Arts

Lore of the Land tales to make your hair stand on end – just in time for Halloween

Lore of the Land, a new book looking at Irish banshees and 'quite scary fairies, not at all like Tinkerbell', might make you keep the lights on this Halloween. Gail Bell finds out more from book editor Nic Wright of Causeway Coast and Glens Museum Services

Banshee, drawn by Margaret Huey, one of the participants in the Lore of the Land project

WHEN Fiona Milne's daughter, Catherine, tucked her just-turned three-year-old daughter into bed for the night, she had no idea that an uninvited guest might be lurking in the shadows, one ghostly eye trained on the little girl's party balloons still bobbing in the bedroom...

"The next morning, after my grand-daughter's birthday party, every single balloon had been burst and when asked why she had popped her balloons, she said: 'I didn't, that man did...' Fiona recounts in one of several eerie stories featured in Lore of the Land, a new book launched by Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council Museum Services in Ballymoney.

"We found out afterwards that the man who had owned the [Portrush] bungalow before Catherine moved in, had died in that same bedroom," Fiona continues. "There's people that said he wasn't a very nice man, but I always got a really bad feeling there; every room was always cold no matter how much you had the heat on.

"And there was a mirror at the end of the hallway and, for whatever reason, every time I walked down that hallway, I couldn't look in the mirror 'cause I just had this awful feeling..."

Her contribution is one of many "unnerving and unexplained" accounts of the inexplicable in the book edited by Nic Wright, community engagement officer with the council's museum services and being launched – just as luck would have it – in time for Halloween.

A Fairy Thorn at Slaghtaverty, Co Derry, from the book Lore of the Land

This particular story had the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end, as did many other tales of mysterious encounters with Irish banshees, gouls, ghosts and "quite scary fairies, not at all like Tinkerbell".

"There really are some frightening stories in this compilation and, as well as Fiona Milne's account, I would pick out the late Jim Stewart's stories, to whom the book is dedicated," says Nic. "Jim really was a master storyteller and his stories are absolutely fantastic, especially one relating to a house in Cushendun.

"It's quite disturbing and includes accounts of apparitions coming at night-time, people's faces being stroked by something unseen, the yelling out of names, music playing, strange singing...."

In fact, the Belfast-born Mr Stewart – a "scholar, raconteur, gentleman" (the eptithet in the book's introduction) – contributed seven different stories to Lore of the Land, with the one from Cushendun recapping experiences in an old, converted coach house in the village during the 1970s.

Tiveragh – a 'fairy hill' close to Cushendall, Co Antrim, from the Sam Henry collection at Coleraine Museum, reproduced in Lore of the Land

"Things were getting bad," Mr Stewart writes. "You'd be sitting and somebody would stroke your head or walk past or drop things, you know, falling noise. Now, it wasn't poltergeists, nothing like that. But, all these noises were wakening me up during the night and shouting into my ear."

The project, devised in partnership with the Clanmil Housing Association as a follow-up to previous 'reminiscence' schemes delivered with funding from the EU Peace IV programme, is described by Nic as "a modern anthology" of folklore, resulting from a topic that refused to be ignored.

"The museum service ran a programme called 'Understanding Our Area' which involved working with groups to highlight aspects of heritage and culture," Nic explains. "But, really, whatever we did, no matter what the nature of the project, everyone just wanted to share stories of ghosts and fairies.

"Whether we were looking at weddings, funerals or Christenings, supernatural beliefs and superstitions always came to the fore; it was a subject that refused to remain hidden, regardless of the task at hand. So, because I knew there was already an appetite and there were lots of stories out there, we approached Clanmil to work on a contemporary collection, weaving in old stories from our museum collection from by Sam Henry, an avid folklorist in the early 20th century.

"I wouldn't say this borough is any richer in folklore than anywhere else in Northern Ireland; it's more that we have a good record of some of the older folklore from the area which we've been able to use as a framework for some of the more recent stories."

The point, he says, was to capture a "snapshot" of everyday stories that may be lost to future generations too busy "looking at their screens".

"I think people are continually fascinated because it's a way of explaining the unexplained and supernatural stories are so ingrained into people who grew up in this landscape," Nic explains. "They hear the stories and they just become part of who people are.

"People don't sit around talking so much anymore, so it was important to document these stories in written form. We have had really great, positive feedback so far, particularly from the tourist information centre where staff tells us the books are flying out the door."

Folklorist Sam Henry pictured with Rathlin storyteller, Katie Glass – taken from the Sam Henry collection at Coleraine Museum and reproduced in Lore of the Land

He is not surprised. Despite having been raised in a "fairly sceptical, secular family", working on the book has been a "highlight" of his job to date – and helped raise a few questions of his own.

 

"I'm certainly open to all of these stories and it's absolutely entralling to sit down and hear people who grew up with them – it's part of their world view," he says. "I find that absolutely fascinating."

:: To request a copy of Lore of the Land, email Ballymoney Museum – cms@causewaycoastandglens.gov.uk – while a digital copy can be found on the resources page of the Northern Ireland Community Archive at niarchive.org

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