Van Morrison & Ghosts of a Halloween Past


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Reposted from Halloween 2012.

Given the courage, we live by moments of interference between past and present, moments in which time comes back into phase with itself. It is the only meaning of history. We search the past not for other creatures but for our own lost selves.

~ Roger Shattuck 1958 (Source: Listening to Van Morrison, Neill Marcus).

We knew this particular Halloween would be quiet, falling on a week-night, the Wednesday before the General Election. Naturally, there is homework to do with a plethora of Propositions to study and choices to make over who will be sent to Washington. It just didn’t feel like Hallowe’en with November just hours away and the night air hanging warm at almost 80 degrees. Nonetheless, at sunset, my husband dutifully lit candles inside the pumpkins he had carved with our daughter the day before, and they filled the biggest bowl they could find with Kit-Kat bars, M&Ms, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Between us, we have always taken turns handing out candy, but I preferred to be the one to join the band of trick-or-treaters that strolled our street, stopping only a few paces behind to wait while my miniature make-believe princess knocked on stranger’s doors. This annual trek through the neighborhood ceremoniously ended with a sprint to our front door, where she would knock on the door and call out “Trick or treat!” Feigning surprise, my husband would open the door wide and fill her plastic pumpkin basket with chocolate and sweets. (I have always attributed to Halloween my daughter’s incurably sweet tooth). There was never a trick – always a treat for her and the scores of children who have walked to our door, as though from a scene in E.T. – Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Tinkerbell, Spiderman, Jack Sparrow, Pikachu, and even the sitting President of the United States. This Halloween, would be our teenage daughter’s turn to dole out candy, her daddy close by, only half-watching. Sporting ears of a fictional Japanese cat and a black tail, both hand-sewn by her best friend, she delights in the younger children who can’t wait to be scared by the howls of a pale motion-sensitive ghost hanging above the doorway.

Behind the scenes, I am restless. Paying bills, scrolling through the work emails I didn’t have time to read at work, and following, in disbelief, the devastation and the rising death-toll of Hurricane Sandy. I am also listening to a voice from home, Van Morrison. This time, as Van repeats the ritual of nights spent “spin and turning in the alley like a whirling dervish,” I feel a deep nostalgia, the kind Greill Marcus describes in his brilliant Listening to Van Morrison. The place between Van’s relentlessly repetitive words, is where I find the themes of home, of memory and ritual. In an instant, “Behind the Ritual” takes me home to County Antrim and into the lives of two sisters I have never met.

The first, Mary, writes a blog at Nelly’s Garden. She stumbled upon a recent post of mine, my Identity Crisis, and left a comment that forever connected us, as is the way of the virtual world. We search for one thing and find another that renders the first forgotten. Within this shrinking world, I learn that Mary’s cousin, Pauline, was my hairdresser over three decades ago. I remember every time I visited Pauline for a trim or auburn highlights, there was always a moment when I considered, silently, the pub across the road. The Wayside Halt stood there almost stoic, a nondescript bar on the edge of the dual carriageway between Antrim and Ballymena. The kind of place that wouldn’t merit a second look, Byrne’s pub was unremarkable except for those who knew of the horror that had visited on May 24, 1974. Every time I sat in Pauline’s hairdresser’s chair, I thought about it. On a St. Patrick’s Day, when my friends and I stopped there for some of Mrs. Byrne’s Irish stew, I marveled at the resilience of her family.

The Wayside Halt lingers still in a distant corner of my consciousness, refining my sense of who I am.  I learned only a few weeks ago, that one of my dad’s friends had suggested they call into the pub for a quick pint since it was on the road home. The “quick pint” is something of a paradox back home, and because daddy was in a rush to complete bread deliveries before dark that Friday night, he declined. Before he reached Randalstown, the harrowing word had arrived that within the previous hour, Loyalist paramilitaries had barged into the Wayside Halt, and shot at point-blank range, Mary’s uncles – Shaun Byrne and his brother, Brendan. Other pub owners in the Ballymena area had been attacked, their places of business vandalized because they had decided to remain open during the United Workers Council Strike of 1974.

Shaun and Brendan Byrne were murdered, while the children were in the sitting room upstairs. In the picture Mary sent me, the only child not home that evening was the little girl at her father’s right shoulder.

