Chatting with Michael Fortune – Halloween
Mid-October, just before second lock-down, I was lucky enough to have an in-person meeting with folklorist and artist Michael Fortune. Sitting in his library surrounded by his folklore archives, we chatted about the subjects I hope to explore. It was a wide reaching conversation – Michael has such a wealth of knowledge of folk customs – touching on so many areas of Folk festival traditions, but with the proximity to Halloween we got onto the subject of ‘guising’ traditions.
The language of the festival that is probably familiar to most is of ‘Trick or Treating’, Dressing up, Bonfires, Samhain, but Michael introduced me to older words, some from the local area of North Wexford, Carlow and Wicklow.
Vissards – a word for the masks or face coverings used in North Wexford.
Blackmen’s Night – One of the forms of disguise was often covering the face in soot and ashes, Michael commented on how this name and practice might now seem to our ears.
Collicks or Collicking Night – a word that probably comes from the Irish word for witch, Cailleach. Also a name for the last sheaf of oats in a field, like a corn dolly, celebrating bringing in the harvest.
But the important thing about Halloween was disguise – maybe to confuse spirits and protect yourself but also for role-play and mischief. Originally it wasn’t a children's activity, it used to be adults that would go out for ‘divilment, gate-lifting and mischief and to gather a few bob for a post Halloween party.
Michael showed me some footage of his mother going Collicking, calling in disguise to her own mother’s house at Halloween, a tradition they kept up for decades until her death in 2015. Wearing an improvised costume, a mix of modern halloween masks, high-vis jackets, anything to change her shape and disguise her form, she still stuck to some of the older rules of guising, always covering her hands and never revealing her identity. Micahel said either his Grandmother never twigged or she never admitted she knew it was her daughter out collicking.
Speaking to Michael of my own mother’s recollection of her father at Halloween, we got onto the subject of Jack-O-Lanterns. My grandfather refused to get a pumpkin to carve, as he had always had turnips as a boy and so that’s what they should have still. He then sat out in the garden cursing trying to hollow out and carve a tough old turnip in to a face.
It seemed an apt project for me to start with, the start of the old Celtic new-year and the start of the darkest months that seem to be the ones filled with festive traditions – a little research into the tradition of jack-o-lanterns and to try carving my own. Visiting the Museum of Country Life as a Child I had been fascinated by the 'Ghost Turnip' on display.
Interesting that Michael mentioned that very few traditions are associated with the late summer and harvest months -busy months in a rural setting. Knowing I’ll have time to deep dive into this subject over the coming months is exciting and I hope to engage with these traditions myself as we pass through the seasons.
Recently watching a Netflix documentary We are The Champions – Cheese Rollers, about Gloucestershire's Cooper Hill race, I though they put it very well and it resonated with a strange magic i sense in these traditions -
“When you participate in a tradition,
you are casting a spell that lets you talk directly to a bygone era.”
It’s worth a watch, even just for the great footage of the race itself, and it’s by far the most interesting in the series. What struck me was the desire to take part in something that was unfathomable to others, the willingness to take risks and the connection that taking part brings.
Talking with Michael, what stood out to me is that when these creative acts happen, there is some connection with your past and present. They may have a root in Christian rituals or older pre Christian traditions, but with the local, personal nature of these traditions their origins are unrecorded – recalled maybe in oral tradition and vaguely remembered stories – they may be recorded as curiosities by folklorists through the 1800's & 1900's, but not given the weight and importance of that traditional fine arts might be. But maybe that is what makes them interesting, otherworldly and lends them a sense of mystery.They are straw memories.