- 20 Nov 18
Once upon a time, Ireland's gays found a strange solace in the masks of Halloween. It is a vindication that they no longer have to hide. But elsewhere the ghouls are gathering. Can we ward them off?
We had a visitor to Hog Heights at Halloween. Glass in hand, as the fireworks thumped and howled, and the bonfires blazed, he was reminded of his own wayward youth, way back when. He soon revealed that he had tricked and treated in some of old Dublin's more bohemian quarters.
"The transvestites used to love Halloween," he said. "It was the only time they could legitimately go out dressed up. You'd see them in Bartley Dunne's."
He himself is gay but not a cross dresser. He would once have called himself queer, but that usage of the word was of its time and hadn't accrued the new, more positive significance it has now.
Past Halloweens recalled, he moved on to reflect on just how different everything is fifty years later. He remembered a Dublin of seedy encounters and furtive rummaging, of secrecy, shame and subterfuge, a place of sadness and silence for gays: of terror and trauma, of fear and guilt.
Not for everyone, he agreed. Many just left. And there were those who found the right people and places and were able to be themselves, even within the corrupt and constricting carapace of Catholic Ireland. But for most, life boiled down to loss: lost loves and lost years.
STUPIDITY AND NARCISSISM
He had strolled through Dublin earlier on Halloween, as the darkness fell and revellers gathered, a now anonymous senior citizen slipping through the shadows, as - in many ways - he had done all his life. He was struck by the openness of gay life now, its exuberance and joy, its acceptance and normality. The two thirds majority for the marriage equality referendum was no mirage, he thought.
And it isn't just gays. In parallel he also enjoyed the joie de vivre of all those he passed. Well, almost everyone. At every queue he passed there were beggars hustling. At one LUAS stop, there were three of them, lurching towards the punters, hands out, wobbling on their feet, eyes unfocused, reduced to the most primal functions and capacity to communicate.
One group of Asian tourists stood transfixed and terror-stricken. "They didn't fucking know whether this was a shakedown or some kind of costume... like, was this a trick or treat? Were these hustlers dressed as the living dead or were they real zombies, or what?"
The shell-shocked Asians were abandoned in other people's hell. Needless to say, there wasn't a cop to be seen anywhere, or railway security. The supplicants reminded him of the figures in Rowan Gillespie's Famine memorial on Dublin's Custom House Quay. In appearance, that is, their vacant fixed expressions and shuffling gaits.
Perhaps there are other parallels but he didn't venture there. Rather, he said the gaunt, forlorn statues also remind him of AIDS victims; and he sadly remembered the devastating impact on his friends of what was known, wrongly and sometimes maliciously, as the gay disease - its victims depicted as at once both living and dead.
The Living Dead was a pretty common theme amongst those dressing up for Halloween, children included. And from what we could see, the costumes were pretty good, though largely derived from movies and video games far removed from native Halloween tradition.
Other scary monsters also featured. Many Donald Trumps did the rounds. Some were hilarious but all carried a sense of menace, of Trump's dangerous stupidity and narcissism. Mostly the kids evinced the same joie de vivre as the adults. But isn't there something deeply unsettling in children recognising that Trump and his ilk pose an existential threat and incorporating these bogeymen into their play?
LET US RESIST
Of course, fairytales and folktales, do precisely this. Ogres, magicians, monsters, dragons, witches, goodies and baddies, tests and triumphs, ice and fire, good and evil: these are the icons of classic tales.
Marina Warner, who has done so much to reveal the depths of fairytales, tells us that they have "travelled across cultural borders, and been passed on from generation to generation, ever-changing, renewed with each re-telling" and that "fairytales respond to social values and needs over time."
In her brief and brilliant Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale (published by OUP) Warner writes of how they offer many and varied ways of resistance and hopes of survival: revenge fantasies, dreams money can buy, mockery and jokes and satire and exaggeration, and how their "cunning and high spirits" help counter oppression.
In these disrupted and dangerous times, she argues, fairytales are increasingly wrapped in darkness as they draw closer to myths "where dreadful fate is seldom averted, and the lessons the hero or heroine offer give little consolation." But, she says, "the 'realisation of imagined wonder", which JRR Tolkien saw as the aim of the genre, isn't always bright and shiny anymore; its skies have clouded over."
Hence children dressing as the ogre Trump. You have to wonder, sadly, what awaits them as their lives unfold. After all, Halloween itself is rooted in ancient cycles of growth and death, the turning of the seasons and celebrating the harvest. But with what we are now being told about climate change, even the seasons don't behave as they should.
Landscapes freeze, then flood, droughts are longer and drier, bushfires rage. And the harvest ain't what it used to be. The horsemen of the Apocalypse have saddled up, unleashing furies on the battered earth and its peoples and landscapes. We may need some magic.
It may well be that when we're all out celebrating, setting off rockets, burning trees and tyres and generally adding to the CO2 problem, we're just whistling past the graveyard? But maybe that's what you do. Maybe that's what the bonfires and dancing and scary stories are about: keeping the ogres and wolves at bay. And escaping.
Sometimes it works. Once upon a time, gays had to leave Ireland or hide. Now they don't. Even if not happy ever after, we are all freer now. But increasingly we look like a lone beacon under darkening skies.
It's November. We have a right to cut loose, even as we run out of clubs in which to do so. Let us dance and sing, weave stories and dreams. Let us resist as best we can.