Spell Check – Frank McNally on witches, Walpurgis Night, and why Mayo can’t win the All-Ireland
The best-known tradition of Walpurgis Night (April 30th) is an annual meeting of witches on the Brocken, highest point of Germany’s Harz Mountains, where the devil is said to preside over a night’s revelry. Photograph: Getty Images
Walpurgis Night (April 30th) has never been a big thing in these parts where, six months later, Halloween serves a similar purpose. The end of April’s associations with supernatural mischief, especially on hilltops, is more a central European custom.
Its best-known tradition is an annual meeting of witches on the Brocken, highest point of Germany’s Harz Mountains, where the devil is said to preside over a night’s revelry. If the party goes ahead this year, as usual, let’s hope everyone observes correct social distancing.
The diabolical event is named for an English saint, Walpurga, who was born in Devon circa 710 AD. She later became a missionary to the Frankish empire, which included much of modern Germany. Probably as a Christian insurance policy against local depravity, May 1st is now her feastday.
April 30th is also known in Germany as Hexennacht, from Hex, meaning “witch”. This may be as good an excuse as any to bake a Hexenhauschen (gingerbread house) today, or to cook something in a Hexenkessel (cauldron). More strenuous activity should be avoided, however, or you may end being shot by a witch – Hexenschuss – resulting in a painful condition known to non-Germans as lumbago.
In Ireland, this time of year is traditionally more associated with the old festival of Bealtaine, which also involved hilltops. One of the most important venues was the Hill of Uisneach in Westmeath, where some, including perhaps the odd witch, still mark the coming of summer. But any bigger similarities between Uisneach and Hexennacht – and they sound vaguely alike too – can probably be discounted.
Even if we don’t have Hexennacht in Ireland, the concept of hexes is certainly popular. We often explain otherwise mysterious events by suggesting that somebody or something is “hexed”. The idea has special appeal to sports fans, more prone to superstition than most. Indeed, if witches are still actively involved in Irish life, they seem to take a particular interest in the GAA.
Biddy Early, and her supposed 80-year curse on Clare hurlers, is the most famous example. But in more recent times, Mayo’s epic series of failures to win football’s All Ireland is also often called a hex. Yes, that was allegedly imposed by a priest, not a witch.
Even so, and checking my German dictionary again, the clergyman in question could arguably be considered a Hexenmeister (“wizard”).
The Irish Times archive confirms the tendency for GAA fans to suspect supernatural involvement in their teams’ misfortunes. Typing the phrase “put a hex on” in the search box, for example, I found an intriguing headline from 1992: “Unseen forces at work in sport”.
This was over a piece by the late Sean Kilfeather, based on a letter from a reader who had his own theory about why certain GAA counties appeared negatively bewitched.
In the case of Mayo, by a now-timely coincidence, it involved the subjects of viruses and vaccines. But we’ll come back to that in a moment. The reader’s general argument was that counties which had won All-Ireland finals in conspicuously lucky ways were punished for their short-term success by long-term bad luck.
Hence Kildare, he said, champions in 1928 thanks to a “very controversial goal” and never to win again since. Or Offaly, whose famous burglary of 1982 stopped the Kerry five-in-a-row but ushered in decades of darkness. The reader had other examples, some since overtaken by renewed success.
But yes, he also cited Mayo, where the weeping and gnashing of teeth continues.
Why were Mayo lucky to win their last All-Ireland, in 1951?
Because, according to theory, their opponents in the final, Meath, were suffering a temporary reaction to the smallpox vaccines they had just received for a trip to New York the week afterwards to play a delayed National League decider.
The “home” league had finished in spring, as usual – on the eve of Walpurgis Night, in fact – and Meath had disposed of Mayo in that. But the overall final was not until late September, and even though Meath beat New York then, they were said to have underperformed a week earlier in Croker, because some players had a bad reaction to their shots.
The smallpox vaccine is in general one of history’s great success stories. A mass vaccination of New Yorkers (and of the visiting Cavan and Kerry GAA teams) in 1947 ended that city’s last outbreak of the disease.
But never mind the priest and the funeral. In helping to eradicate smallpox, goes the alternative theory, the Meath Hexenschuss of 1951 may also have accidently wiped out the future of Mayo football.