Sunday 18 November 2018

County Matters: Spooky sounds of old Hallowe'en

SEAN NOS: Bobbing for apples. Stock picture
SEAN NOS: Bobbing for apples. Stock picture

Joe Kennedy

So far I have not noticed a street seller of hot chestnuts who operates from a two-stroke motorised vehicle in a familiar town in southern Portugal.

The one-man vending vehicle incorporates a brazier of red-hot charcoal which wafts appetising aromas on the afternoon air. You wait your turn for a paper packet of nuts, while he chats to regular customers. The tasty morsels are worth the couple of euro that change hands.

It's hard to imagine such a business operating in Dublin because of health and safety issues - but chestnut vendors may be seen in other locations across Europe and, of course, in New York city, where I had my first sample many years ago.

New York is home to an old writing friend, Pete Hamill, whom I remember at Hallowe'en time once telling me about El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, Mexico's spooky time of remembering ancestors. Pete had gone to Cuernavaca (where he subsequently lived for a time) to interview John Huston who was making a movie of Malcolm Lowry's seminal novel, Under the Volcano. The story is about an alcoholic diplomat who meets a gruesome end on that particular day of death, being thrown into a ravine from a bar following a row about politics: it is the time of the Spanish Civil War.

The book is a classic, the film not all that well remembered. Albert Finney played the unfortunate hero.

The Day of the Dead is rooted in Aztec culture and was assimilated into Catholic tradition as much as the Celtic feast of Samhain, the agricultural sign of the beginning of winter, in Ireland, and remembering the departed at All-Saints, All-Souls, a significant date in the religious calendar.

Hallowe'en has become a sanitised activity these days and perhaps that's understandable but older traditions still linger on in parts of Europe. In Galicia, a province of Spain and a Celtic place with its own language, resting on the shoulder of Portugal, you will hear of witches living in mountain forests and see cloth and wood effigies of them hanging outside shops in country villages.

I remember a spooky journey over narrow mountain roads heading for a hotel, a former convent, and hearing strange sounds before dawn of "hoo-hoo", "hoo-hoo" which I learned was an eagle owl (bubo bubo), a large bird whose calls may be heard from up to 5km away.

In Ireland, the most terrifying of the spooky creatures was the Pooka, foaming at the mouth as it galloped the roads, and which could be mollified by a glass of poitin pitched out the back door! A drop of the ''cratur'' was also acceptable by other dark forces such as Mungo Mango, the Dullachain and Muck Ulla (macalla, an echo) on this "oidhe na h-aimleise" or night of mischief.

Young people went about banging pots and pans and blowing horns as they called to farms for little gifts. This all went to America with emigration and became ''trick-or-treat'' and returned via television.

Today's Irish youngsters who paint their faces, dress up and call at neighbours' houses, are not scared of meeting the Pooka because they probably have never heard of it. Perhaps that's just as well. There are enough horrors on the loose on the streets as it is.

Sunday Independent

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