If you thought problems with fireworks
are a modern phenomenon,
The Digger offers evidence to the contrary
I FOUND an old book amongst the shelves of a second hand bookshop in the University area of Belfast last year 'Practical Firework-Making for Amateurs' by W H Browne complete with intricate illustrations.
The book does not contain a publication date but there are clues in the contents which date it from the late Victorian period.
It is described as containing "Complete and explicit directions in the art of pyrotechny, as applied to both major and minor fireworks for the use of amateurs and beginners." The art of firework making dates from a very early period and it is believed the Chinese were the first to discover and develop it. Pyrotechny spread to Europe where it was practised in the 13th century. In the 1880s it was a complicated process. There are instructions for making rockets, Roman Candles, gerbs, jets, Bengal fires, saxons, mines of serpents, squibs and catherine wheels.
In Victorian times the squib, or serpent, came in two sizes - the penny and the halfpenny. The book tells us "there were no less than 11 distinct operations" in the manufacture of the squib. These included cutting and pasting the papers, rolling the cases, choking, filling, clearing, bouncing, priming, capping, tying off and dipping. Imperial brown paper was a necessity and its weight was an important factor in this process.
Of course you also required specific 'Squib making apparatus' which included a choking machine, funnel and rammer and access to the meal powder, sulphur and other necessary chemicals to complete the composition formulae.
The author of the book goes to great lengths to emphasise the safety aspects to the reader. "Never use a pestle or mortar, as by accident there may be traces of chemicals in the compound to be ground, and the result will be detonation." An old friend of mine told me recently that almost 70 years ago he can remember buying squibs in Lisburn and using them at Halloween time.
Catherine wheels and sparklers were popular just after the 2nd World War. I was chatting to another man recently in his early 90s who recalls as a child in the Knockmore area experimenting and adapting the carbide lamp into a home-made explosive system. Most definitely not recommended!
Those with memories of Halloween in times past recall simpler forms of celebrations compared with those of today.
A man from the Lough Shore area visited houses at Whitemountain with a basket full of apples. He was given five bob for the hamper. The aroma those apples gave off whilst in storage in the whitewashed cottages in the district is still fixed in the memories of those who lived there.
"Halloween is the night the witches get out" the children had been told then.
I have heard stories from the 1930s of children blackening their faces and knocking on doors in the neighbourhoods in return for apples and nuts. It was unusual to be given money then. On some occasions you were handed a piece of coal. The monkey nuts , hazel nut , Brazil nuts and walnuts had been purchased in Lisburn's busy market on Tuesdays.
In the Low Road area of Lisburn everyone got dressed up. Men and women in the district dressed up in each other's clothing. The favourite party game was ducking for apples. It was also a time for "divilment" in the neighbourhood. One of the favourite tricks in the rural areas was to take a gate from a neighbour's farm or house. Many were recovered in the adjoining fields and ditches the next morning. Some were never found.
One person who fell victim to this many years ago decided enough was enough and the following year he give the remaining gate a coat of tar.
I was told the curses and swears of the perpetrators could be heard for miles around when they realised the owner of the gate had got one over on them.
Others lay in ditches and 'sheughs' by the roadside whilst waiting for an unsuspecting victim to cycle into the strings they had tied across the road. The victims often lost their cap in the entanglement. This could often spiral into a tit-for-tat.
It was suspected that the straying cattle on the road the next morning belonging to the perpetrator's father was unrelated to some supernatural phenomena and in fact had been the work of the victim from the previous night's antics !
Of course if the Constabulary caught you in those days they might just have been tempted to enforce one of the statutes under the Town Improvement (Ireland) Act dated 1854 which stated it was an offence for any person to "wilfully and wantonly disturb any inhabitant, by pulling or ringing any doorbell, or knocking at any door or to wilfully and unlawfully extinguish the light of any lamp". That carried a 40 shilling fine according to an 1895 Royal Irish Constabulary handbook.
But of course Halloween would never have been complete without mother's potato apple dumpling. The potatoes had to be boiled, mashed and mixed with flour. The mixture was shaped into a basin shape and apples and sugar were added. It was then folder over and put inside a cloth which was subsequently put into a pot of boiling water. It was later lifted out and left to cool before removing the cloth. The top of the pie was opened up. Perhaps a knob of butter was added, sugar and honey. The preferences and cooking methodology varied from house to house. You might have been lucky to find a ring, coin, button or 'thruppenny' bit hidden in its depths.
In times gone by at Halloween or All Souls bonfires were lit to ward the evil forces and masks protected your true identity from any prying witch or warlock. It was also a time for marriage divination in some households. No matter what it represented Halloween was, and still remains a fun-filled time for all the family.
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