Growing up in the West of Ireland chronicles: Bonfire night.

Hello there. I’ve been MIA for a while, mainly a result of my working and being a grown up (worse luck). That I won’t bore you with, but I have put into words another wee tale of growing up in the wild west of Ireland.

Bonfire night. Once a year all of the neighbours would convene upon the seashore, where weeks of annual clean outs had produced piles of bric-a-brac that were piled up to enormous heights, mostly teetering dangerously to one side. There was one purpose to this meet up and one purpose alone. There was a bonfire to be lit.

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Naturally the night would start in quite a reserved fashion. People would greet each other and chat. Children would approach each other and quietly play around the seashore. A few of the men would start pecking around the pile, rearranging sticks and broken chairs and politely asking each other to catch this or throw that over. Setting the pile into something that could be lit was a task they would undertake with vigour. Once the acceptable standard had been reached (i.e. semi stable) and all small children had been plucked from it, they would proudly stand back and survey their handiwork, pour some lighter fluid or some such on it (Dad managed to dispose of a lot of Mum’s soup this way- it’s actually known to be explosive in large quantities) and wait for it to be lit. Therein lay the problem, as every year without fail nobody thought to bring matches. Well I and some comrades, fresh out of an Enid Blyton book, clearly knew the solution to this conundrum was to find some flint and/or a magnifying glass with which to create a flame, and set about looking for these around the seashore. Naturally this took some effort as we were on a rather wet beach at night, and if we had been lucky enough to find either of aforementioned prizes, they would have been about as much use as a referee at a Dublin/Meath match. The adults, on the other hand, had a slightly more fruitful idea of asking everyone present if they had a lighter or matches. Naturally nobody ever did, and it inevitably led to Dad running back to the car (parked some distance away to save it getting set on fire. Again.) and driving the whole way home to search for matches. Naturally he would be gone a total of 45 seconds when 7 boxes of matches would simultaneously appear. I don’t think Dad ever actually made the lighting of the bonfire as he was always off scouting for something to light it with. Well as soon as it was lit a quiet hush would descend upon the crowd. For 24 seconds. Then the buzz of voices would rise above the crackling and the polite beginnings would descend unto the madness that only a crowd of people around a fire in the west of Ireland can aspire to.

The boxes full of penguin bars, coke, orange and no fewer than 147 bags of crisps would appear. Jim (Peter’s dad) would start setting up a pile of bricks to turn into a barbecue and suddenly 14 boxes of burgers, 35 packets of sausages and one lonely veggie burger would materialise. They set about cooking them like pros. Within a half hour, children would be running around with plastic cups filled with something fizzy, turning them from somewhat manageable if bratty beings into something that resembled the worst of super nanny. Naturally nobody cared because you just left them to it. Mothers were happy in the knowledge that they’d reappear in the next few days (weeks if you broke out the sherbet), soft drink hangover present and most likely somewhat hungry after surviving on seaweed in their sugar filled psychoses. They would usher them in the direction of the growing crowd of other children, who were clambering on the famous rock that was for jumping off, and bask in the luxury of chatting to the other neighbours.

The rock was the natural assembly point, being the place that was the highest point, with the exception of the burning pyre, which most had a fair idea not to climb onto. It was the guts of 15 foot high, or so it seemed when you were 5. In actual fact it comes up to my knee now, but at the time clambering onto that rock and jumping off it seemed like something MacGyver would hardly have attempted. Each year the first few children would stand around, hands in pocket, blade of grass in their mouth. ‘I don’t know now Jimmy, it certainly seems like a risky operation’. ‘Well it is Michael, but let’s face it, it’s a rock that was made for jumping off’ ‘Do you know Jimmy, you’re right there, can’t be helped really. And sure I’ve been watching Captain Planet and they’re forever jumping off things, not to mention those ninja turtles’. They’d roll back their sleeves, let out an almighty roar and gallop towards it at a speed Shergar couldn’t have matched. A less than orderly line would form. With bated breath we’d peer down from the top of it, terrified to take the leap – ‘Don’t rush me!’ But jump off it we did, with an affinity for jumping off things as only children who grew up in the nineties had.

Eventually our adventures at the rock would progress to an innocent wander over towards the mucky realms of the water’s edge. When the tide was out, it was a sloppy muddy swamp that would envelop your foot with a satisfying shluuuup, taking wellies prisoner and eating the runners of the poor kid whose mother forgot the wellies. He was to stay shoeless for 2 and a half weeks, until there was ‘a sale on at Cordners, I can’t afford to be buying you new shoes if you’re not going to look after them. Sure what did you need to go stamping around in the muck for anyway!’ Our faltering nervously on the brink of the muddy bank would eventually escalate into outwardly pushing kids into the muck, normally limited to the boys but often a somewhat less manic girl would be unfortunately caught in the crossfire and unwittingly end up amidst the pile of mud covered ruffians who had already met their doom. Every so often an adult would be startled by the sudden appearance of a pair of eyes in front of the barbecue, the rest of their mud coloured unrecogniseable faces blending into the dusk, would quickly deposit a burger or sausage in an outstretched hand, and like a flash (only slower and less dramatic) the child (presumably) would disappear.

As the night drew on, the more exhausted families would grab what they thought to be the correct children as they zoomed by, and holding them by the feet at arms length, would attempt to deposit them into the car. A meeting point would be agreed upon to redistribute the mix ups after they were hosed down the next day and it became clearer who was who, but as long as you had the right amount of children in tow it all seemed to work out pretty well. Except, of course, for that one child who was still stuck in the mud, but generally somebody tossed him a burger and he had a wee snooze until it got light again and a slightly worse for wear parent showed up embarrassedly the following morning. For years a number of children believed this was a treat called camping, and had never heard of a tent until they became old enough to go to Oxygen.

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As the crowd diminished, and the spare pile of kindling grew smaller, pallets and tyres would become seats, everyone would gravitate towards the fire, and in a semi circle, people would sit and bask in the warmth. Then, with Jim brandishing a guitar, someone would begin to hum, and without any warning Marion would produce a keyboard from some magical bag, and Padraig would whip out a bodhran. Without fail the group would launch into a lively rendition of ‘Oh when the saints’, to be followed of course by ‘The rattlin’ bog’ which lasted for at least 45 minutes if not an hour. While most people sang, Dad graced others with jokes. I use the term lightly considering he had some issues with remembering the punchlines, a trait he’s famous for in these parts. This would continue well into the wee hours until the voices or the drink or the fire ran out, whichever two came first. Then the annual torch search would begin fruitlessly, and in the end we’d just give up and walk home in the early morning light, the youngest getting a piggy back ride and the older kids fuelled on by the dregs of the fizzy drinks. Despite some fuzzy heads on the older (Mostly. Well, let’s say 12+) attendees, we’d all manage to meet up the next day and participate in a good clean up of the shore. Dad would have a 4th attempt at telling the same joke and occasionally even make it to the end without forgetting the punchline, and we’d be happy in the knowledge that we had a whole year to learn more than the same three songs for around the fire. Life was good.

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