Saturday 24 February 2018

Cork prepares for this weekend's World Ghost Convention

As Cork prepares to host the World Ghost Convention, we talk to the organisers about our enduring fascination with ghouls, goblins and all things supernatural

Lore of the land: Dr. Margaret Humphreys of the Folklore & Ethnology Department, University College Cork outside Cork City Gaol, Cork ahead of the World Ghost Convention. Photo: Daragh McSweeney.
Lore of the land: Dr. Margaret Humphreys of the Folklore & Ethnology Department, University College Cork outside Cork City Gaol, Cork ahead of the World Ghost Convention. Photo: Daragh McSweeney.

Joe O'Shea

They were the stories your parents or grandparents told, of ghosts, banshees, the fairy folk and the restless spirits of the departed.

In rural Ireland especially (and up until relatively recently), the old traditions and superstitions involving the supernatural world still echoed in the shared folklore of families, towns and townlands.

But is there still a place for the supernatural in 21st century Ireland? A gathering of those fascinated by the spirit world this Halloween weekend will attempt to find out.

The 15th World Ghost Convention will take place in a scarily appropriate setting, the reputedly haunted, eerily atmospheric Cork City Gaol on the banks of the Lee.

Opened in the early 1820s, the prison in Sunday's Well (known to generations of Leesiders as 'The Women's Prison') has a haunted quality by day and can have a decidedly chilly, eerie atmosphere by night.

And while it has in recent years become a museum, popular visitor attraction and even a wedding venue, it is said to be haunted by a variety of spirits, including apparitions of the grey-clad women once incarcerated in its bare stone cells.

The gaol will be livelier than usual tomorrow evening as crowds gather for the Ghost Convention, now in its 15th year.

And while sceptics may scoff at those who choose to believe in angels, spirits and the supernatural, the organisers say all they expect from those in attendance is an open mind.

"I do believe there is still a very strong interest, you might say belief, in the supernatural world," says convention organiser Catherine Courtney.

"We have been going for 15 years now and we haven't seen any drop off in the level of interest. If anything, it's been growing."

Catherine says the convention attracts people from all walks of life, believers and sceptics, those who have delved deeply into the spirit world and others who may be just curious.

The Ghost Convention organiser also speculates that when it comes to wanting to believe in a spirit world, or of angels who watch over us, the motivations are very human.

"A lot of people who attend the convention, they will have lost people who were close to them, and I think they find it a comfort to believe that there is something beyond this world," she says.

"There is also that need for shared experiences, to feel that we are not alone, that there are connections to others, both the living and the dead. And that those who have gone before us perhaps look over us. We would like to believe that ghosts or spirits are our friends.

"We know so much about this world now, but there is so much more to discover. I think it is important to keep an open mind."

Perhaps surprisingly, Catherine says, she has not had a supernatural experience herself ("not yet anyway!") but if any place in Ireland is a rich environment for ghosts, it is the old gaol.

"We have had people who have come to the convention in the gaol and say they have seen ghosts. One year, there were two ladies who had taken a break to have a smoke outside and when they were coming back in, they saw a man who passed through a closed door.

"And we had another report of people seeing women, dressed in grey uniforms, descending from the roof of the goal on to the convention audience."

The prospect of apparitions aside, the convention will hear from a range of speakers, including Dr Margaret Humphreys of the Folklore and Ethnology Department, University College Cork. Dr Humphreys has studied Ireland's rich folklore, our tales of banshees and fairy folk, throughout her career. And it is an ancient lore which she fears is quickly being lost.

"There was a time when most families, especially in rural areas, would have had these stories, of fairy folk, fairy castles, spirits at the crossroads and so on," says Dr Humphreys.

"Sadly, I think in this age of mass communication, when we are not so isolated as we once were, out on the edge of the world, so to speak, that tradition has been lost. It has all happened very quickly.

"In times not long past, maybe nine out of 10 people would have believed in the fairy folk, in piseogs or superstitions. Today it might be one in a hundred, and even they probably wouldn't talk to you about it."

Dr Humphreys will be giving a talk at the convention, about the sensitivity of family pets to a death in the house.

She says the tradition of cats or dogs either being aware of an approaching bereavement or affected by one after it has happened has long been a part of Irish folklore.

"There is something about the sensitivity of animals to death that I think our ancestors were very well aware of.

"And I have seen it with my own eyes, how a death in the family can have a very strong effect on the animals in the house".

Dr Humphreys says that as a folklorist, the tales and traditions that we may have lost within a generation are fascinating. And as an academic, she likes to keep an open mind.

"Just to take the case of family pets and death, there seems to be some other force at work. We are not one hundred per cent sure about the next world. How could we be?"

The 15th International Ghost Convention takes place in the Old Gaol, Cork City, tomorrow

Irish Independent

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