An Irish Country Christmas by Patrick Taylor
Irish - Canadian professor and novelist
Last year around this time a literary friend and neighbor wrote from Ireland to share this poem for the season, observing that Patrick Kavanagh "is a generally wonderful poet and not as well recognized in the States as he should be." Now is the perfect time to rectify that literary gap with Kavanagh's Christmas reverie, reminiscent of Thomas Hardy's "The Oxen" and Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales (Firetrucks, Christmas Cakes, Ghost Stories). All three writers capture the magic of Christmas night through the hopeful vision of a six - year - old. As Kavanagh says, "I was six Christmases of age":
A Christmas Childhood
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.
The light between the ricks of hay and straw
Was a hole in Heaven’s gable. An apple tree
With its December-glinting fruit we saw –
O you, Eve, were the world that tempted me
To eat the knowledge that grew in clay
And death the germ within it! Now and then
I can remember something of the gay
Garden that was childhood’s. Again
The tracks of cattle to a drinking-place,
A green stone lying sideways in a ditch,
Or any common sight, the transfigured face
Of a beauty that the world did not touch.
My father played the melodion
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.
Across the wild bogs his melodion called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.
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.
A water-hen screeched in the bog,
Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes,
Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.
My child poet picked out the letters
On the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.
Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon — the Three Wise Kings.
And old man passing said:
‘Can’t he make it talk –
The melodion.’ I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.
I nicked six nicks on the door-post
With my penknife’s big blade –
There was a little one for cutting tobacco.
And I was six Christmases of age.
My father played the melodion,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.
Patrick Kavanagh (1904 - 67)
Irish poet and novelist
My own Irish Christmas story is not one of childhood, but goes back to another magical time in 1989, when Gerry and I visited the university town of Maynooth where he had lived for nine years before coming to the U.S. I had never been to Ireland before, and Gerry had not been back since his relocation to Indiana, over two years previously. Gerry likes to tell the old joke that whenever a plane lands in Ireland, things are so backward and behind the times that the pilot advises the passengers to set their watches back a couple of decades -- or even centuries, Brigadoon style. Haha. For me, however, this turned out to be a good thing, not regressive but nostalgic, just like the movies. You know, that cinematic nostalgia for a time that has never actually been.
We had driven straight from the Dublin airport in our rental car, parked at the curb on Main Street (yes, just like in America), and the moment Gerry stepped out of the car, someone dragging a Christmas tree down the sidewalk (purchased moments before from the local lot), called out "Hey, Gerry me lad" (or something like that; not that I know how to write -- or speak! -- with an Irish accent, but you get the idea)! It was exactly like a scene from any all - American Christmas movie that you might care to name.
We had shared our plans with only one family -- the friends with whom we were staying; so it's not as if the entire campus was expecting us, yet several other people came right over to greet us or waved and called out as they passed by. I could hardly believe it! Was it a set - up? We went in the pub -- The Roost, where Gerry had been a regular -- for some cheese sandwiches, and it was the same thing all over again: "Oh, have a seat here mate." Truly it was as if Gerry had never been away. You would have thought the last time he'd been there was maybe for lunch the day before. I couldn't help thinking of Cheers: everybody knew his name; they were glad we came! For one brief shining moment, the hazy scene on a glittery Christmas card came to life before my eyes, so quaint and true and unforgettable.
[See also Dublin & Dubliners]
Maynooth University in Wintertime
The Roost in Summertime
SEE YOU IN TWO WEEKS ON MY
Next Fortnightly Post
Saturday, January 14th
Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT
my shorter, almost daily blog posts
Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading