Tricks and treats for the pooka
THE New York writer Pete Hamill, an old media friend from the Sixties, lived in Cuernavaca in the winter months. He had gone to Mexico initially on a magazine assignment to talk to John Huston and liked the mystery of this place in the shadow of the legendary volcano, Popocatapetl.
The locale of Cuernavaca is the setting of Malcolm Lowry's seminal novel, Under the Volcano (which Huston filmed in 1984 with Albert Finney), during which, on the ominous Dia de los Muertos – the Day of the Dead – the tragic alcoholic hero Geoffrey Firmin meets a particularly violent end, being pitched into a ravine, accused in a bar of being a communist and a homosexual. The killers throw a dead dog after him.
The story is set in the late Thirties, at the time of the Spanish Civil War, when such accusations, true or false, could end in acts of horror. Spain's great poet, Lorca, met a particularly terrible end.
The Day of the Dead has shadows of our own Samhain, now upon us in Ireland. It is an Aztec-rooted event of family remembrance which became assimilated into Christian practices, much as did our Celtic farm-time to mark the beginning of winter and also now remembering family dead, the 'holy souls'.
In Galicia, in northern Spain, and from where, I was once told, the family of "your Irish leader Edwardo Balera" originated, there are stories of witches living in the mountains.
I took a spooky trip over narrow winding roads to get to a refugio for the night, the wind sighing in the pine-dense slopes. In the villages, hanging outside shops like stuffed Pinochios, were witch effigies of cloth and wood, waiting for Hallowe'en purchasers.
In Ireland, there was the "pooka", a fearsome monster resembling, you heard, a horse foaming at the mouth, galloping on the back roads at night. "An rud a scriobh an puca leann se fein e" (what the pooka writes, the pooka can read) is a sean fhocal.
Such a spectre of the Underworld had to be kept at bay and poitin was the solution – a glassful would be pitched out the back door for it and other dark forces such as the Dullachain, 'Mongo Mango' and Muck Ulla (macalla: echo) which roamed about, with black goats, on this oidhe na h-aimleise or night of mischief.
Some young people, testing their mettle, would go about in noisy groups, blowing horns and banging pots to drive off unknown spooks. They would call at households on their travels and if unhappy at the hospitality offered, would play tricks such as opening gates, tipping water barrels and daubing animals with whitewash. These trick-or-treat practices crossed the Atlantic with the diaspora and became part of America's folklore.
Today's Irish children, dressing in witches' costumes and calling at neighbours' doors, may never have heard of the pooka and what they have learned of trick-or-treat has come from television. But some useful aspects of Samhain-time remain because, for farmers, it is a time of reckoning, paying rents and bills, attending to conacre (letting land).
I hope there is still some rural festivity with a roast piglet or "banbh Samhain" prepared for neighbours and friends while children 'duck' for apples and search for the ring in the barm brack.
It is good to keep up old customs. As for the poitin, well... perhaps that's best left for the pooka!