Where our witches at? Women Are Boring is donning its Hallowe’en hat for the weekend and getting SPOOKY. This piece, by Dr. Clodagh Tait, looks at women in Irish ghost stories, and is the second in our two-part Hallowe’en series (read the first one, on the origins of Hallowe’en, here).
One evening round about Halloween, one of the Harvey sisters of Inver, Co. Donegal, was putting in her ducks at twilight, when she saw a woman dressed in grey ‘looking through the kitchen’. When Miss Harvey spoke to the woman she vanished, but then appeared to the other sister the next evening. The sisters sought the help of Fr George Kelly, parish priest of Inver, who advised them to carry holy water, and when the apparition returned on the third evening the sister who saw her addressed her with the question Fr Kelly recommended: ‘In God’s name what is troubling you?’ The woman replied ‘I am your mother and I am twenty years dead, I am on my way to heaven, and I want three Masses said one from each of you. You three [the girls and their brother] are the only ones living belonging to me, and I want you to pray for me and I will keep you out of danger…when you are on your death bed I will come down and bring you up into the glorious kingdom of heaven, where we will live happy for ever.’ The woman then disappeared, and was never seen again.
It may come as a surprise that ghost stories like this one can be taken seriously by historians. The fact that they are usually written at a distance from their supposed occurrence, passing meanwhile by word of mouth, means that the researcher will look in vain in them for objective ‘facts’ (even if that researcher believes that such events could have happened in the first place). But to dismiss such tales as hearsay, fiction or delusion is to miss the point. People in the past have always reported sighting of ghosts and other supernatural beings. Therefore it is the historian or folklorist’s role to attempt to understand what work such stories did in communities, and to listen for what they express about ideas held about the relationship between the dead and the living and about ‘world-views’ more generally.
The beliefs of Irish people in the past
From my point of view, the tale of the ghostly Mrs Harvey reveals several things, about the beliefs of Irish people in the past and other aspects of their thinking. We learn something, for example, about expectations of the behaviour of the returning dead and interactions with them. It seems to some degree that actions performed by ghosts, the circumstances in which they were encountered, and reactions to them, were gendered. Female ghosts often appear in or near domestic spaces, and female percipients of ghosts likewise tend to encounter them in familiar places close to home. Due to greater restrictions on their movements, especially at sunset and after dark, women were less likely than men to report meeting the returning dead further afield. When they saw the ghost of their mother, the Harvey girls were engaged in the routine activity of putting the ducks into their house for the night; the ghost appears at a widow of door ‘looking through the kitchen’.
The episode of ‘haunting’ (if we could even call it that) in the Donegal story is limited. While nowadays we seem to expect ghosts to be trapped endlessly – and usually mutely – in a specific place to be encountered again and again, Mrs Harvey’s ghost reflects the kinds of revenant who tended to be more commonly reported prior to the twentieth century. Those ghosts usually returned in a purposeful way to deliver a single message, and their haunting was limited in duration. The appearance of Mrs Harvey’s ghost is also notable. She arrived dressed in grey, and until she disappeared the first percipient seems to have believed her to be real. This solidity of appearance is quite common in Irish ghost stories: ghosts can be touched, and touch (even hit) others; they need to open gates to pass through; they even eat and drink.
We might also remark on the way the Harvey girls react to the ghost. While clearly initially somewhat afraid, they stand their ground and challenge her. This would have been a usual course of action in medieval and early modern accounts of haunting, when it was believed that ghosts brought messages, but could not speak until they were spoken to. In cases of ghost-seeing in the Irish past, we find percipients did not usually need professional intermediaries like exorcists or mediums to communicate with ghosts on their behalf: while the Harvey’s consulted a priest, they did not require his aid, though it does seem that in the cases of some particularly troublesome spirits the special skills of a priest might be called on.
Ghosts and Irish christianity
The story of Mrs Harvey very definitively places ghost belief in a Christian framework: Fr Kelly arms the girls with holy water and holy words. The ghost is on her way to heaven but needs the intervention of the church to get there – three masses for her soul, in return for which she offers her own prayers and the promise of heaven to her children. Such a story thus performs a dual purpose: to grapple with the possibility of returning spirits, but to house them securely within Christian teaching. For this reason, the Catholic church in particular was happy enough to accept stories of haunting. Sightings of ghosts fitted in with the doctrine of souls working off the penalties due for their sins in Purgatory, and the possibility that their time there might be shortened by the prayers and other assistance of the living.
Another underlying theme of Mrs Harvey’s story is motherhood and women’s domestic roles. Supposedly twenty years after her death, the deceased Mrs Harvey continues to exhibit care and concern for her children. Very many Irish stories of the supernatural describe female revenants visiting their own homes, caring for children and carrying out domestic chores. In one Co. Roscommon story , an aunt charged with taking care of an infant whose mother had died experienced a shape passing her at the door and found that the baby would not drink any of the milk she prepared for her. The next day in the bedroom ‘whom did she see sitting on the bed but the dead mother and she combing her hair. She faded away out of sight.’ The mother in this tale is definitively dead, but often similar revenants are patently not actually ghosts, but women who had been stolen by the fairies. One the informants cited in Lady Augusta Gregory’s folklore collection Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland stated ‘I believe all that die are brought among them [the fairies], except maybe an odd old person’. However, others seem to have believed that only a certain category of the supposedly dead were with the fairies. Numerous stories told of how young women stolen by the fairies could be rescued by their husbands and loved ones, or recalled those who had been released after a period of time and returned to their families.
Lady Gregory’s informants told several stories of mothers either returning from fairy captivity or appearing as ghosts, including this unsettling one supplied by Mrs. Farley:
‘One time myself I was at Killinan, at a house of the Clancys’ where the father and mother had died, but it was well known they often come to look after the children. I was walking with another girl through the fields there one evening and I looked up and saw a tall woman dressed all in black, with a mantle of some sort, a wide one, over her head, and the waves of the wind were blowing it off her, so that I could hear the noise of it. All her clothes were black, and had the appearance of being new.’
Her companion could not see the spirit which so frightened Mrs Farley that she did not attempt to question it and fled ‘and the woman seemed to be coming after me, till I crossed a running stream and she had no power to cross that.’
This revenant, implicitly identified as the Clancy children’s mother, was so ‘present’ to Mrs Farley that she could assess the quality of her clothes – they have the appearance of mourning rather than grave clothes – and even hear the sound of her headdress flapping in the wind. Perhaps Mrs Farley’s terror responded in part to the rawness of the dead mother’s mourning for the children to whom she had been lost. After all, one of the things we learn from ghosts, even if we believe that they are only figments of imagination, is about emotion: about grief, anger, disappointment, remorse, and compassion. Most of all we recognise the longing for the loved dead – and the mingled hope and dread that they might in some way long for us – that persists as strongly now as it ever did at the Halloween firesides of the past.
Irish Folklore Archive, Schools Folklore Collection: www.duchas.ie
- Davies, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts (Basingstoke, 2007).
A.Gregory, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (Gerrards Cross, 1992 )
- Narváez (ed.), The Good People: New Fairylore Essays (Lexington, 1997).