Through the Grass, Darkly: Irish Folk Horror

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Image: Author

Folklore has a profound and unsettling impact on the imaginative perception of landscape, identity, time and the past. Folk memory is often manifested as an intrusive and violent breach from an older repressed, ‘primitive’ or ‘barbarous’ state that transgresses the development of cultural order.

Extract: Fiend in the Furrows Blog

Feral Fields

Despite being an early medievalist and a big film fan, I have never had much interest in horror/fantasy genres in general. I prefer ‘the real stuff’ – far more terrifying. But folk horror is different. Its something that has always been loitering in the shadows of my peripheral vision – as a child, as an adult, as a consumer of culture, as an archaeologist & historian – despite only being consciously labelled as such in my head in the last few years.

I grew up in 1980s Ireland – bleak and cloudy in more ways than one – reading and watching stuff which is now considered classic staples of the genre.  New housing estate on the edge of urban sprawl. Invasive concrete arteries slowly spreading into moody rural hinterlands. Feral fields and hedgerows only a short bike ride away.

I raided wood pallets from industrial factories for Halloween bonfires one day – picked blackberries, collected frog spawn and built tree houses the next. Cycled along unfinished motorways past castle ruins and burial mounds. Explored ‘haunted’ country lanes in twilight, peopling stumps, bumps and ditches with youthful abandon.  It was one big halfway house of a childhood. Halfway between then and now, here and there. Through the grass, darkly. Half afraid to put away childish things.

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An Irish Childhood, through a window glass, darkly… (Image: Author)

Halfway there and back

Halfway between school hometime and bedtime, between TV and books also – an Irish and British cultural hotchpotch. Supranatural shenanigans pervaded my primary school texts – with pictures, poems and stories usually involving children stumbling into folkish misadventure (‘Away to Fairyland’, ‘Myth & Magic’, ‘Crock of Gold’). Irish ghost stories and children’s translations of Irish legends, intimately tied to locations and landscapes. Shared space – only a few tree rings deep. Varnished with a thin veneer of deep archaeological time.

‘Fortycoats’ and ‘Wanderly Wagon’ had many strange and subversive elements within. The vaguely disconcerting animated stop-motion inserts in Bosco, with it’s bleached mála megaliths and talking trees. Hairy Seanchaí’s with thorny eyebrows who would glare at you from the television. The more occultish episodes of ‘Dr. Who’, set in the then and now at the same time. The outstanding and terrifying ‘Children of the Stones‘.  Years later, as an archaeologist, I was more awed to visit the ‘film set’ of COTS in Avebury than I was to visit one of the UK’s premier prehistoric sites.

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Children and Sheep of the Stones, Avebury (Image: Author)

Heart of Darkness

In a way, it surprises me that ‘folk horror’ is still something relatively undefined and understudied in academia. It strikes me as one of those labels/genres/movements that transcends the usual petty feudal boundaries – something truly interdisciplinary, available to all and sundry. After all, its very nature is that of multiple ephemeral contexts. Foreboding fusions of ‘folk’ & ‘lore’. Half-whispered restlessness in the pages of landscapes. A troubled past in a horrified present. An ancient apprehension, articulated from behind a half-closed eye.

Of course, none of this is particularly new. In Ireland, early medieval peoples inherited a more complete prehistoric landscape than has probably ever been. Our earliest medieval histories, hagiographies and identities are expressed  with a sort of proto-folk horror showmanship – blood and gut supranatural epics stretched over a landscape canvas. The dark dinnseanchas of an imagined prehistoric past superimposed over the medieval present.

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Shadows in peripheral vision… (Image Author)

Hollow hills and furtive furrows may well have been popularized and published by more modern movements, but they have fragmented ancestral form going back to the very beginning of surviving Irish literature. Like the earliest contemporary engagement with motifs involving otherworld figures and prehistoric barrows. Or the earliest contemporary portrayal of megalithic tombs being those of ‘giants’ graves. Pagan sacrifices to dead wickerman types? Fearful of burning? Bleached bones with gold and silver offerings? Moving prehistoric stones imbued with dark power and status? Thank early Christian imaginations and metaphors for all the above.

