Tuesday, February 7, 2017

A Period Piece

Here's something unusual for this blog-- a piece of juvenilia!

On this blog, I've very often described a childhood Halloween party which had a formative influence upon me. It played a big part in making me a traditionalist, an essentialist, a romantic, a horror fan, a nostalgist, and goodness knows what else.

Remarkably, I have a very early account of this party, written when I was twelve or thirteen, which I am going to share with you now.  I wrote it in English class, in the first year of secondary school.

I'm not a very materialistic person and I don't cling to many things. But I do have two metal boxes (one pink, one black) which are very important to me. In the boxes are folders. In the folders are documents I very much wish to keep. They're quite diverse, but they mostly contain an archive of my writing efforts. The poems I published in college newspapers are there, as is my first 'proper' published poem, in an issue of Books Ireland from 1997. (I got paid for it, too, though I never cashed the cheque.)

It also contains some of my English exercises from school. Not all of them, by any means, so it's quite surprising that this one (which is one of the oldest) happens to survive.

English was by far my favourite class in school. Maths was my bane, a shadow that hung over me four days a week. I didn't like Irish, or French, or German. I liked art, especially looking at slides of famous pictures on an overhead projector. I didn't like religion class, which (despite my school being a Catholic school) contained very little actual religion. I liked history. I love P.E., despite being not at all athletic, and I still regularly dream of P.E. class. This was mostly because we had a succession of relaxed P.E. teachers who let us play games rather than forcing us to climb ropes or do sit-ups. I also had a huge crush on my P.E. teacher in my final year, although I heard other boys being very cruel about her looks. I guess I've always been a contrarian.

My first year or so in secondary school was a disaster. I didn't know what hit me and I remember being exhausted all the time. I was getting E and F marks in almost everything. I thought I was stupid. I was very shy and withdrawn, too.

But I had one teacher who was the model of an 'inspirational' teacher, at least for me, and at least in English. (I had her for religion in later years, and that wasn't so memorable.) She took over my English class in my second year and she pushed me to do better. She praised my writing but also criticised me for sloppiness and lack of effort. I really bloomed under this approach, and soon I was submitting assignments which she would read out to the class as models. One day, an essay I wrote on J.M. Synge's Riders to Sea was typed and photocopied by this teacher, and given to the whole year as a model. This made a big difference to me, and I made much more of an effort at other subjects. I never became an A student (except in English), not even a consistent B student, but at least I climbed out of the doldrums of E's and F's.

Whereas most of my school years have passed into a haze, I can remember almost verbatim many lessons from English class-- the sense of excitement and discovery was intoxicating.

I've often thought about contacting that teacher to tell her how much her encouragement meant to me. I don't even remember her name, and I assume she's retired. If I were to contact her, it would have to be through the school, asking them if they could identify her from the information I gave. It's not the kind of gesture I'm used to making. I'm still pondering it.

Anyway, enough of my school daze, here's my essay. This was before that inspirational teacher took me in hand, but even in my chaotic first year, I was quite good at English class and I made a bit of an effort. My handwriting then was neater than it is now! I'm keeping all the spelling mistakes, for flavour. (I liked to include the Libra symbol in all my compositions at this time, not out of any belief in astrology, but simply as a personal emblem.)

A Childhood Experience

Maolsheachlann Ó Ceallaigh ♎

I can't recall my favourite memory, but the Hallowe'en of a year quite long ago sticks in my mind. I woke up that morning, dissapointed that no thrill of the day was in me. Now, soon, one of the best things of Hallowe'en would begin. The shopping.

My ma, my brother and I walked through the supermarket. We carefully picked out party minerals and nuts, barn bracks [barmbrack, an Irish fruitcake eaten at Halloween] and packets of crisps, and so filled our trolley, all the time I waited to see the shop workers, walking past in their unvarying annual costumes.

I watched the bonfire being made from my bedroom window, dressing myself up in my costume. I was to be a hobbit, from The Lord of the Rings. [Italics in my original handwriting!] When I was complete in cloak, waistcoat, shirt, sword and the Ring of Doom hanging around my neck, I was ready to view the moment of thruth. The lighting of the bonfire.

Then we were ready. We walked to the family Hallowe'en party. This was It, I thought. The true meaning of Hallowe'en.

Having met my various cousins, uncles and aunts we sat down. The food came. We sat and ate, but we were impatient to get out to the busy and active outdoor night.

And when we did we formed a semi-circle around the older boys who gave us a fine display of Catherine wheels and monkeys rockets. [I was probably associating monkey nuts with fireworks here.]

Then we went indoors again, and even the big boys were but now an audience for the storytellers who had seen more than twenty Hallowe'ens, and the effect of this came in their eerie stories.

And finally, at home, we enjoyed our private party, and we watched the inevitable horror-- The Fog...and, as we watched it, a blanket of fog surrounded us, through which we could only see the ever lessening dying fires and late fireworks.

The last line is quite a nice flourish for a thirteen year old, I think!


  1. i often read about brack being originally a st Brigid s day treat and yet I've only ever come across it being eaten at Halloween; does anyone ever celebrate st Brigid with brack avg more?

    1. I've never heard of that. I've never heard of any St. Brigid's tradition except the St. Brigid's Cross. It's a shame that died out.