he had met the devil himself, coming agin him! Dan did not leave the house, day or night, for a week…

The Púca of Knocnaphuca  …The old people would feed the Púca of Knocnaphuca on ‘Snap-apple Night’, or indeed, whenever one had a call to travel up the hill. It was the wise person that fed the Púca the night before going up. Milk and cake would be put on a plate and left outside the house and by the next morning the food had always gone!

The Púca of Knocnaphuca was half horse and half human. One late Snap-apple night there was a young lad out walking the road when he heard a strange, sweet music coming from the hill. He went up and saw the Púca playing on a whistle. As soon as the lad had put eyes on it, it stopped playing and caught him. Away the Púca went to the top of the hill, where a crack opened up in the rock. In they went. They went twisting and turning down through tunnels until the entered a chamber full of gold. “Now,” said the Púca, “you are mine!”…

The next morning the boy was found on the road by the Long Bog. His hair had turned white and he could not speak a word ever after…

I like Finola’s tradition for Samhain: making (and tasting) a Hallowe’en barm brack… Delicious!

barm brack

Autumn Comes to Roaringwater

leaves

Just as the leaves begin to turn, the gales have come to tear them away and send them flying all over the Bay. Autumn is bringing angry seas with wild white horses, while the trees on our exposed acre are bending sideways. I admire the small birds who manage to find their way to our bird-table in the face of it all: we have just been visited by a whole flock of ravenous Goldfinches who hang on to the wildly swaying feeders in a determined frenzy to fatten themselves up for the coming winter and squabble noisily with any Great-tits, Chaffinches or Robins who try to get in on the act.

Byway in Ballydehob

In Ballydehob (our local community) it’s time for the annual Thrashing. This event always takes place just before Hallowe’en, a festival which nowadays overlays the old Celtic Samhain (1 November) – when the souls of the departed are remembered. Here it’s a good time to bring in the threshing machine and lay up sacks of grain in the barn. It’s also a reason to hold a fair and show off vintage cars and tractors, to make butter, to watch performing dogs, to gamble on mouse racing – or just to chat over a cup of tea.

Byway in Ballydehob

Byway in Ballydehob

show

Don’t miss it!

fair

dog

thrashing

The Thrashing

mice

Mouse Bookie

We look forward to the turning seasons: what we see from Nead an Iolair changes constantly, is never dull, and can’t be taken for granted. Skies can be steel grey – or still as gloriously blue as they were in the summer; and our sunsets can be even more beautiful.

rwpan