For obvious reasons, Guy Fawkes’ Night was not celebrated in Ireland. Bonfires and fireworks were popular, instead, at Halloween, an occasion that, in more recent times. came to be more shaped by traditions imported from the United States than by the old Celtic festival of Samhain.
One such day, I visited an old farmer, detached from his land by a loss of memory that had led him to become a resident in a nursing home.
Conversation could be difficult. Sometimes he would not talk at all. Surely, Halloween offered some topic of interest. There must be memories from his childhood in a rural community.
“Did you ever have a bonfire at Halloween?”
It was a answer that was probably not true in rural Ireland of the Twenties and Thirties, but it would not have been polite to have said so.
“What about fireworks? Were there ever fireworks when you had a family?”
The thought of fireworks created its own association.
“We had a shotgun, though”.
“A shotgun? For foxes?”
“Foxes, but mostly for crows and for rabbits. I would shoot a crow and hang it on a tree, it kept the others away”.
“The rabbits were a nuisance?”
“They were. We lost a lot of crops one year. The gun was the only thing for them until the disease came”.
“Had you a terrier?”
“We used ferrets”.
“Ferrets are vicious”.
“They’d give you a nasty bite”.
“Where would you have bought a ferret?”
“How would you know what you were buying? How would you know if it was any good?”
“You didn’t. You might get one that was good for rabbits and you might get one that tried to bite your head off.”
“I think I would have preferred a terrier – the teeth aren’t as sharp! Did you keep a collie for working with the herd?”
“I did. I had a great sheepdog. It would fetch the cows at milking time.”
The nursing home provided excellent hospitality. Perhaps they reckoned that visitors generally made residents happier and that happy residents meant the work of the staff was easier. A member of staff arrived carrying a tray with tea and biscuits and placed it on a table between the armchairs.
“Here’s tea”, said the old farmer, leaning forward to pick up a cup.
The thread of the conversation was lost.
The crack of an exploding firework can mimic the sound of a twelve bore shotgun.