Silent strangers for one spooky night

Fri, Oct 26, 2012, 01:00

The people of Inis Mór take Halloween very seriously, right down to the eerie silence

THE PUBS in Kilronan usually chime with music and conversation, but on Halloween night an eerie silence envelopes the Inis Mór village. Even for islanders, the evening can seem otherworldly.

All over the world, people dress up but on Inis Mór they take it a step further. People disguise themselves and maintain their disguises by not uttering a word all night.

“It is definitely a strange thing to go into a bar on that night,” says Máirtín Ó Conceanainn. “It is weird, really . . . all these people, really well dressed, good masks, good everything, outlandish stuff, and nobody talking.”

The silence preserves anonymity, because out here, at Halloween, anonymity matters most. On Inis Mór, the largest of the three Aran Islands, the festival still has a flavour of its original spirit. Traditionally, Halloween marked a liminal period when this world and the next were closest. According to Dr Lillis Ó Laoire, an Irish folklore expert at NUI Galway, the festival offered a release from social constraints, providing an opportunity to subvert the rules.

In many parts of the west of Ireland, disguise was important because it freed the wearers from a sense of personal responsibility. On Inis Mór, the garb would involve Aran dress, long shirts, trousers, leather pampooties, but most important was the mask.

“You’d be working on a mask,” recalls Seamus O’Flaherty. “At that time there was no such thing as going in to Galway and buying a plastic one. You made it. It was made out of all sorts of queer things, like rabbit skin. You’d skin a rabbit, cure the skin and then make a mask out of it.” Women would also busy themselves with preparation, looking for old shawls and petticoats.

On a close island community, creating an effective disguise requires no small amount of skill. Hands are concealed with gloves, and necks with straw – a glimpse of chest hair could give the game away. In the silence of the pub, drinking habits would also be altered. A pint drinker might order – by way of a slip of paper handed to vigilant bar staff – a half, or a gin and tonic.

Ó Conceanainn and O’Flaherty inherited the custom, which has been an aspect of island life for centuries, but neither of them fully understands its origin. “It had some connection with the dead,” offers Ó Conceanainn, “but I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was the dead visiting the house or something.”

“I could never get to the bottom of it,” O’Flaherty adds. Whenever he asked the older people on the island why they did it, he was told: “The crowd before us were doing it.”

“The whole idea of disguise is really central to [Halloween],” says Ó Laoire. “I suppose people would go around dressed up in different kinds of costume and young fellas would come in and throw a cabbage at a door and see who would catch them.”

But as well as that, he adds, the festival has strong overtones of courtship and fertility. “Sometimes there would be strawboys and that sort of thing, and that would involve cross-dressing. It undermines gender boundaries and possibly affirms them. Gender roles are questioned and after the festival everything is back to the way it was before.”

“When the mini-skirt came in everyone was wearing them, you know, on that night,” says O’Flaherty. “I remember paying something like £20 for a pair of elastic tights one time for Halloween. Lots of men dress up as women and women dress up as men.”

But islanders say the Halloween festival has, over the last couple of decades, lost some of its essence. “It’s turned it into something else, really,” Ó Conceanainn says. When he was young, growing up on the west side of the island, he and his friends wouldn’t even think of going into Kilronan, the island’s main village. Instead, they called around to local houses. But cars have made the island small; the pubs in Kilronan now play a central role and house calls are dying out.

“Houses now would have apples and sweets for kids,” says O’Flaherty. “They’d be all ready – the way it was when they were growing up – and nobody might come. Especially the older people – they’d be sitting there waiting for somebody to come knock on the door and come in.”

Yet for all the change, Inis Mór still captures the spirit of the festival: a night when rules are subverted and identities suspended.

“On the night you see an awful lot of people dressed up and going around the village in Kilronan,” says O’Flaherty. “It’s still going, and going strong.”