In celebration of Halloween I’m reposting a few ghostly tales I wrote many years ago. Halloween was always a big event in the calendar when I was growing up. It wasn’t about throwing money at celebrations but about old traditions that have been practised for generations. We always had a bonfire and began building this a good two weeks before Halloween, changing quickly in the evenings out of school uniforms into wellies and old sweaters to search the hedges and local farmyards for scraps of anything that could be chucked into the stack.
Central to the our celebrations on Halloween night was the barmbrack or báirín breac. This is a bread sweetened with sultanas and other dried fruits and it would be made a day or so ahead of Halloween. The excitement was around the supposed fortune-telling powers of the breac. Inside the mix there was a ring and when it was sliced whoever got the slice with the ring was said to get married within the year. Please remember we didn’t have Netflix in those days! My gran followed this tradition to the letter and added more to her bread mix, as the breac should contain: a piece of cloth (questionable hygiene issues there), a pea, a coin and a ring. Each item would carry a different fate for whoever received it. The pea meaning no marriage (the horror!), the rag meant poverty waited, the coin meant fortune and the ring, as mentioned, marriage.
Anyway, here a few little tales as they might have been told to me as a child. We don’t hold back on the horror in Ireland!
My daughter was coming to visit from Clare and I had thought to get to town and collect a joint from the butcher to have after the mass on the Sunday. On the way to Killmallock there’s a part of the road where two gates face one another and as I walked to the town I saw a black dog come out of one of the gates. And there he stopped in the middle of the road and looked straight at me before disappearing through the other gate. I went home for I know that a dog like that is the devil. Any black dog crossing between two gates is a sign of the devil and I didn’t go to town sure that I had been warned.
The black dog has long been thought of as a bad omen in old folklore and superstitions. Seen as a portent of death or in some tales as a form that the Christian devil will take, the black dog is a giant animal, sometimes reported to have red eyes and a shining coat. The superstition still survives today and sadly can affect the adoption of black animals from sanctuaries, a phenomenon known as Black Dog Syndrome.
My neighbour’s cousin, by the name O’Neill, lived in a village outside Tralee. He had a good few neighbours, but never paid much mind to stories about her as he had lived a good while and had not heard nor seen her. And when his wife got the sickness, there was left at his door many things from other people to keep her away. Even though he did not believe in such things, he took the offerings in and put them up around the house, just in case, for he did not want to invite bad luck by burning them – one of the things was a rabbit’s foot. Then one morning, he found a silver comb by his door. He brought it inside and showed it to his wife, and she told him that he should not have picked it up for it was the banshee’s comb. She told him to take the comb and bury it under the hawthorn tree in the back garden and then the banshee would not come. But the man did not and when the priest visited the next day, he found both the man and the wife dead within the house.
The banshee is another portent of death and has often been seen with a comb that she runs through her hair. In Irish Folklore it is said that a comb found on the ground is the banshee’s and whoever picks it up will bring the banshee to him.
The children used to throw sticks into his yard but he never came after them and they knew not to look at him. Then one day, a farmer was ploughing the field that came up the back of the man’s house and the plough became stuck on a piece of stone and he saw the man in the yard and he called to him for help. And the man came well enough and helped move the plough but as he left he said that the horse was a fine one and did not say ‘God Bless you’ and three days later the farmer was dead. For the man was known to have the evil eye and everyone knew not to talk to him for if he bade you good day he would not mention the Lord’s name and three days past something evil would befall you or you would die.
In rural Ireland, there were many stories in the late 19th century and later, that reported individuals as having the ‘evil eye’. The superstition stemmed from earlier folklore that the sidhe or faeries could take people away and when they were returned they were never themselves and could pass bad luck with a glance. Anyone who paid a compliment and failed to leave the conversation with the appropriate blessing (God bless you) was treated with suspicion. A compliment or greeting given without this blessing was deemed the equivalent of casting a curse on someone. This twist in the folklore was undoubtedly influenced by the developing power of the church in Ireland. However, Christianity could not completely wipe out the superstition and pagan-like traditions in the Irish communities as the remedy involved to remove said curse was to be spat on or to obtain the spit from the person who paid the compliment.
Olivia Kiernan is author of novel, Too Close to Breathe which contains its own Halloween scene! For UK/IRE you can check it out here: TOO CLOSE TO BREATHE
For US you can find it here: TOO CLOSE TO BREATHE
And can find many more purchase links to your favourite book stores by clicking ‘BOOKS’ in the menu.
Follow on Twitter: @LivKiernan