The Byrne brothers. Halls Hotel. The Quinn brothers, Richard, Mark, and Jason,  three little boys murdered, burned to death on July 12, 1998. Just eleven, nine, and seven years old, they had been asleep when a petrol bomb was thrown through the window of their home. Their grandmother was my brother’s first interview subject as he began his career in journalism. The La Mon Restaurant. Crossmaglen.  Bloody Sunday, the bombing of Omagh and EnniskillenInternment, the Twelfth of July. Physically untouched by this string of horrors, but changed nonetheless, the images are indelible. Iconic. Father Daly waving a blood-stained white handkerchief, the carnage on Market Street in the heart of Omagh’s little market town, orange sashes, bowler hats, Lambeg drums, and The Guildford Four.

In May the Lord in His Mercy be Kind to Belfast, based on his interviews with the people who lived there, Tony Parker makes an unsettling but astute observation that those born and brought up in Northern Ireland often display a mutual need to know, from the start, about a person’s background, so they are safe to continue in the conversation and in the wider relationship, without saying the wrong thing, “the wrong word.”  I too have danced this dance, taking cues from our last names, the names of  schools we attended, the way we pronounce an “H” to help establish “who we are.” “Derry” or “Londonderry?” “The Troubles,” “the struggle, or “The Irish Question?” “Ulster” or “The Six Counties?” Myth features prominently, in particular the heartbreaking myth that victims have in some way, brought it upon themselves.

Because it is Hallowe’en, and because she is Mary’s sister, I feel compelled to share Anne’s recollection of Hallowe’en, first posted on her ganching blog on November 1, 2005. Like Mary, she left a comment for me, and the world contracts once more:

Uncle Brendan and the Hallowe’en Parties.

I loved Hallowe’en when I was wee, except it was called Holloween in those days. Next to Christmas, it was the best holiday of the year.  It was also mid-term break. Holloween was always celebrated in our house.  When we were very small my mother would make a lantern from a turnip she’d scobe out with a knife which, if you’ve ever tried to do it, is bloody hard work. The next oldest sister to me was very keen on traditions even ones she’d made up herself.  When she was around eight she decided that every year she and I would make witches’ hats out of newspapers rolled into cones and blackened with shoe polish.  So we did this for at least 3 or 4 years.  We’d run around the yard with the pointy, floppy hats falling down over our eyes, our faces and hair stained with polish, singing:

‘I’m Winnie the Witch, Witches can fly and so can I, I’m Winnie the Witch’

I have no idea where this came from.

In the evening we would tie apples from a string attached to the ceiling and try to bite lumps out of them or duck for apples in a basin of water set on the kitchen floor.  This involved much splashing on the quarry tiles and younger siblings spluttering and snottering into the water.   I was pretty crap at it but my brother would have drowned himself rather than admit defeat. He would suddenly rear out of the water, his whole upper body soaked, grinning so widely that he was in danger of dropping his prize.  Later we’d have apple tart with hidden money in it wrapped up in silver paper.

When we all got to be a bit older my aunt and uncle, who had no children of their own,  held a party each Hallowe’en.  They only invited our family and one set of cousins which meant they had 15 children in attendance. There was always a bonfire and sparklers but no fireworks as they were banned in Northern Ireland.In the middle of the party there would be a loud clatter on the door and my uncle would go and investigate.  Without fail he would return with a scary stranger with a stick, wearing a thick coat and a scarf wrapped round their face.  Usually the stranger did a lot of muttering and, more often than not, he’d use his stick to take a swing at you if you came too close.  As the evening progressed and we worked ourselves up into a frenzy the stranger would suddenly reveal themselves to be the man who lived next door or even occasionally our Aunt Mary.  Presumably she got drafted in by my uncle in the years when he couldn’t persuade any of the neighbours to come and scare us half to death. I think the parties started coming to an end when I was in my early teens but by then I’d grown out of them.

I always think of my uncle at this time of year.  He was murdered, along with his brother, in the mid 70s but in Spring not October.  The scary, masked strangers who came to the door that night didn’t reveal themselves to be friends or family.

All this happened a long time ago and besides the past is a different country but it has been haunting me lately.



Dear October – Please Don’t Pink for Me.


