Hate it or love it, the scariest night of the year is upon us
Greedy children with hands outstretched with great expectations or children delighting in a night of magical transformation? How do you cope with Halloween?
Caoimhe O’Leary with her children, Adam (4) and Darren (18 months), at home in Tullow, Co Carlow. Photographs: Eric Luke
IF YOU don’t have children around, it is probably okay to admit you hate Halloween. For the rest of us, it seems churlish not to enter into the spirit of the night.
You may despise the tacky, over-priced decorations and costumes, resent the stream of trick or treaters to the door and fear the underlying air of menace in some urban areas, but still go along with it for the sake of the children. Nobody wants to rain on their parade (although there’s a good chance the Irish weather will do that anyway).
However, why does a one-night celebration have to have such a long build-up? In fact, by the time darkness falls on Thursday evening (October 31st), the majority of Halloween-themed festivals and events will be over, having cashed in on the bank holiday weekend.
“Halloween isn’t meant to be a ‘thing’, it’s just meant to be a day,” complains one mother of three in Dublin, who recalls how, when she was a child, you either put on a sheet to be a ghost for a couple of hours, or you borrowed your grandad’s cap and jacket to be an old man .
“None of this decorating your house weeks in advance. Hello? When did I fall asleep and wake up in mid-America?” she asks. “Ordering costumes online months in advance and practising elaborate make-up techniques via YouTube tutorials? Oh give me strength!”
The irony is that Halloween, or Samhain, is a Celtic festival that Irish and Scottish emigrants brought across the Atlantic, from where we have in turn imported a much bigger, brasher version. We’ve swapped turnip lanterns for easier-to-carve pumpkins, and traded apples and nuts for sickening quantities of “candy”.
Traditionally it’s a night, marking the start of winter, when the dividing layer between us and the “other world” becomes permeable. We light fires to ward off the evil spirits who come amongst us and wear masks so that they won’t recognise us and try to whisk us away to the other side.
But blame our US cousins for losing sight of pagan rituals and letting ghosts, witches and skeletons turn into zombies, axe murderers and short-skirted French maids.
There’s nothing half-hearted about Caoimhe O’Leary when it comes to celebrating this time of year. For her, it runs “pretty damn close” to the magic of Christmas.
“I really, really enjoy Halloween,” she says. “When I was growing up it was always about a big family get-together - partying with all my cousins and lots of other kids.”
She loved being able to dress up and, living then in rural Co Wicklow - “where no-one could hear you scream” - going out with torches and wondering if there were ghosts lurking in the pitch black.
“We always had a bonfire, nothing big but one you could toast marshmallows on, and fireworks” - her uncle had a licence and always put on a display for them.
Now she’s a mother herself, she still loves to dress up on Halloween night and do face painting for neighbours’ children in the small estate in Tullow, Co Carlow where she lives with her fiancé John Whelan, and their two children, Adam (four) and 18-month-old Darren.
“Seeing their little faces light up when they look in the mirror - ‘oh I look like a witch, I AM a witch…’ They go into this entire, magical world of their own where they believe, for this one night, they are this character they always wanted to be,” she enthuses.
Their house has been decorated since the first week of October and Adam went through countless costumes changes in his mind before settling on a skeleton for the big night, while his little brother has a pumpkin costume. And O’Leary will be a witch again because she’s still got the hat from last year.
Finances permitting, she likes to host a children’s party on the afternoon of the 31st and paint their faces in preparation for the trick or treating after dark. They know everybody in the estate so it is a safe, welcoming place for their children to be knocking on doors.
“Some children in the estate will go to other estates in the town and easily do 60 to 100 houses. I think that is a bit excessive; 20 houses is plenty for us.”
In the small Co Kerry town of Kenmare, a long-established Halloween night parade, followed by traditional games and the handing out of sweets to children, takes the place of door-to-door trick or treating. It rounds off what has evolved into a whole “Halloween Howl” festival and at least 1,500 children are expected to take part on Thursday night, according to Helen McDwyer of Kenmare Chamber of Commerce.
O’Leary doesn’t understand why some people don’t like Halloween - although she recalls four years ago, when they were living in Carlow town, bins were taken from their garden and thrown on a bonfire.
“We ended up having to pay €30 to have them replaced but it hasn’t dampened my spirit whatsoever, I still love it.”
In contrast, up in Dublin, Halloween can’t be over quick enough for Clare O’Flynn, a mother of three children aged nine, five and three. Each year she has a feeling of dread as soon as she sees the black and orange decorations starting to appear in the shops.
“I would like to skip the end of October!” she says.
Growing up in Nenagh, Co Tipperary she used to have a great time with neighbours. But she has disliked it ever since returning from the UK, “and had my own house and my own cat”.
Two years ago that cat disappeared a few days before Halloween, probably frightened and disorientated by fireworks going off during the lead-in, so the family spent the night worrying about him out there in the mayhem. Happily he turned up two weeks later, nearly five kilometres from their home in Clonsilla.
“So last year I decided I was leaving Dublin for the week.” The family, plus cat, decamped to her parents’ home in Co Waterford where she and a friend took the children trick or treating for the first time - by car, because the houses are so spread out.
When we talk, O’Flynn hasn’t yet decided how they are going to spend this Thursday but she hopes they will escape for the night. However, if she is at home, she will stock up on sweets and reluctantly open the door, as she knows her younger two enjoy seeing other children at the door and handing out the goodies.
“I find, unless I know the kids, I don’t like opening the door. But you don’t know, obviously, until you open the door, that you don’t even know these people!” She hates when there are loads of children all sticking their hands out.
