Samhain….a brilliant time to begin a story, or a blog about the story of Place (more on that shortly). In Ireland, the winter season (Samhain to Bealtaine) was and is the time for seanchas; the time when the seanchaí share their wisdom over a pint or near a turf fire. In fact, it was and is taboo to tell stories in summer. Why? Well, why would you want to be indoors when the day lingers like a kiss and the sun delays her journey, making way for exploits? But, let’s get back to beginnings.
I celebrate secular Hallowe’en like those around me; with carved pumpkin, candy, and costume. It’s a festival ripe with otherness, and i love decorating for the children. Samhain, on the other hand, is the time of my Ancestors, of petition and of looking. I honour this Gate between the astronomical date (which fluctuates) and the New Moon. This year, the cross-quarter day fell on the 6th of November, and I now look toward the New Moon on the 13th.
As happens during times of was and is, there is often a dangerous journey, where you encounter amazing figures, and confront moments of choice. Now, if it please those listening, I want to tell you a story of Place; the story of one of the Three Great Caves of Ireland: Oweynagat – mouth of the Other-world, at Rathcroghan.
My friend Crow was here from Texas, and she and I thought it wonderful to journey on the cross-quarter day, from Cork – through the midlands, to Roscommon. In truth, our aim was to find Sheebeg in Leitrim, view the world through Fionn’s eyes (or at least his big bronze statue), and then head back toward Cork, stopping at the Cave of the Cats on our way. But in those times of was and is, plans rarely happen as we imagine.
The distance from my cottage to Carrick-on-Shannon is roughly 170 odd miles. Accounting for Irish backroads, and the small villages one must drive through when using those roads, the journey should be no more than a reasonable 3-4 hours. Well, after 5 hours of non-stop driving, we reached Carrick in need of food. We dined overlooking the mighty Shannon as Light quickly departed the sky, and with it, our hope of visiting Sheebeg before dusk.
After our meal, we set-off: reasonable directions in hand. We turned this way and then that, back-up and that way and then this. Remarking, “Ok, we have had to turn around twice now. That’s our quota for this adventure.” Up to Keshcarrigan and back, back to Keshcarrigan and out. After 2 hours and still no Sheebeg, we turn our faces, in the now PITCH DARK, and head toward Oweynagat.
Handily enough we arrive at the cave, see a hedgehog waddle across the lane, park our car and don our outer-gear: boots, wet pants and jacket – we have also remembered our torch (which is another story…that time we mounted Tara at Samhain, in the deep darkness of a storming night without a torch). Past the stile the ground is a foot deep in mud and cattle track. Fitting, somehow, for Maeve’s kingdom and her lust for cattle. We move through the pasture, raising our legs high. The mud sticks and holds us. A sucking sound released as our feet escape.
I shine the torch into the low opening and dive; head first I slide into the outer chamber. I feel the first touch of cold earth against me. Wet. My fingers reach to steady myself and are covered in liquid mineral. Every surface a dripping ooze on hard bone. The torch is now smeared, christened, and I need to use my hands for the next descent – so its slender gritty coldness goes in my mouth, between my teeth – hoping there was no cow poop in that mud.
Into the next chamber I slither. Inching further down and then turning, so my friend can see the way. Naturally, we have only one torch. After the third section we reach the round bottom. We situate ourselves on flat rocks, settle and breathe. Then I switch off the light.
In the deep dark of an Irish cave at Samhain, the story of Nera runs through my mind: carrier of the dead and discoverer of plots.
One Samhain night, while feasting with the other warriors, Nera accepted a challenge to go out into the dark and place a withe around the ankle of a dead man. Two had been hung that day at Cruachan, and either would do for the dare. It was a dreadful night, full of horror and whispers. Nera went out, in the shivering dark, to place the withe; once, twice, thrice – but it sprang off each time.
Then the dead man spoke.
He told Nera how to make the withe stay, and Nera certainly took the advice. Then the dead man asked his favor in turn….he wanted to be placed on Nera’s back so he could get a drink of water.
A dead man on his back? What else could he do, he had taken the advice.
The corpse hung on Nera’s neck as he was taken through the night to the first house, “Oh, I can not enter! The fire has been smoored!” (1)
At the second house, “Oh, I can not enter! They have thrown out their feet water before bedtime!”
Finally, at the third house, “Ah, here is my drink!”
And the corpse drank of the feet water, which was by the unkempt hearth, and with his last sip…..the dead man spewed the water from his mouth and into the faces of those sleeping in the house – and they all followed him to….
I sat in the dark of the cave, imagining the feel of a cold corpse on my back, and icy breath in my ear, when SUDDENLY…
Carmina Gadelica, Volume 1, by Alexander Carmicheal, , at sacred-texts.com
PEAT is the fuel of the Highlands and Islands. Where wood is not obtainable the fire is kept in during the night. The process by which this is accomplished is called in Gaelic smaladh; in Scottish, smooring; and in English, smothering, or more correctly, subduing. The ceremony of smooring the fire is artistic and symbolic, and is performed with loving care. The embers are evenly spread on the hearth–which is generally in the middle of the floor–and formed into a circle. This circle is then divided into three equal sections, a small boss being left in the middle. A peat is laid between each section, each peat touching the boss, which forms a common centre. The first peat is laid down in name of the God of Life, the second in name of the God of Peace, the third in name of the God of Grace. The circle is then covered over with ashes sufficient to subdue but not to extinguish p. 235 the fire, in name of the Three of Light. The heap slightly raised in the centre is called ‘Tula nan Tri,’ the Hearth of the Three. When the smooring operation is complete the woman closes her eyes, stretches her hand, and softly intones one of the many formulae current for these occasions.
Another way of keeping embers for morning use is to place them in a pit at night. The pit consists of a hole in the clay floor, generally under the dresser. The pit may be from half a foot to a foot in depth and diameter, with a flag fixed in the floor over the top. In the centre of this flag there is a hole by which the embers are put in and taken out. Another flag covers the hole to extinguish the fire at night, and to guard against accidents during the day. This extinguishing fire-pit is called ‘slochd guail,’ coke or coal-pit. This coke or charcoal is serviceable in kindling the fire.
THE sacred Three
Oh! this eve,
And every night,
Each single night.