 Dear October,

There are 13 more days until you disappear and all your pink trappings will be removed from grocery store shelves and replaced with the amber hues of Thanksgiving. And some of us will forget to be aware of breast cancer – until next year, when you do it all again. I’m weary of you and your pink ribbon culture. I’m weary of your unrelenting message that the answer to the breast cancer epidemic which will kill over 40,000 women in the United States again this year – is to get a mammogram, feel the boobies/tatas/hooters, and raise more money “for the cure.”

I’m tired of your mythology. I’m tired of friends dying. I’m tired of waking up every day and wondering if today is the day that a twinge in my hip or a headache might mean that the bastard has spread to my bones or my brain. I’m tired of being called a survivor and brave because (as John Diamond reminded us) cowards get cancer too. And I am a coward. That I know.

But you don’t want to hear any of that, do you? Instead you want me to feel good about it. Triumphant. You want me to strut around with confidence, bearing the mantle of survivorship with good cheer. Well, I’m sorry. I just can’t do it. I’m sick of you. And people are sick of me bitching about you every year. They tell me I’m bitter and to stop whining.

Since being diagnosed with breast cancer, I’ve been told that I must have brought it on myself because of my lifestyle, working in jobs that were too stressful or not working out enough or not eating organic vegetables or drinking red wine or not drinking enough red wine or smoking once upon a time. I’ve been told that I’m lucky, that I got the “good” cancer, that my cancer could be so much worse, as bad as the cancer visited upon someone’s mother/father/uncle/cousin twice removed and that I should be thankful. I’ve been told I don’t look sick so it can’t be that bad, and after all I still have my hair, don’t I? (or is it a wig?)

I’ve also been told nothing – not a word – by people who used to be my friends but scattered following my diagnosis. I’ve been told to lighten up, to put my big girl panties on, and to fight like a girl. I’ve been lambasted because I said no to chemotherapy -“That’s so selfish. Aren’t you thinking about your daughter?” – and I’ve been told I was stupid because I didn’t have the other breast AND my ovaries removed because at 49 apparently, I didn’t need them anymore. I’ve been told I’m REALLY lucky to get a free boob job. I’ve been told that I’m too sensitive about October and the pink ribbons and all the racing towards a cure. I’ve been told that early detection is the best protection, so obediently, I went for those mammograms – four of ’em – all of which missed the damn cancer that had been growing, concealed, within the dense tissue of my right breast. I’ve been told that awareness saves breasts and lives – if I’d just lighten up and feel the boobies.

But I’ve also been told that I am loved. And, I know love. To those people who love me and who have been in my corner through all the scans and the surgeries, the blood tests and the biopsies, the treatments and their side effects, and the waiting – the horrible waiting – and the people like my daughter who will stop to ask the cashier at SafeWay if she knows where the donations go, thank you.

I know you know I’m scared that like one-third of all breast cancers, mine will metastasize. I know you know that it is metastatic breast cancer that kills women like me. I know you’re aware. You are plenty aware. You see, we’re ALL aware, October, and it just isn’t enough. Time for a change. And that’s why I’m asking everyone who reads this page to contribute to my fundraiser to support the ongoing advocacy of Breast Cancer Action, the watchdog for the breast cancer movement. This organization is free from conflict of interest and committed to transparency: they will not take any money from ANY company that profits from or contributes to cancer – and they always show us where our money goes. A full 74.2% of every dollar is spent directly on programs, and fundraisers like mine helps keep them independent.

Even the phrase “pinkwashing” was coined by Breast Cancer Action, calling out those corporations that continue to profit from my disease as The Daily Beast’s Erin Gloria Ryan recently reported: “companies like Estee Lauder, which markets breast-cancer awareness-branded products that contain chemicals like parabens, which may cause cancer or interfere with cancer treatment; citrus growers, who, while marketing pink breast-cancer-awareness products, irrigated their fruit with oil company wastewater; a fracking company—fracking has been linked to cancer-causing carcinogens—that marketed a breast-cancer awareness fracking drillbit (really. This really happened);and Kentucky Fried Chicken’s pink breast- cancer awareness fried chicken bucket (see the research on a high-fat diet and increased cancer risk here).” 

And while Breast Cancer’s Actions have certainly made a dent with their annual campaigns to “think before you pink,” they need our help to continue to apply pressure.

