Belfast Telegraph

A headless monk? It must be Halloween

By Frances Burscough

It's a great shame, in my opinion, that Halloween has become the huge commercial event that it is today. Like most age-old festivities the original and true meaning of Halloween is lost nowadays, replaced by a sea of regulation orange and black tackiness emblazoned across every high street window.

Mystical is the only word to describe it when I was a child, not least because of the confusing mixed messages that always accompanied the season. At school the nuns were teaching us that Halloween was a Christian festival where we pray for the souls of the dead and remember all the saints who dies for their faith in Jesus.

Meanwhile just a cursory glance at a history book would confirm that the season was actually much older than that and far more intriguing. In fact it originated from the ancient Celtic feast of Samhain. The Celts believed that there was just a "veil" separating the living from the dead and this veil was as thin and translucent as the mists that rolled in on autumn evenings.

At Samhain this veil was at its thinnest and so the spirits of the dead could slip through and visit the living world. Sacred bonfires were lit on the eve of Samhain and folk would gather, dressed in animal heads and skins, and offer up items from the recent harvest as a gift to the spirits.

So you can see where the confusion comes from. Mixed messages abound around this time of year. But one thing that has been retained through all the centuries of Paganism and Christianity is the association of ghosts and more specifically, the telling of ghost stories. Where I come from in Lancashire is - allegedly - one of the most haunted places in the UK. I'm not sure how they can prove such a thing, but it is certainly true that events in local history have given rise to a whole host of ghost stories, many of which we would share around the fire on Hallowe'en.

One that I will always remember is the story of Chingle Hall - an old manor house with a moat which is in the village of Goosnargh, just a few miles away from where I grew up. In fact it is so old that it was constructed using the hull of a Viking Longboat for the beams. The story goes like this:

"The man who built Chingle Hall was a wealthy merchant called Adam de Singleton and he and his family were very devout Catholics. Superstitious locals thought it was a bad idea to use Viking materials for his home, and that it would cast a curse on all who lived there, but he persevered with his plan and the Hall was completed in 1260. It stayed in the family for many generations, during which time it was believed that an assortment of ghosts took up residence there too, including Adam's wife Eleanor Singleton who was believed to have died in childbirth. Sixteen spirits in all are said to have roamed the house at night, all hailing from many different periods in history. But the most famous one of all is the ghost of St John Wall - a Franciscan priest who was one of the English Martyrs put to death in the 16th century after the Reformation made Catholic Mass punishable by death. Chingle Hall was his birthplace and during the persecution of Catholics two secret hideaways - known as "priest holes" were built into the house. One was under the floorboards and another was behind the chimney breast. Priests such as John Wall and their devout congregation thwarted the authorities for a long time until their subterfuge was finally uncovered in 1679. John Wall was immediately arrested, then executed and his severed head was taken to France as a warning sign to Catholics there.

Before long, residents at Chingle Hall started to report sightings of a headless monk, appearing from inside the walls and wandering aimlessly around the grounds at night... sightings that have persisted over the years right up until the present day. Experts believe that he is searching for his head and, if it was ever brought back to Chingle Hall he would rest in peace and the hauntings would stop...."

And, at that stage in the story, someone would throw a macabre carved turnip onto the fire and we would all scream our heads off!

Belfast Telegraph


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