The ghost of Sir Walter Scott at Hallowe’en

During the first three decades of the 19th century the parish priest of Blarney (north of Cork city ) was the affable Fr Mat Horgan. He was the epitome of the traditional scholar-priest. He was a poet and antiquarian, a supporter of Cork university, an advocate for social reform, his hero was Daniel O’Connell, and he spoke Latin and Irish effortlessly. He lived at Ballygibbon (later named Waterloo after a bridge was built there in the month of the famous battle ), and built a model of an ancient Round Tower, which can still be seen from the old Limerick to Cork road. But Fr Mat’s great gift was his love and generosity for bringing people of all classes together for dinners, parties and celebrations in a huge barn adjoining his home.

And here he is! (I hope you can make him out, a little to the left of centre ), lighting his pipe during a ‘Snap-Apple’ night, in the 1830s. Its a wonderful painting filled with laughter, music and joy, lovers and sweethearts and a feeling of being warm and safe on Hallowe’en.

It was painted by Cork artist Daniel Maclise (1806-1870 ). As a young art student Maclise had the good fortune to come across Sir Walter Scott, the world famous Scottish historical novelist, playwright and poet, browsing in Bolster’s bookshop, Cork, and sketching him. As a result of sales from this happy coincidence, Maclise opened a studio, making enough money from portraiture to study art in London, where his talent flourished. As an accomplished figure draftsman Maclise was employed by Frazer’s Magazine, and commissioned by many of the literary giants of the day to illustrate their books, most notably Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop.

Home in Cork on holiday, Maclise fell into the company of Fr Mat, and hence this interesting painting. It’s Hallowe’en, and as we all know, demonic spirits roam the hills and laneways of the countryside. Children are best kept safely indoors playing games. But there are adult games too, aimed at breaking down social reserve, and encouraging marriage. It is a dark night outside filled with magic, and a certain amount of fortune telling is allowed. The girl on the left is pouring molten lead into a bowl of cold water to see the shape of her future lover’s face. Other futures are being divined through reading cards, or throwing nuts into the fire. Children are playing ‘snap apple’, while an older boy, with his hands behind his back, tries to catch a swinging apple in his mouth.

The artist has also included many of his own friends. The dancing man, brandishing a shillelagh, is the local doctor John McEvens. The man in black, beside Fr Mat, is the folklorist Tom Crofton Crocker, author of Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland. Note also the costumes, which I am sure are accurate in every detail. The woman with her back turned to the viewer, with her lover’s head on her lap, has the image of Daniel O’Connell printed on her shawl. And yes, over by the door, looking up at the fiddler, is the portrait of Sir Walter Scott, which gave the artist the money for his studies in the first place. The painting was made in October 1832, only one month after the death of Sir Walter. Maclise could not resist including him at the happy gathering, even as a ghost.

The picture was first exhibited at the Crawford Gallery, Cork in 1833, with the following caption:

There Peggy was dancing with Dan

While Maureen the lead was melting,

To prove how their fortunes ran

With the Cards could Nancy dealt in;

There was Kate, and her sweet-heart Will,

In nuts their true-love burning,

And poor Norah, though smiling still

She'd missed the snap-apple turning.

On the Festival of Hallow Eve.

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