Faeries, Ireland, Literature

Halloween: Irish Literature Edition!

I love a good ghost story.

When I was writing my dissertation I spent an inordinate amount of time watching shows like Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures, much to my pragmatic husband’s dismay (he’s my Scully to my Mulder). We spent several evenings fighting for control over the remote. “You don’t really believe in any of this crap, do you?” he would say.

For me the question of whether or not ghosts exist has always been the wrong question. Instead, we should always ask, “What is this ghost story trying to tell us?” A good ghost story reveals a great deal about a culture’s values, fears, and insecurities, but more than that, it unravels histories that are often marginalized–women’s history, the history of minorities and oppressed groups, children. To borrow from Kristeva, ghost stories are abject, filled with the horrors of humanity we push to the margins. Ghosts blur our distinctions between the real and the unreal and undermine our modern assertions of logic and science.  The fact that we still tell ghost stories reveals some innate desire in us for the unknowable, but also that in this information age, we may not be so secure in our knowledge of the universe as we purport to be.

One of the things I loved about shows like Ghost Hunters was the way in which a good ghost story could keep a space alive–a rundown prison, a factory, an insane asylum. Embedded in these spaces lies the history of institutionalization, of the disciplinary society, the history of capitalism, the history of madness, of control, and torture. When I worked at Taliesin, the ghost of Frank Lloyd Wright was everywhere, in the architecture, in the curriculum, in the few lingering members of the original Fellowship. I often passed by a tour guide telling a wicked ghost story about a certain room or passageway, and what lived inside that story? The history of modernism itself.

So it’s no wonder that this love for spooky stories drew me to Irish literature. What follows are some of my favorite ghost stories from Ireland. Irish history is a ghost story, unstable, fluctuating, multifaceted, marked more by absence than presence. Literature fills those gaps in crucial ways, and brings forward the repressed stories of the past. So here they are, listed somewhat chronologically:

1) Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin. Exiled in Paris, Oscar Wilde used the moniker Sebastian Melmoth as a nod to his great-uncle’s creepy tale of a spectral vampire who wanders the world, feeding on the misery of others. Sometimes verbose and unwieldy in form, Melmoth is one of the first modern uses of the vampire as a metaphor for imperialism and global capitalism. Maturin wrote it as a last-ditch effort to feed his family and there are gruesome scenes of starvation and deprivation reflecting the abject poverty he found himself in later in life. Melmoth is also a great commentary on historical narrative and the difficulties of relating the horrors or the past.

2) Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady “Speranza” Wilde. Oscar Wilde’s mother was a staunch nationalist, women’s rights activist, and a collector of folktales. She published this great book of folklore, which is a treasure trove for writers in need of some inspiration. What I love about this collection of tales are the amount of great ghost stories featuring women. So many stories of revenge!

3) In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu. Considered the “Edgar Allen Poe” of Ireland, Sheridan Le Fanu is a master of the modern* ghost story. In a Glass Darkly reveals incredible tales of the effects of modernity on the human psyche. Most notable in this collection of stories is “Carmilla,” a great vampire story featuring strong erotic desire between two women (Oh, baby!!!) and the prototype for Bram Stokers van Helsing. Some scholars see “Carmilla” as a reflection of the devastating effects of the Irish Potato Famine in the descriptions of desolation and suffering within the story. Another story by Le Fanu not in this collection, but perhaps one of my favorite uses of the “fairies” in modern literature, is “The Child That Went with the Fairies.” It’s a great commentary on the effects of imperialism on the Irish and, well, it’s just terrifying.

4) Station Island by Seamus Heaney. In this collection of poems, Heaney narrates his pilgrimage to Station Island on Lough Derg in Donegal. At each station he confronts a ghost from the past, most notably James Joyce who tells Heaney the main thing is to write / for the joy of it…And don’t be so earnest, // let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes. / Let go, let fly, forget. You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.” Amen, brother.

5) The Gathering by Anne Enright. This is one of my favorite contemporary Irish novels. In this novel the narrator Veronica is haunted by the ghost of her brother, and the whole thing is kind of a metaphor for the suppression of the history of child abuse in Ireland. Her brother shows up in the most banal places, in the supermarket, in the car. It’s a reminder that even though Veronica is now a part of Ireland’s upper-middle class, she can’t hide from the devastating effects of poverty on her family. Gorgeous novel.

6) By the Bog of Cats by Marina Carr. A little rough for me to take now I’m a mom, but I love the way Carr uses ghosts in her plays to explore memory, sexuality, and marginalized populations. In the play, Hester Swane is haunted by the spectre of her mother, and Carr has some great commentary on the rise The Celtic Tiger economy in the 90s and who this economy left behind. Not for the fainthearted.

7) The Weir by Conor McPherson. Absolutely one of my favorite plays ever. In this play, a group of locals tell a series of ghost stories late at night in a pub. Simple in plot, but rich in storytelling, what fascinates me about this play is the juxtaposition of tales between the older men of the pub and Valerie’s story. Valerie is a young woman from Dublin who travels to rural Ireland after a traumatic event and the tale she tells reveals a great deal about the rise of the “homework economy” (or the feminization of labor) and the way technology changes our ways of knowing and understanding reality.  Here’s a great scene from the play featuring a real classic fairy story. Note the way the fairies resist modernization and the building of the weir, the hydroelectric dam.

I hope you enjoy this list, but I’m sure I left something out. Do you have a favorite Irish ghost story? Please share!

*I use “modern literature” pretty fast and loose in this post. Here I’m using this term to make a distinction between oral, traditional literature (folk tales and fairy tales) and print literature. This distinction is problematic because it’s very easy to locate modernity in, for instance, The Decameron, or Irish folklore, or Pueblo Indian oral histories. Another way I like to think of “modern literature” is anything post Hamlet. Holy shit, Is that a ghost? Am I batshit crazy? That doubt toward the supernatural marks the beginning of modernity for me.

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