Sunday, March 20, 2011

St. John D. Seymour and Harry L. Neligan's True Irish Ghost Stories

In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day this month, I have come upon a book called True Irish Ghost Stories, a 2010 edition published by Fall River Press. The first edition came out in 1914, almost a hundred years ago. Two people serve as authors and compilers of these stories: St. John D. Seymour, B.D. (Bachelor of Divinity), Litt. D. (Litterarum Doctor, or “Doctor of Letters”) and Harry L. Neligan, D.I.R.I.C. (District Inspector with the Royal Irish Constabulary). It seems unusual that one of the authors is a reverend in an Irish rectory. (I guess he had one too many parishioners request blessings of houses in his parish.) Not only that, but he also has written another book entitled Irish Witchcraft and Demonology. (It makes me wonder just what was going on in his parish.) He helps compile this book because “there was no such thing in existence as a book of Irish ghost stories” (9). He and his colleague compile these stories by soliciting submissions through newspaper advertisements across Ireland. Figuring they would have quite a challenge coming up with material to write such a book, they are surprised when an abundance of responses pours in from not just Ireland, but also from Canada and the United States. With that obstacle easily surpassed, the authors divide the stories into categories like haunted houses, haunted places, isolated experiences, debunked tales, and folklore while still having plenty of other submissions for other volumes that do not come to light. The book certainly contains a diversity of first-hand accounts with Irish ghosts and banshees.

The stories are actually short, shorter than even I expected. They straightforwardly tell the facts and the happenings with each haunting. Only one fantastical story, a cat with the face of an ugly woman, gave me the creeps. Because of the shortness of these stories, the suspense does not have time to build up and make an impact. In between, the compilers give background information and speculation, making sure to include that identities of the submitters and the participants have been scrupulously protected when requested in each case. The collected stories want to exhibit a prevalence of paranormal evidence for a skeptical public rather than to entertain a casual reader with a vivid imagination. It is a minor fault, I admit, and not as thrilling as Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Thrawn Janet,” but there are still good stories that have an Irish touch.

Even today, ghosts fascinate viewers on television screens. Most Haunted showcases investigations in eerie and dark locales in Great Britain. Ghost Hunters (Syfy Channel) shows a group of hobbyists recording digital evidence at haunted places dotting along the Eastern Seaboard. Ghost Lab thinks they have a pseudoscientific theory connecting ghostly apparitions with water and electromagnetic fields. Ghost Adventures, my favorite, actually has a small team that stays the night during a lockdown of the premises so it can provoke spirits into manifesting themselves. Credible or not, these shows attempt to catch on tape the existence of spiritual entities from clandestine corners mingling with the living and breathing. Whether I agree with the programs or not, whether I do not condone it religiously or do, I have a vicarious experience without having to search out a haunted place myself and be put in danger. Like the teams that go out of their way to bring ghost stories into the living rooms of interested Americans, the authors of this book do the same in printed word for the Irish public. The compilers of True Irish Ghost Stories believe that “Some day, no doubt, psychologists and scientists will be able to give us a complete and satisfactory explanation of these abnormal apparitions, but at present we are very much in the dark, and any explanation that may be put forward is necessarily of a tentative nature” (158). I wonder what Seymour would say the same if he were still with us today, browsing the television programs and scrutinizing the evidence of modern day ghost hunters. I think his “some day” has not come like he has asserted in his book. And, as the television shows go, investigations are still in the dark, literally and figuratively.

One more thing I note before finishing this review is the observation of the authors about Irish superstition. It did not occur to me while reading this book that a stereotype had been perceived by foreigners that the Irish were or are exceptionally superstitious. So it came as a surprise when the authors presented their apologetics and justifications for publishing such a book. (I myself do not chide people for believing or not believing in ghosts, because there is so much we just do not know.) The authors assert that “They [the Irish] seem to be more superstitious because (we speak without wishing to give any offense) the popular religion of the majority has incorporated certain elements which may be traced back to pre-Christian times; but that they are actually more superstitious we beg to doubt” (291, emphasis in original). This seems like a reasonable claim. I suppose someone would view another as superstitious with talk of banshees and headless carriages. But I am more interested with the cultural significance a group of people place upon banshees and headless carriages. I have learned in Chapter VII, “Banshees and Other Death-Warnings,” that banshees are simply death omens, and the stories relating to them seem almost romantic rather than horrific like stereotypical Hollywood versions.

Readers wanting to find ghost stories to tell around the campfire may find this book disappointing because of the stale narration. It could be done, but some adaptation would have to bolster the stories. If readers want a more documentary feel to ghost stores, then this book fits the bill.

Andrew

1 comment:

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?

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