It’s not enough to be aware when people are continuing to die, when breast-cancer rates continue to rise, and when women of color face worse outcomes than their white counterparts. Or when we know that breast cancer will kill about 500 men this year. You see, October, the fight against breast cancer is not just about awareness, it’s not just about public health, it’s about social justice too.

So if you are reading this, maybe you’re willing to take one step further and donate what you can to support Breast Cancer Action’s continued good work. Visit my Fundraising page to learn more and contribute.

Thank you,






Dear Tom Petty . . .


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Dear Tom,

Last Friday night, you and your Heartbreakers played the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, and I was there with my boyfriend. It was his first time seeing you perform, but I’ve lost count since I first saw the Grateful Dead open for you and Bob Dylan at Rich Stadium, Buffalo, in 1986. This was special, every bit as special as I had expected, knowing you told Rolling Stone magazine last year that you’d be lying if you didn’t say it would probably be your final tour. And the Hollywood Bowl? A bucket list venue for me, the place that still conjures black and white Beatles taking America by storm, especially the lovely George Harrison, another Traveling Wilbury.

Although our paths never crossed, I’ve been a little bit in love with you for about 40 years – just ask any of my friends – and honestly,  I’m convinced that had you met me when I was younger and could hold a tune, you might have been convinced to let me do at least one song as a “heartbreaker.”  I know Stevie Nicks is the Honorary female Heartbreaker, but she had proximity on her side.  The bigger truth, Tom, is that you (as well as the miles of highway that stretch from coast to coast) are largely responsible for my emigrating from Ireland to America in the first place.  Well, you and having to find work and leaving The Troubles and the rain behind.

Still, as far as this immigrant is concerned, there is nothing more American than driving down a highway with the top down and the radio up and your “Free Fallin‘” blaring from the radio.  Just ask Tom Cruise how his Jerry MaGuire is feeling as he sings along. (Naturally, he had me at “free”. . .)

When I was just 15, I first saw you on The Old Grey Whistle Test on BBC2. I wanted to be your “American Girl” in America; I wanted to be far away from Belfast and bombs and bullets and all that was bad back then about my Northern Ireland. I just wanted to be one of your Heartbreakers. Almost 40 years since first seeing you on our tiny TV set, I have to finally accept I will never be a heartbreaker, but I will be heartbroken as I am tonight.  After an interminable day of confusing reports, the New York Times has confirmed that you aren’t here anymore.

You have always been here. Always. Through the best and worst times of my adult life. I remember after my husband died, you announced your Hypnotic Eye tour with no stop in Phoenix. I can’t lie – he loved you too but not enough to drive out of state, and I like to think he would be happy I convinced my best friend Amanda to drive to San Diego to see your opening gig. A mere five hours away, all we needed were tickets, gasoline, a place to stay, at least three outfits, and an assurance to each other that we would be back to Phoenix the morning after to see our daughters off to school – my daughter’s first as a high school Senior, and her little girl’s very first as a pre-schooler. We made it. I think you’d get a kick out of the fact that each of us still had “beer” stamped on our hands the next morning.  Tom, it was worth every ounce of inconvenience that comes to people who are notoriously bad at planning – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Soar screamed the review from a San Diego newspaper the next day.  I hope you read it.


Next, there was Red Rocks, Colorado. I had always wanted to go, and another dear friend had never seen you perform, so it made sense that we should go. Right?   Now, I don’t know how it was for you and your band that night, looking out at the thousands of adoring fans between those red rocks, but it was magical for me. As the sign says, there is no better place to see the stars . . .

I want to say so much more to you tonight, Tom, to the family you leave behind, your fans, your band members. I want to thank you for all the things you did that were so right – like the time you apologized for using the Confederate Flag, or when you told George Bush he couldn’t use “I Won’t Back Down” as his campaign song. And Tom, I don’t know if you know what happened in Las Vegas just hours before you died, that a gunman shot into the crowd attending a country music festival, leaving at least 59 people dead, and injuring 527 others. It was one of the deadliest mass shootings in American history.

Tom, on such a day, how can we believe something good’s coming?

Rest easy, now.



Shortlisted People ~ Randy Newman, Susan Lucci, & Me.


