Friday 25 March 2016

Guest Post: Caroline Barry on her writing inspiration

The Writing Inspiration

I started collecting ghost stories very young and I had the good fortune to be born into a family of storytellers. Both of my parents were from the country, so they had a raft of tales to tell. My great uncle Tom Gannon cut a particularly gothic figure. He was ancient and gnarled with arthritis and had a gift when it came to transmitting warnings about the dead and the banshee. He once told me that ‘Seanie Seery who lived down the road was terrified to find a screaming woman outside his kitchen window. In an effort to get rid of her, Seanie grabbed the poker from the fire and stuck it out the window to frighten the woman away. Only when he pulled the poker back in, it was half melted!’ This quirky detail terrified me so much that I couldn’t sleep for a week.

There was something very gothic about my country relations. Time seemed to move differently for my grandparents. The modern world didn’t seem to penetrate into the Irish Midlands in the mid-seventies. My grandmother only got electricity into her house in 1972, which is extraordinary when you think of it. My mother’s first job was as a maid to a Captain and Lady Arkwright, so there was a lingering Victorian feel to everything including the sparse, poor interiors of the houses they lived in. I was a city girl, used to the flash and thrust of quick witted city folk, so visiting the country became a study in all things strange and wild. I was fortunate to have experienced country traditions curiously preserved just before they vanished out of modern life and I think it is this early cross pollination of city-country world views that has informed my writing.

We lived in Tallaght, a huge suburb of Dublin, and despite the saturation of the influx of a new population to what had been rural countryside I remember myself and my new friends telling ghost stories to one another. There was an eerie grey building overlooking Tallaght, built high up on the mountain that was constructed from the ruins of an ancient tomb. It had been a club house a couple of hundred years ago. Men used to play cards there and then one night a stranger called and wanted in on a game. My new friend Sandra told me that one of the men dropped a card on the floor and when he went to pick it up, he saw the stranger’s feet and they were cloven! The stranger burst into flames and the whole house along with the card-playing inhabitants burned to the ground, except a lone survivor who managed to tell the tale. When we were young we thought the Hellfire Club was named after the devil and the blaze, we knew nothing of the libertine group ‘The Blasters’ who used the hunting lodge on the hill for long drinking and gambling sessions. The club consisted mostly of men who were so irreverent, anti-church and very politically incorrect that they called themselves the Hellfire Club.

I was warned that there was a ghost horse and carriage that was frequently sighted on the Old Bawn Road, usually at midnight, driven by a headless coachman. As a child I didn’t know that this local legend had actually preserved the period in medical history when grave-robbing provided the necessary corpses for eager students to anatomise. A common ruse employed by ‘Resurrection men’ or ‘Sack-‘em-ups’ was to stiffen the coachman’s coat or collar so that he could conceal his head and guide his team of horses by peeping from beneath the collar while he transported his cargo of freshly exhumed corpses. The horrific sighting of a headless coachman was employed to frighten the locals back into their houses, terrify any law agencies, and let the thieves get on with their thieving without protestors getting in the way.

We all knew that the priory tower in Tallaght was haunted. Everyone had a ‘death warning’ ghost story and despite the intrusion of modern life, neon lighting and television, we were able to frighten each other with second hand, almost first-hand accounts of a true ghost sighting.

The possibility that there is an ‘otherness’ that can interact with the living gnaws at the back of every rational mind. Ghost stories remind us, even as a thought experiment, that it is very hard to prove or disprove the existence of spirits. Our certainty in material reductivism has recently been undermined by particle physics. Matter it turns out has eerie attributes, and information, it seems, can imprint itself curiously on the air. There are magnetic and electrical fields. There is the spooky world of super-positioning where one particle communicates with another over long distances and appears to be entangled. And just like particle physics, ghost stories remind us that we are entangled with our ancestors and all who have gone before and the transmission of information from unlikely sources is something we have to explore and consider.

The big questions in neuro-science at the moment relate to whether consciousness is local or non-local and the data being collected by scientists like Dr. Dean Radin over in Silicon Valley throws up some very interesting possibilities. The old idea of ‘possession by a demon spirit’ is a conversation about local or non-local consciousness; it might be cloaked in folklore but the query is the same.

Thanks, Caroline!  The Dolocher is out now. 

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