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Hollow Hedges… (Image: Author)

But that’s another story, for another time.

Insular Irish Folk Horror

When it comes to early modern Irish Folk Horror, what immediately springs to my mind is not the usual suspects – but rather the wonderful, enthralling and understudied archive of the National Folklore Collection – something I have waxed lyrical on before. In the process of exploring residual traces of early medieval placenames, locations and landscapes over the years, I have been privileged to explore the above (in particular the Schools Collection) and to experience the riches within. In amongst cures and fairy tales, legends and lore, dances, festivals and recipes – there are very definite examples of an insular folk horror sub-genre. Stuff that would put hairs on your chest.

Collected in the 1930s, much of the material was taken down by children from older relatives and informants, some stretching back sixty, seventy, eighty years. As such, it represents a wonderful slice of insular imagination – of several generations of story-telling and scare-mongering just before the widespread advent of rural picture houses and, eventually, television. The last vestiges of an oral hand-me-down culture – untainted, and for the most part, uninfluenced by modern literary and cinematic manifestations of the horror genre.

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The folk horror, the folk horror… (Image: Author)

So, to illustrate what I consider to be honest to god-fearing insular Irish folk horror – stuff the puts the ‘horror’ into ‘folk’ – I have transcribed one of my favorite examples: a short and (not so) sweet tale recorded by a student in Creevagh, North Co. Mayo, in the late 1930s. I came across while researching the area ahead of a fieldtrip a few years ago. As an archaeologist, one couldn’t help but love it…

* * *

 (Untitled Story)

Once upon a time a beggar man was passing through *Sweep(?) near Ballycastle. He was supposed to have a lot of money. A young man saw him pass and he murdered him and buried him in a boghole. Then he went to America for five years and at the end of which time he returned home and then his crime was found out. One day a number of young men were cutting turf in the bog and they found the corpse. It was not decayed in the bog for the bog had preserved it.

There was only one road called the Greenroad through *Sweep(?) at the time and therefore a lot of people passed on that road. The men who found the corpse asked everyone who passed by to come and look at it. Soon the murderer passed by and he was also asked in but he refused saying that the sight of a corpse made him faint. He was forced in and when he looked at the corpse it vomited blood into his face. The man without further proof of his bad act was seized and hanged on a white thorn bush. The tree never bloomed or grew since. People believe that it was on account of the man being hanged that it did not bloom. This old tree is still in *Sweep(?)

Told by Michael Holmes, Conaghra -To Kathleen Mahedy, Knockboha, Carrowmore

School: Craobhach (Creevagh, Co. Mayo) / Teacher: Mícheál Mac an Mhíleadha

The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0141, 351

 * * *

Death and vengeance. Retribution from beyond the grave. Hard, swift local justice. Bleak landscapes. The stain of the past in the present. A dark explanation for a topographical feature. A pseudo-archaeology of folk horror, manifesting in childish imagination and language. And a bog body.

Whats not to love?

Blood Curdling

First and foremost, the tale stands as a fine example of modern folklore – a supranational explanation for the lack of growth of a particular tree. In a way, the more blood curdling aspects are incidental. It is the lone white thorn that stands witness to the portrayed events which is the ultimate index. The story itself is just an elaborate preamble to the main point. That the tale is supposed to be set sometime prior to the 1930s, when it was collected, is evident in the detail concerning the one bog road ‘at the time’. Just how long before is not entirely clear – although the emigration to (and return from) America detail would suggest anytime from mid to late 19th century onwards – when such regular transportation might have been deemed more ‘realistic’.

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The ‘main’ road from Creevagh (Image: Author)

Bog Standard

As to bog bodies preserved in the anaerobic environments of Irish peatlands – well, say no more. Such a portrayal (in the 1930s) is a fascinating snippet because it seems to anticipate the modern-day obsession with bog body archaeology. Before Glob and Heaney and Van Der Sanden, before modern Irish bog body finds – even before Grauballe, Lindow and Tolland Man themselves – the people of North Mayo were apparently well aware and willing to play around with bog body imagery and symbolism.

