Half-way through writing Dark Warning I realised that if Winter was approaching in the story’s timeline then so was Halloween. To glide over it in a couple of sentences or to use it, that was the question? I decided to use it as both a set piece and as the turning point of the story.
Halloween is an ancient Celtic festival – Oíche Shamhna. It is celebrated in Ireland, Scotland and Wales; in England it has morphed into Guy Fawkes Night. My memories of childhood Halloweens are of that delicious mixture of excitement and fear, the anticipation of the day, the big decision of what to dress up as. The wait for it to grow dark enough for our little band to go ‘apples and nuts-ing’- 5.30pm if you were very young, as late as 8 if you were ‘big’.
We went out on our own, no parents chaperoning. Down one side of the road and up the other. The mother of one of our group had been known to pour a bucket of cold water out an upstairs window if you knocked her front door, so by unspoken agreement we’d skip her house when we got to it. I remember my condensed breath building up inside the plastic mask, the sleeves of my dad’s oldest jacket hanging over my wrists, an old pair of his trousers belted onto my waist, legs rolled up. For some reason we all borrowed our dad’s clothes to look suitably scary. No one dressed up ‘prettily’; scary was the only way to go. I remember the first year -the year I went to secondary school- that I was officially ‘too old’ for going door to door so I did door duty in our house instead, doling out the sweets to the little callers.
For atmosphere and emotions I knew I could simply call on memory but my story is set in Smithfield, Dublin, late 1790’s, and I wanted to get the historical details right.
I hit the internet first. Turns out the web is not a good resource for this particular feast – the info online is a mish-mash, stuff only done in Scotland is down as the norm in Ireland, rituals that belong to St John’s Eve are thrown in for good measure, one site copies the mistakes of another. The whole lot was, literally, an unholy mess, so I turned to an expert. Padraigín Clancy is a folk lorist and she read over my rough chapters for me. She pointed out the mistakes and made loads of great suggestions. She also put me onto a book called The Year in Ireland by Kevin Danaher. It’s out of print but I managed to get a second-hand copy on Amazon.
Turns out much of what we do now, what we did when I was a kid, they did in Georgian Dublin too, but with many more fascinating rituals thrown in! And folk then would have been more conscious of the what and the why of it.
The masks and disguises are to stop the fairies, witches and pookas that are abroad that night from recognising you and dragging you back to their underworlds.
The trick and treaters represent the dead calling to your house – you have been expecting them and welcome them with food.
And while the veil between the worlds is lifted it is an excellent time to try divining your future – hence the charms hidden in the barmbrack and the colcannon, the attempts to find out the name of your true love by paring an apple in one go and throwing the peel over your left shoulder to see what letters it forms when it lands. I remember frightening the life out of myself when I was about 13, trying the one where you look over your left shoulder into a mirror, by candlelight, and wait for your true love’s image to appear behind you…
One thing the internet did come up trumps on was the contents of bygone bonfires. In Ireland the bonfires light the darkness of Halloween as at so many Celtic feasts. Obviously the pallets and car tyres of today weren’t available, so what did they burn? My search turned up a description of a May night bonfire in the Liberties, as recorded by Sir William Wilde (Oscar’s da). Back in the day, Smithfield and the Liberties (two areas in Dublin city) were very competitive about their bonfires and their May trees and had to stand guard on the run up to celebrations against raids from the other side of the river, so it seems appropriate that I ‘stole’ a Liberties’ bonfire for my Smithfield story.
If you’d like to know what a real Irish Halloween was like 200 years ago here are the two chapters from Dark Warning. They read as a set piece. All you need to know is that the year is 1795, Taney is a girl who has the gift of second sight, Mary Kate is her step-mother, Jon Jon her small step-brother. Billy is a handsome beggar boy, who moves around in a small bowl on wheels as he was born without legs.
PS. If I’m absolutely honest the real reason I decided to put a set piece about Halloween in my book was to sort of reclaim/restate Halloween as an Irish /Celtic feast. I’ve been taken aback by non-Irish friends saying things like –‘Oh, the Irish haven’t gone all American and taken on that silly Halloween thing?’ Even some US friends have expressed surprise at hearing we celebrate it in Ireland. Well, we do! And have done for thousands of years. I’ve added this postscript because as I typed this up outside my fav coffee shop a German friend said hi and asked what I was up to. When I mentioned Halloween she said she never pays any attention to it as it’s ‘an American thing, isn’t it?’ And she’s lived in Ireland for 4 years!!
It was, of course, the Irish, Scots and Welsh who brought the feast to the US, not the other way around. How great is it that people of Irish ancestery get to reconnect with their roots twice a year because their forebearers brought two big celebrations with them when they emigrated – Paddy’s Day and Oíche Shamhna. They may have arrived empty-handed but they had two major hooleys up their sleeves!