Nostalgic memories of a child's Irish Christmas

On St Stephen's Day (none of your "Boxing Day" in Listowel) came the strong pagan stuff

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Sitting on the runway in Brussels, I was starting to believe I'd run out of luck. We were going to be at least an hour late, the captain warned. Traffic was stacked up above Heathrow. Just 12 hours before, I'd been rattling and shaking down a mountain track in Central Africa with the good wishes of my companions ringing in my ears.

Sitting on the runway in Brussels, I was starting to believe I'd run out of luck. We were going to be at least an hour late, the captain warned. Traffic was stacked up above Heathrow. Just 12 hours before, I'd been rattling and shaking down a mountain track in Central Africa with the good wishes of my companions ringing in my ears.

"You'll make it", "We'll be rooting for you." This was followed by an overnight flight from Rwanda via Nairobi and a frantic scramble in Brussels to make the London connection.

Now I was trapped on the Via Dolorosa of international travel, the air route into Britain. Matters were not helped by the presence of two appalling bores in the seats beside me. They were computer men whose conversation consisted of a relentless denunciation of weaker colleagues. They pondered their bonuses. One removed his watch, and displayed its many astonishing capabilities to his fellow bore. There were bleeps and flashes accompanied by suitable noises of awe. One of the bores remarked that he'd recently sat on a plane for an hour and then been told to disembark. "I was waiting for six hours," he whined.

As for me, a domestic crisis loomed. Weeks of careful planning were evaporating on the tarmac at Brussels. In two hours, I was due to witness my child's first-ever appearance on stage. My boy was "starring" as the innkeepers' husband in the school nativity play, and would doubtless be scarred for life if his proud father was not there to cheer him on.

And then deliverance, delight, the firm hand of providence ushered us into the skies. I made it with minutes to spare. And when the innkeeper and her husband, the angels and shepherds, and Mary and Joseph and donkey emerged to tumultuous applause, I caught my son's eye and registered a big smile.

Oh Christmas, you still have sweetness to offer. I once appeared in a nativity play but was struck by stage-fright the moment I walked out from the wings. My parents were in the audience urging me on with pleading eyes, but I couldn't utter a single word. Mortification descended, and it has kept me from the stage ever since. No such worries with my offspring. He delivered his lines with relish. They were, as I recall: "Sign the register"(for the use of the stable); "Round the back" (directions to the stable); "That's all I need" (when the Christmas star began to shine); and "Isn't he lovely?" when the Christ child appeared in the crib.

That night, after the superstar was asleep, I dug out a book that had been in my thoughts all day. The Complete Poems of Patrick Kavanagh is a volume I would happily recommend as a Christmas gift, if you can track it down in a British bookshop. Kavanagh is one of the most underrated Irish poets of the last 50 years. The poem I was looking for after the nativity play was written in 1942. It is shamelessly nostalgic, but a fit celebration of wonder.

One side of the potato-pits was white with frost -/ how wonderful that was, how wonderful!/ And when we put our ears to the paling-post/ The music that came out was magical.

My father played the melodeon/ Outside at our gate;/ There were stars in the morning east/ And they danced to his music.

Outside in the cow-house my mother/ made the music of milking;/ the light of her stable-lamp was a star/ and the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.

Cassiopeia was over/ Cassidy's hanging hill,/ I looked and three whin bushes rode across/ The horizon - the Three Wise Kings.

My father played the melodeon,/ my mother milked the cows,/ And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned/ On the Virgin Mary's blouse.

Here is a scene from Christmas past: It is a night in late December in the middle of the 1960s. We are driving from Dublin to Kerry in a Ford Anglia which is stuffed to high heaven with presents and blankets and children. The country roads are narrow, and there is thick mist. My mother takes a wrong turn on the road between the coastal town of Tarbert and my father's home town of Listowel. She stops the car and allows us out to go to the toilet. My parents sit in the car trying to figure out where we are. The mist is so thick that we huddle together.

In the summer, my uncle and cousins come out here to foot turf; but my father has been telling us ghost stories on the journey to Kerry. The bogs, he has told us, are filled with the ghosts of English cavalrymen killed in Elizabeth's conquest of Munster. At night, these ghost riders rise up to journey home to England. But they are doomed to sink in the mud and water holes. I listen out for the jangle of their spurs and the squelch of horses' hooves, but there is nothing: only the sounds of waterfowl.

I turn back towards the car and can tell from my father's expression - a smile - that he knows exactly where we are. Half an hour now and we will be in Hannie Keane's kitchen on Church Street. And somewhere in the last minutes of the journey the children in the car fall asleep. They will wake the next morning in a large country bedroom and will hear the sounds of a street that is crowded with farm families doing their Christmas shopping.

In those days, a rural Irish Christmas was governed by fixed traditions. Some were rooted in Christian belief, others had their antecedents in Celtic folklore. On Christmas day, we were all packed off to the church, and I remember the gratitude we felt towards the priests for their short masses. They had the scent of Goose and Powers whiskey in their nostrils, and longed to be away.

On St Stephen's Day (none of your "Boxing Day" in Listowel) came the strong pagan stuff. The Wren Boys appeared with their made up faces and stirring music, gathering to hunt the wren in the woods above the town. We were city children, and this was a foreign country, magical and strange. I won't pretend that this was a golden age, free of materialism. No such age has existed since the end of the Second World War and the advent of mass prosperity. We too were hungry for toys and needed a lot of nudging to recognise a spiritual dimension to the season.

My problems with Christmas have never really been about the crass materialism. It exists and will not go away, and we can but hope that some generosity survives alongside it. It's more that I struggle with the admonition that we should feel joy and goodwill. It goes too much against the grain of independent thought and action, and fails to appreciate the potential for anguish that lurks at the heart of any mandatory season of merrymaking. Who has the right to say "cheer up and Sing Hosannah" when all you want to do is hide away?

Of course, all of that goes out the window when a small child is doing somersaults of joy on Christmas morning. You catch a glimpse of a world lost to you aeons ago. And if it is all unrealistic and sentimental, I don't care. I will leave rationalism for the New Year and join in the somersaults, a rickety middle-ager on the edge of belief. Happy Christmas.

 

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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