Regina Phoenix-Burns: reginapb@up.edu via ‘class of 18’ mailing list

Sun, Oct 28, 16:58 AM (5 days ago)

Subject: Happy Halloween!

Class,

Welcome to the holiday with more names than any other. Whether you choose Allhallows or All Souls’ Day, Pangangaluluwa, or plain old Hallowe’en (with or without the apostrophe), the season of the witch is upon us.

halloween moon.jpg

Yesterday an unseasonal heat wave held sway, but we awoke today to a cold snap. Now rain is pelting the conservatory in which I write.

It’s the time of year I try to get you into the swing of things (pun skillfully avoided) with my list of the best horror from the past twelve months: films, books, comics—anything with an overabundance of black and red on the cover. But this year I’m going to tell a story of my own, one which is a good illustration of what we’ve been focusing on this term.

****

A cat has started to appear at the end of our garden. He must be a stray wandering in from the woods behind our arboretum; a big, black creature with slate-grey eyes and a broken tail. He hasn’t yet made it across the bridge to the main lawn, but he gets a little braver every day. I’ve decided to try to tempt him inside by Thanksgiving.

Will has taken such a dislike to the animal that he calls the dear thing ‘Satan’, so I ought to be careful. I don’t want to implicate myself in any accusations of witchcraft.

Satan’s timely appearance has put me in mind of an obscure scrap of Will’s family folklore. A legend of old Ireland, dating back around five-hundred and fifty years, at a time when Halloween didn’t exist.

In its stead is the pagan festival Samhain. One of the final harvest festivals before winter, when the veil between worlds begins to taper and retreat; a good time to honour the departed. Often an extra place is set at the dinner table for the spirits of ancestors drifting through the township apportioning approbation or retribution.

Sometimes a wily aes síthe crosses over from the other side, the deadlands. To let loose one of these late gods of old is to provoke chaos. So, tomorrow the dwellers on the shores of Loch Iascaigh, in what is now called County Donegal, will burn their wicker man; the climax of a week of fire ceremonies to appease vengeful spirits, and to cleanse the settlement of its maudlin atmosphere.

But tonight, there are other things to burn.

****

Here is Oonagh Kirk, and here is her husband, Ailill Byrnes. Just as they did five months ago on Lá Bealtaine, the couple are partaking in an ancient custom dating back to the time of the druí and, at this moment, they are dousing the fire in the hearth at Oonagh’s farmhouse.

They wear colourful cotehardies; she in green, he in bright red. She is older than him, almost an old maid in her bonnet. Her eyes are plain and earnest, but tonight they glitter with secret knowledge and dark intent.

irish witch.jpg

They have left their infant son in the charge of one of their servant girls and now, arm in arm, they make their way through the settlement towards the lake’s westernmost shore, laughing in delight at the mummers who cavort in the streets.

Ailill is tall, serious and reserved, and rarely meets peoples’ eyes. His face is marked by several deep, diagonal scars. The couple gather, along with the rest of the township around an enormous bonfire which sends sparks fifty feet into the night sky; an inferno twice as big as the settlement’s largest house. Whereas Oonagh shrinks from the flames, Ailill is enraptured. He jabs in his torch and the kindling glows and cracks like bones. Oonagh sees her husband’s eyes sparkle as he extracts the burning wood, holding the communal flame as if to let it go out would be to end a life.

Tradition dictates that each household will carry a burning torch back home to light their own fire. But tonight, Ailill Byrnes will not put the flame to the waiting tinder. Oonagh has other plans.

****

In the basement of Ó Néill and McLoughlin Solicitors’ law offices in Donegal is a metal trunk packed with documents dating from the Thirteenth Century to the early two-thousands. Will’s family archive; several ornate antique bibles, uncountable birth and death certificates, letters, diaries, land deeds; thousands and thousands of rotting papers. A comprehensive family history. But when I visited their offices last year I was after information on one person: Oonagh Kirk, murderer, heathen and witch, accused of the desecration of a Samhain fire ceremony, as well as the murder of her family.

I first heard of Oonagh at my mother-in-law’s funeral, but soon discovered Will was hesitant to talk about her. As a woman, as a fan of the gothic, and as someone who strives for the truth, I was desperate to know more. It’s not every day you hear of a convicted witch in your in-laws’ past.

By the end of my research I’d pieced together a workable life history of Oonagh Kirk using the small number of existing documents concerning her: a birth record and death certificate, the transcript of her trial, and three written depositions: accusations of witchcraft. Then there were the marriage and death certificates of her husband, and a witness report from the discoverers of Ailill’s corpse.

****

Oonagh Kirk was born in 1432. She spent her life working on the family farm, taking over its running after the death of her father, before marrying Ailill Byrnes in 1466.

Of Oonagh’s husband we know little. She describes their meeting in the trial transcript:

Making my way back to the farmstead, when the night’s mouth was bit deep into the neck of the land, heard his footsteps and then turned, did I. First thing I see is that queer grin. A crooked grin so it was, like he had quarrelled with a gryphon. But his eyes stopped me from my scream. Wonderous, golden blue eyes. They fair put me in a dream.

T’is the season to hurry along if footsteps approach behind you, so of what possessed me in turning, I know not. But we were wed the next week.


“But tonight, there are other things to burn.”


On the day before the wedding, a woman named Éabha from a settlement at the nearby An Bearnas Mór, accused Oonagh of necromancy. She insisted Oonagh’s fiancé was Donnán Ó Floinn, recently deceased, old man Ó Floinn having run over his son’s head with a plough.

Oonagh had a clear motive in magicking herself a zombie husband, insisted Éabha, given that a marriage would help disprove the longstanding rumours of witchcraft bubbling around her.

Nevertheless, Oonagh Kirk was wed the following day, and nine months later she gave birth to Ultan Byrnes, the son she would destroy.

****

Stories of witchery dogged Oonagh throughout her life. Several of the rumours were expounded upon at her trial, such as the reported sighting of Oonagh conversing with bats. Whenever she had been witnessed doing this, runs the deposition, the next day’s weather would be suspiciously clement. Proof positive that Oonagh consorted with the powers of darkness.

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