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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 Hallowe’en 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 doesn’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 yesterday 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. On Hallowe’ens past, I preferred being 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 bravely knocked on stranger’s doors. This annual trek through the neighborhood ceremoniously ended with a sprint to our own 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 Hallowe’en my daughter’s incurably sweet tooth.  Never a trick, always a treat for her and the 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 evening, it is my teenage daughter’s turn to dole out candy. Her father is close by, only half-watching. Sporting ears of a fictional Japanese cat and a black tail, both hand-sewn by her best friend, our daughter delights in the younger children who can’t wait to be scared by the howls of a  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, memory and ritual. In an instant, “Behind the Ritual” takes me home to County Antrim and into the lives of two women I have never met. Sisters.

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. That 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 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 dad 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 these, 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 on my blog, 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.

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