The pooka's night of mischief
IN Galicia, the northern province of Spain, which rests, like a lost brother, on the shoulder of Portugal, and is the native place of Franco and, one informant had it, of the family of Eduardo Balera (Dev to us), there are witches living in the mountains.
I recall a long, spooky journey over winding tracks to reach a hotel which had once been a religious refugio. In the towns, hanging like stuffed Pinocchios outside shops, were colourfully crafted witch effigies in wood and cloth, all ready for Halloween.
On Dia de los Muertos, Geoffrey Firmin, tragic hero of Malcolm Lowry's seminal novel Under the Volcano, meets a violent end having been dragged from a Mexican bar and thrown into a ravine along with a dead dog. This Day of the Dead is an Aztec-rooted ceremony of ancestral remembrance which became assimilated into Catholic practice much as did the Celtic festival of Samhain, the marking of the beginning of winter in ancient Ireland.
We used hear about the pooka, a dark and fearsome monster sometimes resembling a horse foaming at the mouth galloping on the night roads. One man who came from the shadow of Nephin in Mayo had a story of the pooka and poitin, a dangerous combination, one would imagine. His mother used pitch a glass of the fiery stuff out the back door at midnight on Halloween for the monster, encouraging him to gallop off.
There would be other dark forces floating about, such as the headless Dallachain, Mongo Mango (reputedly a west Waterford denizen) or the Muck Ulla (macalla or echo) with black goats roaming about on this oidhe na h-aimleise or night of mischief.
One custom was that groups of young people, banging pots and pans and blowing horns, would go about confronting the unknown on country lanes, visiting cemeteries at midnight to collect stones to prove their mettle! These brave bands would also call on households seeking food and drinks and if there was no hospitality forthcoming, tricks would be played -- gates left open or lifted off hinges, water barrels tipped over, doors tied from the outside and animals daubed with whitewash or paint.
And there you have the origins of Trick-or-Treat, an American institution at Halloween, which crossed the Atlantic in the mass immigrations of centuries past.
Today's Irish children who dress up in spooky costumes, have their faces painted and ring on neighbours' doorbells, may never have heard of the pooka or Mongo Mango. They have been conditioned by television. It is Halloween returned to haunt us!
But the roots of Samhain remain in that for the farming community it is a time of reckoning, bill paying and such matters as attending to conacre, the letting of land.
This beginning of winter used to be marked by some festivity also, after attending the more solemn duties of prayers for the faithful departed. The folklorist Kevin Danaher recorded that banbh Samhain or roast piglet used be served up for friends and neighbours, a delightful custom which I hope has not disappeared. So let the children duck for apples and seek the ring in the barm brack and let the adults tuck into the banbh and crubeens. But no poitin, if you please. Leave that for the pooka!