Gothic Intersections: History, Story, Memory

Posted by Tracy Fahey on September 15, 2013 in Ms Tracey Fahey tagged with

The next intersection I’m looking at in this series is where histories, stories and memories converge to create a particular kind of local Gothic that has a clear and direct link to the folklore it draws from.  This kind of Gothic, though it manifests in cities, is more frequently found in rural areas, where memories are long and stories bear telling and re-telling.  One of the most alluring things about the Gothic is its omnipresence in our contemporary culture, from global to local.   When I talk about contemporary culture I don’t just mean pious, sparkling vampires, or white-faced singers, or running zombies or white-trash societies comprised entirely of supernatural beings.  I also mean Gothic as a kind of living tradition that stitches itself through our history and culture to emerge, its elements changed, but its roots evident, in the present day.

Let me clarify; for me, Gothic is not confined to the written word, or even the screen, it is real, vibrant, thriving.  It is found in shared stories, heard in pockets of the country, stories of pure terror, distinct, regional and set in a specific locale.  These are stories about forbidden places, behavioural codes transgressed, rites not followed.  They appear as fireside tales and re-appear as urban myths.  Now I could make important noises about post-modernism and Lyotard and the disappearance of the metanarrative, but honestly, I’m more fixated on how this local Gothic manifests itself – and why – and from what?

Let’s take a closer look.  The first, and obvious observance is that this kind of Gothic, these tales, are often seeded from an older culture, the oral tales, customs and superstitions we collectively refer to as folklore.   Taking, Ireland as a case study, we see that here this culture of superstitions, stories and codes was transmitted primarily through oral culture (the Irish word for folklore is béaloideas which also signifies ‘oral tradition’), tales passed down from generation to generation.   However, the Irish language began to decline in importance throughout the seventeenth century, with the increasing influx of wealthy English settlers, and from the late nineteenth century, under British rule, the official language of Ireland became English.  Therefore many of the great Gothic ‘Irish’ texts (Dracula, Melmoth the Wanderer, Uncle Silas) are the product of Anglo-Irish writers, writing in English.  While this was happening, the Irish language continued to thrive and became the main means of transmitting indigenous culture and history through oral narratives.

So what was passed on in this way?  In Ireland today, there are still tales that abound that are direct descendants of these early tales.  From region to region these vary significantly, coloured by local circumstances.  While the banshee, for example, is a national character who laments the death of members of particular families, in the south-west, there are many stories of a particular breed of banshee that washes bloody clothes in a river – surely the myth of the banshee mingled by the particularly fierce and bloody military history of the region.  Stories may survive, but they become mixed with historical detail and embellished by the teller’s memories.

Now, I did warn you last week this was going to be a little more autobiographical.  Really, it’s impossible to escape from this indulgence when you talk about experiences of local Gothic.   These strange stories were an intrinsic part of my childhood growing up in rural Catholic Ireland, where the everyday was laced with ritual and wonder; tales of fairy forts, magic bushes, jumping churches, fairy forts, and graves cracked open by a hungry Devil.  This has given me a lifelong empathy with the Gothic as something at once everyday yet incredible.  Of particular interest are those surviving rituals that passed through a Christianising influence – the holy water stoups found by some Irish front doors, filled with water to bless yourself with upon departing a house are a direct descendant of the early Irish custom of sprinkling urine on children as they left the house, to protect them from the advances of the fairies.  Sometimes these forms survived without much Christian embellishment- the May Doll ritual of bringing a straw dolls through the fields in May to bring fertility, runs in a direct line back to pagan customs, even, one might speculate, right back to the Venus of Willendorf, with only the most cosmetic application of Christianity, the addition of May altars to the Virgin Mary, and the redubbing of May as a Marian month.

These stories permeate the work of some beautiful Irish writers, like Patrick Kavanagh, the blunt poet of fields and rural hardship.  Kavanagh wrote one of the most moving and heart-breaking masterpieces of Irish poetry, The Great Hunger[1] (1942) using a mixture of epic form and earthy language that manages to be at once Romantic and anti-romantic (No crash, No drama/That was how his life happened/No mad hooves galloping in the sky,/But the weak, washy way of true tragedy -/A sick horse nosing around the meadow for a clean place to die).

Statue of Kavanagh by the Grand Canal, Dublin, which he immortalised in his poem Canal Bank Walk.

Kavanagh’s home-county of Monaghan also produced Patrick McCabe, who writes in a form often referred to as ‘Bog Gothic’.  McCabe’s phantasmagorias mingle pulp fiction with pop music, and yes, with local folklore to create lurid, unforgettable landscapes.  Even The Butcher Boy was based in part on a local story of murder told around McCabe’s native town of Clones.  As McCabe says “People who put down small towns are just trudging out the same old opinions – they don’t open their eyes. I had the time of my life in this place. There is a whole secret world here[2].”(King of Bog Gothic, 2003, interview with Pat McCabe in The Guardian)

Still from The Butcher Boy (dir. Jordan, 1997)

As I grew older, I drew away from these tales, feeling that they were childish, quaint, old-fashioned, and turned towards the more ‘proper’ form of classic Gothic texts –Poe, de Maupassant.  Wonderful though these stories were, it was the strangeness and beauty of local Gothic tales that continued and still continue to intrigue me.  As I’m also blogging for the Impossible Spaces anthology, I’m going to use an example from the book, my own short story  ‘Looking for Wildgoose Lodge’.    In fact, I blogged about the origin of this tale year ago on this very site (http://www.gothic.stir.ac.uk/guestblog/the-death-of-the-great-house-the-story-of-wildgoose-lodge/).   It was also the base for one of the most famous Irish Gothic short stories, William Carlton’s ‘Wildgoose Lodge’[3].My resulting short story is based on an old tale first told to me as a bedtime story, a narrative that manages to combine history, fiction and memory.   For me, the form of the short story allowed me to explore the complex emotions, memories and stories that the tale   evokes.

The former site of Wildgoose Lodge as it appears today

At present, I’m engaged in ethnographic research into the variants of the story that survive in local lore among different families, and analysing the reasons for these.  Due to the bloody and dangerous nature of the story – the burning alive of eight people, and the execution of eighteen more, the story went underground, and Carleton’s tale became a cypher, a coded way of discussing that which was too terrible to speak about.  I’m working with a group from the area to investigate the setting up of a memory project by the art collective I work with, Gothicise.  Using the fine art form of site-specific practice, I hope to further interrogate this terrible history, this haunting story, this strange memory, not to achieve an exorcism of the reality but to create a repository for the local stories that surround the site to this day.

In a final act of synchronicity, my next blog post will take up this idea of the intersection between art, site and story – and what happens or might happen in the cleft between story and art, between site and history.


[1] For those who want immediate access,  this poem is accessible at http://allpoetry.com/poem/8507411-The_Great_Hunger-by-Patrick_Kavanagh

[2] Mahoney, J (2003) King of Bog Gothic, Saturday 30 August 2003, The Guardian.  Accessible at http://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/aug/30/fiction.patrickmccabe

[3] This story was originally published as “Confessions of a Reformed Ribbonman,” (The Dublin Literary Gazette, 1830) and in 1833 received its present title when it appeared in the second edition of Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (Carleton,1833)

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