Hallowe’en is not the big deal in Australian that we had at home every year. It was great time of year for us: autumn was well-established, with all the trees turning gold and the days getting shorter. The clocks had usually turned back an hour the weekend before. A bank holiday and school mid-term break happened around the same time, so we had time off school. And then there was the Hallowe’en party.
We didn’t have all the black-and-orange paraphernalia and dress-up outfits they have in the shops now. All we had were sparklers, shop-bought plastic masks that made your face all sweaty, maybe a shop-bought cardboard witch’s hat (but we usually made these ourselves), and home-made costumes. Fireworks were (and still are) illegal in Ireland, so no big fireworks displays for us. I was well into my twenties before I saw a proper Guy Fawkes bonfire and fireworks display in England, and I was bowled over. I still react like an excited child to a good fireworks display.
Children would get all excited as night began to fall, because that would mean it was almost time to go door-to-door and collect treats from the neighbours. We would dress up a ghosts (borrow a sheet from mum), soldiers (borrow a beret from a scout and a belt from dad), princesses (recycle a recent bridesmaid or flowergirl dress), monsters (this was usually a boy who just threw something together and put muck on his face) or of course witches (borrow black clothing from everybody in the house, make a cape out of something, and steal the kitchen sweeping brush or mop).
You never got sweets or chocolate or toys at neighbours’ houses. In fact if we were given sweets at a house, we saw that as bad planning or meanness on that part of that neighbour: they hadn’t stocked up properly for the night. We got monkey nuts (roasted ground nuts), apples, oranges, that sort of thing. We would run door to door and when the neighbour answered, we would all chant “HELP THE HALLOWE’EN PARTEEEEEE”!!! and open our plastic bags expecting a windfall. The neighbour would peer at us, pretend to be terrified at the scary costumes, compliment the fairies and princesses on their beauty, and try to figure out which neighbour’s child we were. Very exciting. Turning up in a similar costume as another child on the same front step was akin to arriving at a wedding these days in the same frock as another woman: very hostile.
Some bold boys would have obtained illegal fireworks but they never knew how to use them so it was all usually very underwhelming. The other illegal thing were “bangers” which were sort of fireworks with sound and no light, just a very loud bang. These things would be set off at more and more frequent intervals as the night wore on. I never really got the attraction, but then again I wasn’t a teenage boy.
At the top of our street there would be a bonfire. I have no idea who organised these things but there was one on every patch of green land all over Ballyfermot. Sometimes there would be a few within walking distance, and when we got older we would walk around to the next bonfire to see if theirs was better than ours. I guess it was the dads and the older kids who would set these bonfires up, collecting firewood and other fuel during the week. I don’t ever remember there being any serious accidents or anything. We all knew you had to have your wits about you on Hallowe’en.
After trawling the streets for our party treasure, it was back home for the party. This is where my Dad came into his own. I reckon Hallowe’en was one his favourite nights of the year. Unlike the rest of the year when Mum was in charge of food in our house, Daddy would get heavily involved in the preparation of the party food. It was the only night of the year that we saw a real coconut, bowls of hazelnuts, walnuts and brazil nuts, different types of apples, mandarin oranges (if we could get them), and the pièces de resistance – a pomegranate and sometimes even a real pineapple. Of course we didn’t call them pomegranates in those days. They were called wine-apples. Daddy was in charge of poking a hole in the coconut and getting the coconut milk out, then smashing the coconut with a hammer to get to the sweet flesh inside. He also cut up the pomegranate and the hard-to-slice pineapple, and cracked the harder nuts for us.
And of course there was the brack. Mum always made our brack which we loved, because hers were always better than shop-bought ones which were a bit dry. She soaked the raisins and sultanas in tea overnight before making the brack, so it was unbelievably moist. I liked hers best because she didn’t use candied peel which I hated. And she always put a 5p piece (a shilling it was still called) wrapped in silver paper, or a brass curtain ring, in the cake for one of us to find. She served it laden with butter. Even now Mum always makes a brack for me when I come to visit, and Eileen makes a fantastic tea-brack herself here in Australia.
Daddy was also the MC for the Halloween party. The games he played with us are still played by my niece and nephew at Hallowe’en even now, with my brother (their dad) and my Mum taking over as games supervisor now Daddy is gone. There was bobbing for apples in a basin, towels at the ready. It was harder than you think to sink your teeth into a hard Irish apple when you can’t get traction. Bobbing for pennies or shillings was even harder, and Bernard was always better at that because he could hold his breath for longer and wasn’t worried about looking like a drowned rat. Now I think of it, apples played a huge part in the evening: the other game was hanging an apple from the ceiling on a long piece of string, then having your hands tied behind your back and trying to take a bite from the apple as it swung around.
The other good thing about Hallowe’en was that it was the night before a holy day – so we always got a day off school next day to go to Mass. Hallowe’en means of course All Hallows’ Eve or All Saints’ Eve, the night before All Hallows’ Day or All Saints’ Day. That morning we went to Mass to pray for the Holy Souls, then home for a post-mortem with our friends on the party the night before.