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    Frank O'Mahony

    Halloween, of course, is yet another gift from Ireland to the US. You're welcome ;-]
    A night that rejoices with ghosts and lets darkness sing

    Rite and Reason: It's that time of year when ghouls prowl the land. Alan Titley looks at Samhain, or Hallowe'en, another of Ireland's gifts to America

    There was a time when people believed in spirits, as they believed in God. Banquo's ghost was as real to Macbeth as daddy Hamlet on the parapet was to his son.

    The pooka in the bog shivered more than your timbers, and the ghost in the machine moved the earth. The tide on Dover Beach has taken more than religion away in its going out, and has left plastic pumpkins, shrivelled monkey nuts and unscary Hollywood movies lonesome on the shore.

    Faith and superstition are yoked together like curds and whey, peaches and cream, nitty and gritty. The rituals of religion were celebrated in the tall towers of vaulting cathedrals, while the lowly beliefs of superstition played themselves out in field and kitchen.

    This season of the year's turning was one of the few times when the anarchic unregulated folk beliefs took precedence over the higher religion.

    Samhain was the beginning of the dark half of the year, while Bealtaine marked the start of the sun and the summer. Even if these do not accord with our own perception of things given global warming, George Bush, and the gobbling up of the earth's resources, we can still feel its validity.

    From now on in it is all darkness and wet, only alleviated by the jangling of Christmas bells, the shopping days left, the coming of Santa Claus (and Jesus).

    Before they turned on the lights, however, Samhain or Oíche Shamhna was truly scary. Ancient Irish custom had it that night preceded the day, which might explain something about our love of dullness and obscurity.

    On that night ghosts walked abroad, or more often right into your house. The dead arose and squeaked to many. People went to bed early and left the doors open so that the ghosts of their ancestors could come in and wander about. For some reason they forgot that they could conveniently walk through walls, spirit themselves through windows, or fly through flues.

    They left out food and drink much as parents do for Father Christmas, before they consume it themselves. They also left the fire blazing, which would now be contrary to insurance regulations, while inhaling the smoke will be banned from next year on.

    The games the people played before this are more difficult to explain. Trying to bite an apple floating in a tub of water was probably a coy way of getting young dirty urchins to wash their faces. Tricks of divination, like seeing your future partner through a glass darkly, gave hope to a rural population that wasn't always blessed with pulchritude.

    Looking for a pea in a barm brack tested ingenuity, given that the thing was made of all kinds of hard substances in the first place. People knew that "the otherworld" was not to be messed with, and one sort of ritual was probably as good as another.

    The Church copped on to this scam very early on and linked All Souls' Day with pagan Samhain. It was a good career move and disgruntled unsaved wandering sprites became holy souls. People, being unpicky by nature, would just as easily throw buckets of holy water around as put the left ear of a young brindled calf under their right armpit.

    What is less clear, is how this thoroughly green-deep Irish festival crossed the Atlantic and returned as Hallowe'en.

    It is good that this mystery remains as mystery is precious, and can also make money. The United States is a country founded by puritans, run by libertarians, and financed by buckaneers. Our own Samhain used to be celebrated with potato-based foods like boxty, steaimpí, and colcannon. These originally came from the American tuber, so maybe it is an early example of cultural exchange.

    We gave them pookas and they gave us potatoes.

    But return it did, proving once again that imagination crosses oceans while religion crawls from kirk to chapel. The ghosts of Samhain fly by the church. We may never see them in the water of the floating apple, or on the reflection of the burnished nut, but they are there as real as the words we speak that float insubstantially in the air.

    The words we speak create the ghosts that give us life and meaning. Our life and meaning only exist because of the ghosts who have walked through our doors and sat at our fires and listened to our gabble and watched us gobble the food that we should have left out for them.

    Samhain is our hallowed evening where we let the possibilities of the past and the fates of the future mingle and merge, where we dump the dogma, and open the head, and infuse the mind.

    Nothing succeeds like Samhain. This time of year we can behold it all. This time of year we can let the darkness sing and inclose ourselves in the winging of the night, in the sounds of silence, in the music of what never happens, in all the wanderings of the head in its mights and might nots.

    Every night is oíche Shamhna, and every night rejoices with ghosts.

    Alan Titley is a writer and scholar

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