The discovery and exhumation of Irish bog bodies is well attested in the 19th century, as are multiple examples of the recovery of preserved artifacts and dairy produce. The seasonal storage of fresh butter within bogs may even have been still in use up to the same period. It is therefore not surprising at all that a local populace, well aware of the preservative qualities of organic material within their own landscape, would deign to include its attributes in their folklore.

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Bogwater ditch, Creevagh, Co. Mayo (Image: Author)

A past in the present

Indeed, the very landscape of North Co. Mayo was no stranger to such finds and phenomena by the 1930s. I have found letters from locals within the archives of the National Museum concerning the finding of wooden bog butter churns from the same decade. Elsewhere in the folklore collection one can find references, sketches and descriptions of prehistoric and medieval artefacts/features uncovered as a result of turf cutting. ‘Fairy darts’ (neolithic arrowheads) – highly prized and secretly kept as charms for cattle. ‘Pirate dens’ and ‘fairy passages’ (medieval souterrains ) – fearfully blocked up soon after, but not before trembling candle-lit explorations in search of ‘gold’. ‘Danes forts’ (ringforts) and triumphant stone commemorations erected to celebrate local slaughtering of viking invaders (‘prehistoric standing stones’).

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Remnants in the Landscape, Creevagh/Dunamona, Co. Mayo (Image: Author)

Slicing through time

These were the first unwitting modern explorers of the archaeological landscape of North Co. Mayo – and while they may not have always realized or appreciated what exactly they had stumbled across, they were nevertheless well aware of that which existed beneath their spades and their feet. Slices of deep archaeological time only a shovel and a grunt away. Archaeological ‘witnesses’ to the tales their grandparents had told them. Stratified childlike imaginations, fossilized in the pages of the folklore collection.

To stand in the landscape: one doesn’t have to look hard to understand how. Creevagh townland itself is centered on boggy slopes overlooking the extreme western tip of Killala Bay – from which one can see into Sligo and Donegal to the east, all the way past Downpatrick Head and Ballycastle to the Stags of Broad Haven in the west. On the edge of Creevagh townland today, one can stand in the footsteps of both medieval and prehistoric coast watchers – a prime position on it coastal summit still marked by the remnants of low mounds and stone troughs of bronze age fulachtai fiadh – all within a stones throw of a medieval ringfort enclosure in Doonamona (Dún na Móna): ‘The Fort of the Bogland’.

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A Burnt Mound, or a folk horror burial? Dunamona/Creevagh, Co. Mayo (Image: Author)

A few minutes drive west brings you past Ballycastle and on into the wild brown yonder of blanket bog that covers the Céide Fields – the largest stone age monumental landscape in the world and the oldest enclosed landscape in Europe – dating back over five and a half thousand years. An invisible layer of deep time preserved under a peat carpet of prehistory. Little wonder indeed such things made it into local folklore.

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The Céide Fields – under 4m of bog lies the preserved remains of an entire neolithic community (Image: Author)

And yet, Ceide, in the 1930s was only on the verge of being discovered. Littered around the hinterlands of Creevagh/Ballycastle are more solid, tangible testaments to the living and the dead. A crooked brooding prehistoric standing stone guarding a local cemetery in use since at least the early medieval when two crosses were inscribed on its base…

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Prehistoric Standing Stone, or a petrified ‘Druid’? Doonfeeny, Co. Mayo (Image: Author)

The stone skeletal remains of a prehistoric court tomb on a deliciously named ‘Gallows Hill’ – its orthostats like a half rotting giants ribcage, exposed and picked clean by lichen – any cremations or dis-articulated bones long scattered by the wind. Slowly sinking (once again) into the bog which first claimed it thousands of years ago…

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Court Tomb, or a ‘Giants Grave’, Gallows Hill, Mayo (Image: Author)

A fenced off Cíllin (Children’s Burial Ground) within a reused early medieval enclosure – desperately sad and silent – but not forgotten. Liminal locations of loss on the margin of local memories too painful to ever forget…

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Lisheen, Foghill, Co. Mayo (Image: Author)

An Undead Entity

The seemingly barren landscape around Creevagh and its hinterlands is alive with the dead – now and then, as it was in the 1930s or a thousand years ago or four thousand years ago. The bog itself, an undead entity and rising tide, receiving, taking away and occasionally, vomiting up its secrets. For the folk who lived and worked in it, little wonder it played a menacing role in folk horror imaginations in the recent, and perhaps more remote past.