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I love a list.  It has a beginning and an ending. It’s a certainty. A sure thing. Naturally, then, I love Rob Gordon, a kindred spirit erstwhile hapless record shop owner in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. A compulsive maker of lists which somehow make sense of a world that doesn’t always make sense, Rob’s “top fives” run the gamut of pop culture, eclectic compilations that include his top five episodes of Cheers, top five Elvis Costello songs, the top five musical crimes perpetrated by Stevie Wonder in the 80s and 90s, and the top five “women who don’t live on his street but would be very welcome.”

Like Hornby’s character, I can produce all kinds of top-five lists . . . album covers, fonts, pet peeves, life lessons, things not to say to a teenage daughter, mix tapes (now playlists) for any occasion, places to see and avoid in Phoenix, dive bars, concert venues, ways to get my own way, setlists, pizza toppings, authentic “Irish” bars in Phoenix (there might not be five), hairdressers, Tom Petty concerts, Van Morrison songs, things Nora Ephron said about what not to wear, lipstick shades, handbags, road-trips, playlists for road trips, white lies, excuses not to go out, cocktails involving gin, dramatic entrances, exit strategies, famous people who could play me in a movie, Heaney poems, hashtags, and ways to let someone down easy (mostly myself).

It turns out there are psychological reasons for this love of lists. For instance, there’s the guess-work, the wondering if what I think will be on the list will be there when I click on it, confirming that I was right about something. Apparently, a correct prediction causes the brain to send an extra little shot of dopamine, and that boost makes for a better day.

So today is a good day. I clicked on the email, and there it was – news that this blog has made it to the short list of the 2017 Blog Awards Ireland competition in the Irish Diaspora category. This is not the first time the blog has made it this far. And it’s grand. No really, it is. Look, Randy Newman was nominated for twenty Academy awards and held the record for successive nominations – 14 of them – before finally winning in 2001 for “I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters Inc. Some of the critics attributed his losing streak to the obvious – that all his songs sound a little too much like Randy Newman, of all people.

Then there’s Susan Lucci, Queen of daytime soap operas, who finally won an Emmy after 19 consecutive years of being nominated in the Best Actress category for her portrayal of over-the-top hellcat Erica Kane on “All My Children.”  Like Ms. Lucci, I’m happy to be nominated and in the company of others who wrestle with getting the words right and who retreat online to this timeless space, this home away from home. It is a lovely thing to know that there are readers for whom this corner of the blogosphere represents the Irish abroad, and the recognition delights me as does being included on a list with others who have lifted me up and set me down again in this very space.

So thanks to those of you who read and remark and even republish in other on and offline places; and to those of you who come back for more, for enduring thousands and thousands of words – many of them not remotely close to being the right ones, about breast cancer and bad hair days or Belfast and bombings; the extended rants about menopause and motherhood and having it all or not having it all, about Seamus Heaney – ah, Seamus – and back home, about vinyl records and concert ticket stubs, and brown paper packages tied up with string the way my mother still does, about magic and loss and Van Morrison.

As much as I have revealed of myself in this virtual space, I know for sure what is not copy, what is not up for public consumption. Cancer was copy – it still is. Some of the business of widowhood has been copy too. But I know what is not.  I know what to keep and what to discard. I know how to control it and how to control myself. Most of the time.  As public as I have made many of my choices,  I know how to keep what is most precious, private. I suppose I have learned how to  – as Meryl Streep said of Nora Ephron – ‘achieve a private act.’

I’ve learned how to avoid an ending, and I am very good at the long game. I know what Nora Ephron’s son knows – that closure is overrated.  I cannot consider the concept without recalling the first time I realized how much it mattered to other people, in particular, a principal who, following her observation of a lesson I had taught to a class of 5th graders, indicated with grave disappointment, that I had provided “no closure” for my students. I didn’t bother arguing with her because I knew I would be back in my classroom the next day and the next – to continue – not to close – with my students.  I think it’s the continuing that matters (along with what I wore along the way).

Continuance – it has a nice ring to it. Keep on keeping on. Howl on.

I am dedicating this post to one of Belfast’s finest musicians, who will forever be on my top-five list and whose final album, Reckless Heart, is currently shortlisted for the Northern Ireland Music Prize In Association With Blue Moon 2017.

Bap Kennedy (17 Jun 1962 – 1 Nov 2016).