As I mention ‘suffering’ in the title of this blog, and as tomorrow is All Souls’ Day, it feels appropriate to expand a little on this theme in the context of the season…

I have been thinking back to my Irish childhood, where All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day held much significance. Today, I have been an atheist much longer than I have ever been a Catholic, and the details of the significance of these ‘holy days’ are hazy. And so I looked to Irish literature to refresh my memory.

One of my favourite authors is John McGahern, and his memoir gave me plenty of background. As a very young child, McGahern quickly realised that:

‘Heaven was in the sky. Hell was in the bowels of the earth. There, eternal fire raged. The souls of the damned had to dwell in hell through all eternity, deprived for ever of the face of God…

…Between this hell and heaven, purgatory was placed. Descriptions of it were vague, probably because all of us expected to spend some time there. The saints alone went straight to heaven. In purgatory, we would have to be purified in flame to a whiteness like that of snow before we could join the saints in the blessedness of heaven.’

All Souls’ Day signifies the moment in the eyes of the Catholic Church when the souls of those in purgatory finally ‘ascend’ to heaven. This ascension is seemingly made possible by the prayers of the living that have atoned for the sins of the dead.

In an essay written just before his death (, McGahern speaks of the theocracy in which he was born:

‘Hell and heaven and purgatory were places real and certain we would go to after death, dependent on the Judgement’, and where, on All Souls’ Night ‘the dead rose and walked as shadows among the living.’

McGahern also reflects that over the years, ‘belief in these sacred stories and mysteries fell away without my noticing.’

Not having lived in Ireland for very many years, I have no idea of the significance of All Souls’ Day in my homeland now.

The history of where we and our traditions and rituals are rooted and originate from is fascinating, as well as just a little bit shocking…

To end, WB Yeats’ words on the season…

from All SoulsNight:

‘Midnight has come, and the great Christ Church Bell

And may a lesser bell sound through the room;

And it is All Souls’ Night,

And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel

Bubble upon the table. A ghost may come;

For it is a ghost’s right,

His element is so fine

Being sharpened by his death…’