To celebrate Halloween we are sharing this exclusive ’Seeing Ghosts’ Samhain extract from In Sight of Yellow Mountain by Philip Judge. Swapping chasing lights for chasing cattle, this beautifully written book will have you scouring the property sections for country cottages.
My mother’s second husband was from Yorkshire, and when I moved there at the age of nine, I missed Halloween. October was not quite over and the date hadn’t passed, however I was extremely disheartened to discover that they didn’t really ‘do’ Halloween in this new place. It had been upsetting enough to leave my extended Irish family, and saying goodbye to my father was achingly sad, but this was too much. I had been promised that everything in England was going to be great but I began to have my doubts. I wanted to go home. I was reassured that there was a much better event in store – Bonfire Night! With hot dogs, baked potatoes, toffee apples and fireworks! This sounded attractive, and when I heard that they would be burning a ‘guy’ on the bonfire, they had my serious attention. I was unfamiliar with Guy as a Christian name and had never heard of Guy Fawkes. To my ears the plan seemed to be to burn a bloke. What bloke? And what had he done? And was it even a specific bloke? The talk was of ‘a’ guy, not ‘the’ guy. Did they just grab someone from the crowd and fling him on the flames? They don’t mess around in this country, I thought. They didn’t seem to have any nuns but it might be equally scary. I had better go along with this and see what happened.
As it turned out, the only roasted carcass I saw that first Guy Fawkes Night was that of a whole ox being barbecued on a spit in the local park. I had some in a bun – a succulent slice of hot beef with fried onions – I can still taste it. We joined the crowd gathered around a huge public bonfire. The flickering orange glow warmed our faces as our backs shivered in the dark. It was with a mixture of relief and disappointment that I realised the smoke-wreathed figure perched at the top of the flames was just a scarecrow and not a bloke at all, but I couldn’t really express any frustrated expectations because my jaws were gummed shut by slabs of Yorkshire toffee. And the fireworks were great. Bangers and sparklers were all that I had encountered before. I wondered why we hadn’t celebrated the fifth of November in Ireland. It was only when I got older, and I learnt the history of the Gunpowder Plot and its foiled attempt to assassinate a Protestant king, that I realised the symbolic burning of Catholics wouldn’t have been a crowd pleaser back where I came from – on most of the island, at any rate.
When I started at university in the south of England, I went with a group of other first years to a nearby town for Bonfire Night. We had heard they really knew how to do it there. It was an evening of fierce enjoyment, beginning with many pints of fine local ale, followed by much leaping over subsidiary bonfires which were scattered about the place and finally, a torchlight procession through the town to the main pyre. The culmination of the night was the ritual burning of an effigy of the pope. Which I thought made the point a little emphatically. I’d like to burn an effigy of a particular casting director.
Up at the farmhouse a few nights ago, we had an impromptu seasonal supper of colcannon and sausages followed by a barmbrack. These are traditionally Irish. We also had buckets of wine – which isn’t. The colcannon was a heartening, steaming dish of buttery mashed potatoes mixed with cabbage and scallions – deeply fortifying on a cold night. Barmbrack, or báirín breac more properly – someone once said ‘the Irish are great spellers but terrible pronouncers’ – is a speckled fruit loaf. Correctly made, it also contains little tokens which supposedly foretell the future of whoever gets them in their slice.
A ring signifies a wedding and a button means you remain unmarried; a coin promises wealth and bit of rag indicates poverty; and depending on the part of the country, a little chip of wood means either you will work hard till the day you die, or you will spend your life being beaten by your partner. Hoping to avoid either destiny, I didn’t want the last one and I was amused to get a button, which signifies that I will remain unmarried. The Beloved laughed when she got one too. We interpreted this as fate showing its approval of our continuing sinful cohabitation. We have never married and have no real wish to. I have found ways of expressing my love for her over the years, sometimes in poetry, and have never felt the need or desire to stage a ‘romantic’ proposal. Besides, I have a strong suspicion that if I dropped to one knee and offered her a ring, she would guffaw dismissively.
Nonetheless, many years ago we reached a stage in our relationship when we both knew we wanted to live our lives together and marriage was a word that was hovering listlessly about. So I casually mentioned it one day. We are both children of ‘broken homes’ – to use that silly, reductive cliché – and both our families have complex histories with a freight train’s weight of baggage. She pondered the word for a moment, looked at me and said, ‘Imagine the top table at our wedding.’ We both shuddered and dropped the subject. The boys raise the topic from time to time. Their current position is that neither of them wants a wedding because the Older Boy doesn’t want to wear a suit and Younger Boy ‘doesn’t want to see any smooching’ – although on reflection he declared that he might accept the idea if he could wear a kilt and carry a mace. But for the moment, the barmbrack has spoken.
Traditionally, there were many other things that ‘spoke’ at Samhain. Divination of some sort or other was widespread and various. My reading of signs in the night sky or the orchard is elementary and narrow compared to the inventiveness displayed by my forefathers. They could tell the future by which way a nut roasting in the fire jumped; or by the shape molten lead made as it dropped into cooling water; or by the pattern a snail’s trail made on a plate. And if a young woman ate a salted herring in three bites on that night she was sure to have a dream in which her future husband would be conjured up offering a glass of water. As a small boy, I knew for a fact that if you said your name backwards into a mirror at midnight on Halloween, the devil would appear over your shoulder. I also remember that every year in early November the same ‘news’ would circulate of a country dance that somebody’s relative had attended. At the height of the festivities a handsome dark stranger had appeared. He had laughed with all the men and danced with all the women. Everyone was having a fabulous time until someone noticed in the mad, jubilant crush that the charming outsider had cloven feet.
In a more pragmatic vein, forecasting the weather would have been useful in old rural communities, and there were many ways to do this. The direction of the wind at midnight on Samhain supposedly indicated the prevailing wind for the months to come, which seems to merely demonstrate the instinct of a good bookie. It was also possible to read the moon: a clear moon meant fair weather; a cloudy moon meant rain; and if the moon was obscured by rolling clouds, a storm was coming – which seems to me to be pretty bleedin’ obvious. Male Farmer Friend has proved himself to be notably accurate in anticipating changing weather and I was wondering how he did it. Was it the behaviour of his cattle in the field or the colour of the berries on the holly or the rowan? I imagined a deep-grained, intuitive country sense of the seasons at play. Over a pint one night he told me his secret – he logged on to the website of an amateur meteorologist in New Zealand.
The autumn breeze is shifting as I write, and the sky is darkened by ragged, wind-blown rooks. Above the hill they buffet, swoop and veer, cawing cacophonously. When Older Boy was a toddler, he described this noise as ‘crows laughing’. I find it a pleasing sound and it still reminds me of being a fresher at university. My first term in residence was spent living beneath the shelter of ancient elm trees. Standing in comparative isolation on the Sussex downs, they had survived the ravages of Dutch elm disease, which devastated the native English population of elms in the mid-twentieth century. I was very saddened to hear later that they had not withstood the great hurricane of 1987. When I knew them, each tree was a giant rookery. In my subconscious mind, the clamour of crows is associated with the start of the academic year, so that even now, as the earth seems to be withdrawing into itself, I have a vague sense of a new beginning. I must go and shoot something.
About the author
Philip Judge is an actor with many roles on television, film and theatre in Dublin and London. He lives – contentedly – in Wicklow with his Beloved and two small sons. This is his first book.