I think back to the story first being told to little Kathleen Mahedy – a schoolchild going around with a copybook and an instruction to collect old stories for a national folklore project. A fleeting literary bridge between a dying orality and that which came after. A  half-whispered, last whispered ancient apprehension and restlessness –  undergoing final committal to the ground. A formal foreboding burial within the pages of the folklore collection.

And then, perhaps not.

The man who told her the story, Michael Holmes, was a neighbor living in adjacent Conaghra, right next to Knockboha. But he wasn’t elderly. He was only twenty years old himself – presumably not long out of the same national school and probably taught by the same teacher. I can imagine him sitting on a wall, of an evening, waiting for a lift or something and meeting Kathleen going about her homework. A twinkling of an eye. A chance to play mischief with a child and his old múinteoir

“Stories? You want to hear a story? Come here and I’ll tell you a story…”

And afterwards – Kathleen trudging home in near twilight, eyes wide as she crossed feral fields. Through the grass, darkly. Half afraid to put away childish things.

__________________________________

*Sweep(?) – A local placename I have yet to decipher. My thanks and appreciation to those who offered feedback during a recent attempt at crowd sourcing opinions on its paleographic rendering. Given the collective expertise and experience applied (by those far more knowledgeable than I) with no clear answer – it remains a mystery to me. If anyone out there has local knowledge of the name, or can shed some light on it, I’d be very grateful for anything received.

Update Sept 2014: For an excellent read on defining modern folk horror attributes (and a nod to early medieval ancestry) within film canon – see Adam Scovell’s paper ‘The Folk Horror Chain’ which was presented at the original  conference which inspired this post: ‘A Fiend in the Furrows’

Update Oct 2016: I am indebted to @duchas_ie for pointing me in the direction of further folklore references to the Old Road and Green Road in and around ‘Sweep’, in Co. Mayo. Hidden in the very pages of the folklore collection! Míle Buíochas.

Click here to see what the ghost of the Green Road looks like today on Ordnance Survey Orthophotography

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11 thoughts on “Through the Grass, Darkly: Irish Folk Horror

    • Cheers, appreciate that! Hope you get to make it.

      That sounds very interesting, will give it a roll later. Makes perfect sense. A lot of similar folk stuff here was deliberately aimed at keeping small children away from dangerous places.

      Mind you, it didn’t stop me 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I walked that road every day as a child from Gallowhill where I lived to Master Finnan Burkes class in the 1960s. Was told of these tales by neighbours and Grandfather and spent magical times in Bulacnob bog which was as clear a path under my feet from scraw to scraw as the green road. Pased all these spots and drank from the local tub na Merle or Marble well that was so cold and clear you could faint from he cold it was said and a danger of drowning was warned to the drinker! Had a very strange experience coming home one evening that I have never forgotten to this day when a breeze came down through the bog cotton flattening the grass a few feet in width, that hit me, stopped me in my tracks and I could not breathe, move forward or backwards. It was as if I had been hit in the breadbasket. It was accompanied by the darkest depression which I had never experienced before. I somehow broke loose utterly hysterical and in tears ran to the nearest house where I burst in utterly to the people’s shock who knew me. Old Mrs. McClean God rest her ordered sweet tea and said it was the fear gorta or the Hungry Man that was known of on that road . It occurred between Sweep and either just before or after the Green Road and I think in the whereabouts of the stone that marked the old place of the Gallows that my father had shown me. I moved from Ireland some years after but the depression that still affects my health never left me totally from that day when I was about nine years old. This is a true testament told by Sean O Maoingaile Cnoic Na Croica, Gort an Tour, Baile An Caisil, Condeigh Muigheo, Eire. Ta me seasca trea (63) yrs old and have never left my home in mind or spirit or shown the white feather wherever I roamed . A true hearted son of the County Mayo. Up De Valera with Blackthorns!

    Liked by 1 person

    • John, a chara,

      What an incredible story and memories. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Currently rowing around coastal Mayo, but when I get back, will pour over the maps to find that road with your directions. You are a gentleman, sir.

      Like

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