Tuesday 6 December 2016

Tricks, treats and seriously good myths

Joe Kennedy

Published 30/10/2016 | 02:30

Dress up: A little girl having fun trick or treating Photo: Depositphotos
Dress up: A little girl having fun trick or treating Photo: Depositphotos

"Yo-ho, McCullagh!", Uncle Benny would exclaim, rolling a sleeve, wiping hands, readying for action with a chainsaw.

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He was an uncle to many nieces and nephews and their families, a guide and helper, man of fishing, rabbiting and ferreting, a fount of rural knowledge. The McCullough, I used to assume, was the maker's name on the chainsaw and that Benny was invoking good luck, sharp teeth and a true eye for the task at hand which was usually cutting timber on a 'cripple' or tackling a crooked tree jutting out of a ditch.

Much later, in another part of the country, I learned that McCullough was a phonetic rendering of the Irish word for an echo, macalla, which, if uttered loudly enough in a particular spot, could be heard on the wind in the bend of a road, the shape of a hill. I never knew where Benny had picked it up, but it may have been in the local vernacular, handed down from when Irish had been spoken.

This came later in my rural education with the flotsam and jetsam of a lifetime's sack-full of countryside sweepings. But 'Macalla' evolved into a spooky creature in some places, turning up, according to the folklorist Kevin Danaher, among the bogeymen wandering the roads in lonely places on All Souls' Night.

The most terrifying of these creatures was undoubtedly the Pooka, a monster resembling a horse foaming at the mouth. A seanfhocal went: "An rud a scriobh an puca leann se feing e" (What the pooka writes the pooka can read). Such a spectre of the Underworld had to be mollified and one surefire solution in the Nephin country of Mayo was a glass of the clear spirit pitched out the back door.

A drop of newly-distilled poitin was also accepted by other dark forces such as the Dullachain, Mungo Mango (in Ring, Co Waterford) and the aforementioned Macalla ("Muck Ulla") which would be wandering along the roads on this "oidhe na h-aimleise" or night of mischief. Young people would also be out, testing their courage blowing horns and banging pots. If they were unhappy at your greeting you might expect some gestures of frustration with doors being tied from outside, water barrels tipped or domestic animals daubed with whitewash!

This 'trick-or-treat' blackmail went to America with the diaspora and became one of that nation's traditions. These days, Irish children who dress up and call to neighbours for treats, have probably never heard of the pooka or macalla and what they know of Halloween or Samhain has been picked up from TV.

In Galicia, a SpanishCeltic place with its own language, resting its head on a shoulder of Portugal, you will be told of witches in the forests and see hanging outside village shops witch effigies of wood and cloth, like Pinocchios. I made a spooky trip over winding roads, the wind sighing in the pines, a former convent eventually manifesting out of the gloom to take in weary travellers. There were sounds from the darkness, especially a cry before dawn of "hoo-ho", "hoo-ho" from a great eagle owl (bubo bubo) which can be heard echoing its own macalla from up to 5km off, something that would have impressed Uncle Benny.

Joe Kennedy was writing from Portugal.

Sunday Independent

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