Saturday 24 March 2018

Galloping monsters and some rural trickery

THEY looked like sweet chestnuts shed from mature trees in an older Dublin suburban street.

There were the spiky balls with nuts within, but these fruits were not a patch on those in the thick woods of mountainous Galicia in Spain, or from some historic trees in Gloucestershire, also surely planted by the Romans. (One of these, at Tortworth, is reckoned to be more than 1,000 years old.) The Irish trees, local authority landscaping, were Tunisian hazels (corylus colure), and the nuts within are called constantinoples.

Wherever the Roman legions marched through Europe the sweet chestnut accompanied them, with polenta from the kernels providing useful sustenance.

Street sellers of hot chestnuts, especially at this Hallowe'en time, may be active abroad but I can't remember ever seeing toasting braziers on a Dublin street corner. The shadows of Samhain, the Celtic farm-time to mark the beginning of winter and to remember family departed and the Holy Souls, is upon us. In parts of rural Spain effigies of witches hang outside shops and the locals may talk of real witches in the pine-dense slopes of the countryside.

Ireland has its own traditions of spooky creatures but nowadays there would be little knowledge of the pooka, our own particular frightener, said to wander on dark nights.

This was a fearsome monster resembling a horse foaming at the mouth galloping along back roads.

"An rud a scríobh an puca leann sé fein é", (what the pooka writes, the pooka can read) is some type of threatening sean-fhocal.

In Mayo, this creature was kept pacified with a draught or two of poitin, that powerful home remedy to cure all ailments! On All Souls night the woman of the house would pitch a glass of the 'cratur' out the back door to keep the galloper moving. There were other dark forces such as the Dullachain, Mungo Mango and Muck Ulla (macalla: echo) in Munster that were abroad on this oiche-na-haimleise or Night of Mischief.

You might know about such divils and about how young folk years ago went about after dark at Halloween making plenty of noise to keep them away. Boys and girls would travel in groups, shouting, banging pots, blowing horns, visiting cemeteries at midnight, calling at houses seeking a welcome - and if dissatisfied, playing tricks such as tying doors, tipping over water barrels or daubing animals with whitewash. There you have the origins of the American trick-or-treat .

Irish children who call with painted faces are conditioned by TV rather than native folklore. They probably have never heard of the pooka. But some old customs could be revived such as the banbh Samhain (roast piglet) to be offered along with barm brack. Family home from America can roast the chestnuts - and the poitin, if it's about, is probably best left for the pooka!

Sunday Independent

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