Another mother, who wants to keep her curmudgeonly side secret, agrees: “It’s the expectation that bugs me - along with having to give up a much-needed €20 to buy kids sweets. Mostly kids who have sweets every day of the year anyway, so it’s not even a treat, and now I’ve given up my part of my weekly household budget to buy them more.”
“It has got more greedy,” says O’Flynn. “They just expect - they don’t even bother saying the rhyme, they just stand there with their hands out.”
They wouldn’t get away with that at O’Leary’s door. “I am horrible when kids come to my door trick or treating: I tell them they only get sweets if they give me a song or a dance - I want something in return!”
But, of course, she says that with all the enthusiasm of a die-hard fan. Halloween haters can’t get them off the doorstep quick enough.
One upside of the recession is that fewer people have had money to spend on illegal fireworks over recent years, resulting in fewer injuries.
But Prof Alf Nicholson, consultant paediatrician at the Children’s University Hospital, Temple Street in Dublin, warns against any complacency. His hospital’s emergency department recorded just four cases of firework injuries last year but it would only take a batch of low quality, unstable products coming onto the black market to push that up again.
“We have no quality control,” he points out, recalling how both Temple Street and Crumlin children’s hospital took part in a large burns studies a few years ago, which showed that injuries in the UK from fireworks, where they are legal, were “always a good deal less than in Ireland”.
A concerted effort by local authorities, Garda Siochana and the Fire Service, also seems to be paying off in reducing the number of large bonfires getting out of control.
Last year Dublin Fire Brigade responded to 639 call-outs between 4pm on October 31st and 8am the following morning, compared with 720 calls in 2011, 632 in 2010, and 871 in 2009. Dublin City Council staff removed 800 tonnes of material stockpiled for bonfires in the run-up to last Halloween and is again asking the public to report any signs of bonfire hoarding to the Litter Hotline on 1800 251 500 (office hours) or online at dublincity247.ie.
It’s always one of the busiest nights of the year for paramedics. However, last year wasn’t too bad, says Mick Dixon, chairman of the National Ambulance Service Representative Association, who hopes this is a sign that people have become more “savvy” about keeping safe.
He will be on duty in Gorey, Co Wexford on Thursday night. “The last thing you want to be doing,” he says, “is attending a child who is severely burned or badly injured because of fireworks or a bonfire.”
To help prevent such tragic incidents, Temple Street hospital offers the following advice:
“ Avoid fireworks and bonfires. People should only attend firework displays that are run by professionals.
“ Children should not hold fireworks at any time. Even after they have been used, fireworks can explode again, so should be put into a bucket of water.
“ Sparklers should be lit outside and kept away from the face, hair and clothing.
“ Children’s costumes should be easily visible at night and they are advised to carry a small torch.
“ Costumes should not restrict a child’s vision or movement, to help avoid falls. Masks should be removed when crossing the road.
“ All costumes, wigs and bags should be flame resistant.
“ Young children should always be accompanied by an adult when they go trick or treating. Older children should always be with at least two other friends.
“ Children’s treats should always be checked e.g. that a young child has not been given something they could choke on.
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Seven of the best family events on Halloween night
Otherworld Festival, Dublin: A parade precedes a three-hour Gathering of Ghosts and Ghouls, from 6pm to 9pm, at the Ballymun Plaza. It’s a free event that will include entertainment, music and fireworks. See otherworldfestival.com
Carnival and Fireworks on the Foyle: Derry is renowned for Halloween celebrations but this year, it being Derry-Londonderry City of Culture 2013, they should be extra special. A carnival parade of “lost souls” leaves the City Council Offices at 7pm and fireworks set to music over the River Foyle start at 8pm. See cityofculture2013.com
Traditional parade, Kenmare: Assemble at the creamery car park at 5.40pm for a 6pm start to what is the climax of the Co Kerry town’s Halloween Howl. See kenmare.ie
Torchlight Procession, Co Meath: Walk in the steps of the druids, from the Fairgreen in Athboy to the Hill of Tlachtga where, it is claimed, Halloween began. Starts at 7.30pm. See meath.ie
Bonfire night in Brigit’s Garden, Co Galway: Inspired by the four big Celtic festivals, including Samhain, this garden in Rosscahill is an appropriate setting for a Halloween Bonfire and Storytelling Evening. Running from 4pm-9pm, admission is €18 for family of five; adults €5.50; child €3.50. See brigitsgarden.ie
Ghost train, Co Leitrim: Climb aboard the Horror Express in Dromod, organised as a fund-raiser by Cavan and Leitrim Railways. Trains run between 6pm and 9pm, with each trip taking about 25 minutes. Recommended for children aged four to 12, at a cost of €10 a head, but accompanying adults go free. See cavanandleitrim.com
Scare Fest, Co Kilkenny: this is one for the older teens in your life - a candle-lit tour through the most haunted parts of Shankill Castle in Paulstown, Co Kilkenny. You have to pay €22 admission but it sounds as if it will be hard to beat for authentic atmosphere. Tours run at 7pm, 8.30pm and 10pm, while the final tour, starting at 11.30pm, is sold out. For those aged 15-plus, while anybody under 18 must be accompanied by an adult. See shankillcastle.com
Family gatherings in front of cosy fires indoors
Recounting of ghostly tales in atmospheric settings
Traditional games such as bobbing for apples
Freshly baked barm brack with the promise of a gold ring
Sugar rush from the pick of the treats bag
Illegal fireworks in the hands of amateurs
Bangers frightening animals and waking babies
Hordes of children coming to the door with outstretched hands, without even a “trick or treat”
Communal bonfires turning into full-blooded, anti-social rampages
Sugar rush from the dross of the treats bag