In Ireland, after the fall bounty, trees are bare and fields blank. Absence gouges out a hollow in the minds of mortals. Phantoms flood in: echoes of times past, voices we ache to hear again, ripples of childhood laughter, loved ones who are no more.
At this time of the year especially, I see and hear and feel the neamhbeo (pronounced “nyav-byow”) in flickering flames, the dank dusk, the drowsy dawn, the wind and the rain, and the shadows shaped by the waning light. They coexist with our reality in a parallel world. They traverse our lives, trespass our thoughts, step in and out, they hide and they seek, now you see them, now you don’t.
The English equivalent of neamhbeo is “unalive,” yet it doesn’t quite suffice; “unalive” means “dead”—and in that dull thud of a word, the finite is decidedly implicit. The neamhbeo are neither alive nor dead. There really is no English translation, since the Anglo-Saxon worldview is empiricist and cannot accommodate a concept as intangible as “neither alive nor dead.” On most days, neither can I. Then again, as the year yawns to a close and I find myself alone with nothing but the elements for company, a breeze can be a kiss.
Lights of paradise
My childhood summers were spent on the Dingle peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland, my parents’ birthplace. The promontory juts out into the seething Atlantic from the western seaboard, so far out, in fact, that its furthest tip is known locally as “last parish America.” The headland’s mountains collide with a sea that smashes against its sides, carving the shoreline into cliff and cove. Veils of mist come and go, bursts of sun and cloud alternate, making for an ever-changing vapor of purple, indigo and blue cloaking the rugged terrain. Thousands of fairy forts still litter the green fields—circular mounds protruding from the earth, remnants of the ancient dwellings of the pagan Celtic tribes that roamed Ireland long ago. To this day, the most fearless farmer or greediest developer will not touch a ring fort for fear of the fairies’ revenge.
Kerry is where I first saw the neamhbeo and where they saw me. My grandfather pointed out the dancing lights—twinkling white eyes in the black night. I walked toward them and they retreated; I stepped back and they advanced: tiny fluttering sparkles, lots of them, more magical than a Christmas tree. Science, of course, has a killjoy explanation: gases emanating from bogland or marsh combust and create the enchanting phenomenon. But who cares? A child will never forget the experience, or indeed the sense of something “other” out there.
The neacha neamhbeo—oxymoronically meaning “unalive beings”—are the spirits that inhabit the Celtic “otherworld” or saol eile (pronounced “sale ella”). They can be fairies (sídhe, pronounced “shee”), deities or those who have passed from this life to the other. Neither heaven, hell nor the dark and gloomy Hades underworld of Greek mythology, the Celtic Otherworld is an eternal paradise devoid of suffering—a place of plenty, endless summer and eternal youth.
The language of the Otherworld
Irish is the mother tongue of West Kerry people and has been for thousands of years. The locals express in their vernacular a vivid worldview inextricable from a place so saturated in and exposed to the elements and a reality for which English has no words: one where the membrane that separates this world from the Otherworld is permeable. The Irish Celtic consciousness is as sentient as it is fluid: mortals and spirits intermingle and have been doing so since the beginning of time. Even the dogs in Kerry know that.
As children, we emulated the fairy lights gyrating above the bog by making lamps out of turnips for Samhain [pronounced “sow-win”], the eve of the Celtic New Year, which falls on the 31st day of October. The Catholic Church subsumed the pagan festival into All Hallows Eve in the tenth century, which later morphed into the Halloween we know today. More than a million Irish immigrants entered the United States after fleeing the great potato famine in the 1840s, bringing with them many traditions, including those of Halloween, the apex of neamhbeo activity, when the spirits have a right hooley making mischief with mortals. Pumpkins have, of course, long since replaced the humble turnip, and ghouls, ghosts, monsters and zombies, or “living dead,” have become the contemporary incarnations of unalive, though horror was never part of the original script.
Unalive but ever-present
My mother is now 90 years old, and in her twilight consciousness, somewhere between living and dying, her mind is unraveling. In that she is bilingual, her bifurcated rambling traverses two languages and two worlds. In English, she sounds daft, not knowing who’s who or what’s what; in soft, velvety Irish her mixing of imagery, people, places, events, the dead and the living, space and time is one long lyrical breathing of language, a continuous stream and flux of all melting and merging into one. As she drifts in and out of sleep and dream, she expresses in Irish a state of mind where the conscious and subconscious unite mellifluously in a poetic worldview, where that which does and does not exist are enmeshed in one another.
My father was a scientist who never could shake his Kerry roots. When he left this world, his little granddaughters placed fairy dolls in his coffin. My mother added the Christian St. Brigid’s cross, woven from rushes. He departed as he had lived: a pagan, a Catholic and an empiricist.
Halloween is my favorite night of the year in New York. The glee with which children and adults of all races, can absorb, comprehend, expand and indulge in an essentially foreign tradition is testimony to the universal transcendence of the neamhbeo and their ability to captivate the non-Celtic imagination. They may be “unalive beings,” but they have traveled far from the bogs of Ireland through thousands of years. Kind of impressive for something that is neither alive nor dead and does not exist.