Missing the active engagement he had with Halloween as a child, Caomhan Keane stalked his way through some Samhain- themed events
For ancient folk, October 31st- and indeed December 25th, were dates imbued with significant agricultural importance. For me, growing up, they marked points of escape from the humdrum of the school year into festivities dripping in drink, treats and observed customs.
But as the spawn of baby boomers, we are the first generation of childers to be born unto those who have, by and large, cast out Christ in favor of consumerism.
Dressing up as a slutty spook sloshed on drink promotions has become a poor substitute for that feeling of being genuinely connected to the season we are celebrating. Halloween — or Samhain for those of us more attuned to the festival’s gnarling roots — is the pagan new year. Bastardised first by the Christians, then by the Yanks, in Celtic times it marked the end of summer and the beginning of winter —a season associated with the cold…and death.
So on October 31, when the veil between this world and the next was at its weakest, demons crossed over from the beyond and extracted their revenge on those they felt scorned by, carrying you or yours back to hell with them. Masks were adorned to keep us safe, while druids bedecked in animal skin performed sacrifices around huge bonfires to ward off those passed, from damaging our crops or the fruit of our loins. Animals and sometimes even humans were set alight and turnips were hollowed out and illuminated with coal, placed before the homestead to frighten away phantoms who may try to darken the door (with fruit and nuts placed beside them in an effort to placate the ghouls).
All of this was exported on coffin ships to the States and sold back to us in the 20th century via elasticated masks, mass-produced home decor and a diabetes-bating consumption of candy — with preening pumpkins passing out our spine-chilling swede as the pyromaniac veg of the season.
But even that tenuous link seems to have been passed up, with nothing more hellish than a hangover entreating on us over what’s now become just another long weekend. Surely the country that gave the world Dracula can still provide some seasonal jollies?
The mountains that loom above the capital are as good a place as any to start and I board a coach provided by Walking Tours Dublin to ascend to The Hellfire Club. Nowhere in Ireland has a murkier history. Built with the rocks of a megalithic tomb the Church said contained the devil’s spirit, the hunting lodge was once host to a bacchanal that accelerated from sex, drink and gambling to Satanism, sacrifice and blasphemy.
Giant firs loom above us as we scale the hill in darkness and are told of the giant flesh eating rats said to have eaten a little girl whole — a lie perpetuated by the rich young men who founded the club to hide the more horrifying activities from the public.
Architecturally built for darkness, the house has witnessed plenty of it over the years. As we shuffle around its black we’re informed of the servants who were doused in whiskey and set aflame; the dwarf hung and garroted; and the fires of hell that terrified villagers saw rolling down the mountain in the middle of the night (in fact agonised cats, doused in tar and immolated).
There’s a slaughter-stone where gardaí have found the innards of cats, dogs and sheep; an exposed agricultural dig that discovered an ancient passage way and- while I wouldn’t put it past the tour company to have set the candles up in a circle in one of the rooms, I’d like to think that they weren’t responsible for the freshly slaughtered bird whose semi-charred carcass was found in a corner.
The tour is a goldmine for information on the areas continued use as a human dumping ground. Some studies pointing to an increase in activity around the full moon that follows Pagan holidays. I plan to return later to take in the creepy ambience of the area with a group less likely to ward off spirits with selfie-sticks and shrieks of laughter.
Dublin Walking Tours also do a Gravedigger Bus Tour, which starts at Trinity College Dublin, or the Augustinian Priory as it was known during the plague, where those infected were locked up inside its consecrated walls. This was to prevent victims of the highly contagious disease from trying to jump in the cities water supply to bathe their agonizing wounds.
You’ll also visit Hell —as it was known, where, in the consecrated grounds of St Auden’s Church, we learn the true but little known Dolocher story, Ireland’s own Jack the Ripper, a man bedecked in pig skin who assaulted women of the night, after purportedly escaping the hangman’s noose.
At Farmaphobia in Causey Farm, as part of the Spirit of Meath festival, traditional fears are replaced with more modern and immediate ones, as chainsaw-wielding zombie clowns chase you through cornfields and leap out at you wielding knives.
High above the farm, however, is the Hill of Ward, or Tlachtgha — where in Celtic times the druids assembled on Samhain to draw the spirits away from the local population and control them. To this day, druids continue to gather there. On Halloween night Wiccans recreate The Legend of Tlachtga, the witch who gave the hill its name, whose rape begot triplets.
As Tlachtga was a fertility goddess barren women made a pilgrimage to the site each Halloween and sacrificed the children of their slaves in the hopes their spirits would be impregnated within them. It’d be hard not to think of that as by oil-torch light you make your way up the hill, observing the druidic rituals en-route.
There are many sites around Ireland that are believed to be portals to another dimension such as The Cave of Cats in Roscommon. While forgotten by most of us, those who dabble in the black arts often frequent them during particular moon cycles to perform rituals.
You don’t have to summon forth the spirits yourself to have a run in with those who have passed on. Paranormal Researchers Ireland is a not-for-profit group who provide private consultations for people who are worried that their house is haunted. “Usually we just provide peace of mind and debunk it,” Tina Barcoe , the founder tells me. “It’s usually just pipes expanding due to the heat, or a draft. When people feel like someone is holding them it could be ‘black hag’ syndrome, where you mind wakes up before your body.
“But we have encountered other phenomena that our specialised equipment- such as temperature gauges, Electro Magnetic Field devices and EDI meters, can’t explain, such as low voices as frequencies inaudible to the human ear, weird vibrations or heat signatures.
PRI will be discussing their work as part of the Horror Expo taking place in the Freemasons Grand Lodge this Sunday. A full day dedicated to the world of horror, which merges the analyses of academia with the passion of fandom, it will end with a midnight candlelit viewing of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, where the gilded frames, black and white tiles, and suits of armor are sure to exacerbate the movies theme of the occult.
“Horror probes societal issues more than any other genre,” founder Sarah Cleary tells me when asked about its continuing allure. “From the threat of the H-Bomb in the 50s, the excessive violence of Vietnam in the 70s, the extreme consumerism of the 80s and the present day sense of a coming apocalypse, Horror makes you feel like you’re alive by drawing a visceral sense from your skin, your stomach before leaving a lasting impact on your brain.”
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