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SEANCHAS-L  October 2010

SEANCHAS-L October 2010

Subject:

Stories for Samhain

From:

Marion Gunn <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

List for Scholars and Students of Gaelic Folk Traditions <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 27 Oct 2010 19:28:05 +0100

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (139 lines)

Many of your msgs to SEANCHAS-L, Helen, bring to it a personal reality 
of the kind I remember from my childhood, when ghost stories and 
suchlike were told as personal reminiscences or as folk or family 
memories. Your visit here during the summer set me thinking, not for the 
first time, about how little that reality is reflected online. Yes, this 
list is for the study of what is traditionally known as folklore, but 
your instinct (as shown by your example) is right: we can embrace 
personal reminiscences through which practices/motifs are revealed of 
which those recounting them might not even be aware.

As this is Samhain, when we remember our dead (it is also the birthday 
of SEANCHAS-L), I'm going to dive in at the deep end here to retrieve a 
memory of my childhood, make of it what you will. All but two of those 
(human and non-) mentioned in this piece are long gone now, but I hope 
it reveals for those interested something of my Irish childhood, as the 
stories you shared with me this summer on our journeyings together 
revealed so much I didn't know about many other things and many other 
places.

Here goes - may God be good to those who are gone from us.

FAIRY IN THE CELLAR

My family has always included cats of varying degrees of domestication. 
The cellar of grandmotherís house in Rathgar, Dublin, Ireland, was home 
to several cats, mostly tabbies, who lived in amongst the old furniture, 
whose cushions we, as children could drag out into the garden to sit on 
in the sun. In the cellar, my grandmother also stored coal and turf.

It is not usual to introduce a house by its cellar, however, so Iíll 
switch to describing the normal approach by visitors, viz., beginning 
with its front aspect.

To the front of my grandmotherís house, there was an iron railing, with 
a gate in it on which I used to swing. From the gate to the house there 
was a gravel path, with a lonicera hedge on the left, which my father 
planted with my assistance when I was three years of age. On the other 
side of the path was the lawn, finished with a narrow flowerbed under 
the front window. My grandmother planted wallflowers there once a year, 
or caused them to be planted with her authority. It was often my father 
who did that, because, although he was not her son, he worked harder at 
pleasing her than her two sons, who never seemed to have grasped that 
concept.

Behind the front flowerbed, a narrow iron grill let air and some light 
into the cellar. Although that part of the cellar was to the front of 
the house, it was actually to the back of the cellar from its entrance 
end, where the cats lived. While we played in the safer, brighter, end 
of the cellar with the cats, the big boys ventured right through to the 
back, in order to spy on, whistle at and make faces safely in the dark 
at my grandmotherís visitors through the grill behind the front flowerbed.

Because I was the first child born to my mother, there were times when 
she did not quite know what to do with me, but I was happy enough to be 
left in the care of her more experienced sister, though that was in her 
sisterís house on the other side of the city, where her own children 
regarded me as not quite one of them. It most often fell to my 
grandmother to do whatever was necessary to make up for perceived 
shortcomings in my motherís care of me.

Having raised seven children of her own, who now had their own children, 
of whom I was only one of the many in the new generation, my grandmother 
often delegated her care of me to others, such as my motherís youngest 
living sister, who was also my godmother. I really loved it when my 
godmother was set to watch me on her visits to her motherís house, 
because she often forgot to watch me, which meant that, as well as 
enjoying total freedom of the house all unaware to her, I became her 
watcher.

She was already the brilliant oil painter she still is. The otherwise 
neat breakfast room become her messy art studio for the duration of her 
visits, where I loved watching her work, as she ran her fingers through 
her hair, making it stand on end. Her hands were always covered in 
bright paint, with daubs reaching right up to her elbows and a finger 
often left a bright streak on her forehead as it pushed strands of hair 
back as she reversed away from a canvas in order to view here work more 
clearly.

It was from her that I learned to love the smell of linseed oil and 
turpentine and also learned that they are not edible. I had to watch her 
very carefully, in case, in suddenly taking note of my small presence at 
her side, she might embrace me and get paint on me or on my clothes, to 
the annoyance of her mother, as well as mine. I also loved the sounds 
and sight and smell of her first husbandís motorcycle, which sounds and 
sight and smell my grandmother did not like at all.

Sometimes, care of me fell to a sister older than her by only a year or 
two, but so stylish everyone admired her. She had high heels, beautiful 
clothes and a very handsome husband. People said the pair belonged in 
Hollywood, especially when they sang duets at the piano, but I didnít 
know what Hollywood was, so, to me they were just like shop window 
models come to life. When set to watch me, however, they flopped down on 
the carpet in the front room, transferred her beads and bangles to me 
and even let me play with her lipstick, while his pinstripe suit picked 
up fluff from the carpet and from cats who should not have been inside 
the house.

On my fifth birthday, it was decided that I was old enough to have a cat 
of my own, whom I loved even more than I loved my grandmother, who gave 
me to understand that it was real proof of Godís love that He entrusted 
care of a cat to me. Its glorious eyes were almost the colour of my 
motherís, its fur warm and soft as my beloved granís bosom, its claws 
only to be seen when he brought them out to sharpen them on the bark of 
the tree where my swing was. I called my cat my cat until other members 
of the family decided he should have a name of his own.

He was my cat, so I alone had the right to name him. That much I 
understood. However, the longer I left it, the more intense became the 
family debate on the choice of a name for him. My grandmother recounted 
how, during the Emergency, she had owned a grey kitten who raised his 
paw in salute when she came into the room, so she called him Hitler. Her 
neighbours thought that a great lark, so they called their cat Mussolini.

I didnít see why that made people laugh. I didnít know what his name 
would be, only that I was certainly not going to give him any kind of a 
name which might make people laugh. He was my gift from God and from Our 
Lady, to whose altar in my grandmotherís house I had brought flowers in 
thanks. He deserved a name which would summon respect. The kind of 
respect my grandmother had.

At last, I knew the name by which my cat would be known. Witnessed by an 
assembly of three generations, I carried him into the centre of the room 
and made the solemn announcement that his name was ďMaryĒ. I told them 
that I had named him after Our Lady and my grandmother.

That announcement was greeted with a satisfying silence. For once, my 
voice had been heard, my decision on an important matter known, although 
I could see by my grandmotherís expression that something was wrong.

Iím not sure what happened after that, because my parents led me out of 
the room, still carrying my cat, and lovingly suggested it might be 
better to change his name slightly, so that it would belong to himself 
alone. I think it was my father who came up smiling with the solution of 
calling my cat ďFairyĒ, before I carried him back to the cellar, where I 
tidied his bed and settled him down to sleep before I was carried to my 
own bed.

mg

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