Monday 20 November 2017

How Dickens influenced the way we celebrate . . . and allowed us some fun

say hello to the new spring

There was an era when you could leave London in mid-afternoon and still be travelling to your destination in the West of Ireland by late the following day. That was the era of the brown suitcase. You could see the men who had come off the ferry at Dun Laoghaire and into Tara Street and the local pubs.

Their journey was only half over. They were facing the rest of it with trains to the West. It was a long journey from Kilburn to Bangor Erris. It is still the same but it doesn't take so much time.

A modest priest had a dream in which he saw an airport that would serve all the West. He proposed a site which some people described as windswept and often fogbound. But the good priest went ahead: Monsignor Horan, God rest him, and his dream became Knock International Airport, the non-believers were confounded. There is a lesson there for everybody.

The emigrants from my county came at Christmas over land and sea and land again. They were mostly young men and didn't worry about such a journey. They spoke of Kilburn and Camden Town and Shepherd's Bush as if they were places of magic.

Those people are mostly married now and they come home only for family funerals or if Kerry are in the All-Ireland Final. Christmas isn't the same without them, but the show goes on. I doubt if Christmas in the homes has changed much. Christmas in Kerry was symbolised by a goose.

Charles Dickens was a great writer and he influenced these two islands. He introduced turkey and the plum pudding and the holly and the ivy. There was no harm in that but it meant that in the run-up to Christmas there was enormous fuss. And sometimes you wondered was it worth it all.

George Orwell would say that it was. He believed that if you didn't act the fool over Christmas, there was something wrong with you and that you weren't part of humanity.

I have reason to remember one Christmas because my neighbours were in a terrible state: they could get no holly with berries. A harsh spring had meant that the blossoms of the holly didn't turn into berries. Christmas wouldn't be the same.

A friend and I who were naturalists before we knew what the word meant, had a secret plan. Isaac Walton would have loved it.

We knew that in a wood several miles away there was a mountain ash tree growing and we hoped that it had beaten the frost. We went there and to our delight the berries were abundant. We picked some of the small ones so that they would resemble holly berries and our womenfolk stitched them cleverly on to the holly.


When the neighbours wandered in and out of our house, as was the custom in the days before Christmas, they were nonplussed, whatever that means. We didn't tell them our secret. We had thought of taking a bucket to the wood and bringing home enough berries for all the neighbours but we preferred to seek our own glory. It was a little triumph.

We had a strange custom in our house: we allowed our terriers, never less than five, to stay in until midnight. Of course, they clustered around the fire and you could see that some of them were dreaming as they sent up tiny clouds of ash when, no doubt, they were on the trail of a hare or a rabbit.

Sometimes you could hear little barks, probably because their prey had escaped. Usually they were put out after supper about seven o'clock. When it came to the time to go out, they all walked as if they had broken legs.

There was no Midnight Mass in my time in Kerry: most of the men went to second mass and they were expert at finding out what pubs were open so that they could have a drink or two before the big dinner. We all enjoyed the big dinner, but young people had a better meal. About midnight they roasted boiled potatoes over the embers: it was a meal better than any of those described in the cookery books. With a pinch of salt and a little butter our day was made.

St Stephen's Day was more enjoyable than Christmas Day because some of the pubs were legally open and the men availed of this chance to get away from the house.

On that day you could meet friends whom you hadn't met for maybe a year because it was their custom to drink only on that day. And so there was good conversation and many stories were told.

It was a wonderful way to herald in the New Year. It was a time of hope: the spring was unfolding and we unfolded with it.

Fogra: We wish Tom O'Riordan and his son, Ian, the happiest of New Years, and the same to all our readers. Ian enjoyed his birthday last week and he will run in the London Marathon in April

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