The first sign would be when Dad put the railings into the cart for a trip to Dingle. He’d do that a few days beforehand because that was his way. He was very particular in such matters as it had been a custom for many years to go to Dingle for the Christmas. Mam would go with him and when that morning came we couldn’t wait for them to set off along the Gorta Dubha Road. It was a special day when they went to Dingle to bring home the Christmas.
Gran would be looking after us and we were given to understand that it would be a poor lookout for anyone who was cross or did anything bold. Everyone had been given something to do. It was customary for my sister Máirín to stop in the house to help Gran as a kind of deputy housewife. Myself, Seáinín, Pádraig and Séamuisín would go off around the village looking for empty jam jars thrown out by the neighbours during the year. We would need ten of them, one for every window in the house. They would be filled with sand to put the Christmas candles standing in them.
They were hard to find and with good reason. Many of them would have been smashed during the year when stones were thrown at them just to hear the grand crash of the breaking glass.
Somehow or other we would succeed in coming up with ten jars. My finger tips would be raw and wrinkled from poking around in holes full of water and in old and frozen ash tips.
Then we would wash the jars in the rainwater barrel, and finally, one by one, filled with sand and nicely decorated, we would put them in every window in the house. Then we would have huge mugs of cocoa, with lashings of sugar, to reinvigorate us all.
That evening we would all be gathered together around the fire waiting for Mam and Dad. Yerra, when the first sounds of the cart coming back along the road were heard we would all leap into the air, almost touching the rafters in sheer delight. Half a second later we would have reached the yard and I would take hold of the bridle and lead the horse right up to the door. There would be a great flurry of unloading the cart while at the same time trying to sneak a glance at what we were carrying in home.
When we had tackled out the horse and the tea was drawing on some red embers Mam would share out the sweets and biscuits. And dear old Gran! She would keep any complaints to herself, though the poor woman would have been tormented by us often enough during the day. We would go mad for the sweets and we’d spend time swapping the different colours and flavours. I once swapped Pádraig three white ones for one red. That red sweet was grand altogether but Pádraig was still chewing away long after I had finished.
The day before Christmas was always very quiet. Everyone would be doing their best helping around the house. If Mam wanted a load of turf brought down from the mountain we’d be tripping over each other to do it. I often went out with Dad to gather holly with red berries and we’d hang some of it over the fireplace and put more above the windows. We would also take some of the ivy that was growing on the gable end of the house and put it around the jam jars and in with the candles as well.
Rough dried fish – a bit of the ling that hung like a strap from the ceiling – would be our dinner. Mam would make white sauce with a few onions in it and we’d mash some potatoes and have a slap-up feed. I would get into a right mess with the fish bones and the flesh was so salty that you’d be parched with thirst for the rest of the day. But I’m telling you now, that was no bad thing either. And ‘twas little enough of a complaint about food that was quite good for you anyway.
We’d have a tea on Christmas Eve – the Christmas supper. My tongue would be as long as my boots when they put the sweet cake on the table. It was very sweet altogether, especially the white coat around it. We’d eat the cake itself first and though raisins were in great demand no way was it as sweet as the white coat. I used to leave that part to the very end and the juices would be flowing like mad until the very last little biteen was on its way from my throat to my stomach where it would receive a very hearty welcome indeed!
When the eating had stopped and our stomachs were full we had to get ready for Midnight Mass. Going to Midnight Mass was a grand show altogether, not only on account of the Mass, but also because of being up at such a late hour. Off we would go up Tóchar and on to the chapel at An Buailtín and though the way there was hard enough in the dark it was no trouble at all to us because we were full of music and high spirits.
It would always be a lovely sight as you approached An Buailtín that night. I remember one time when we had a lantern but after that we would have an electric torch. You would think that the whole parish was on its way to the chapel – you would see little lights bobbing along the tracks and the little roads all over the area. It was something wonderful to watch them coming down from Máimín Mountain, and coming up the road from Fearann and from Baile Uachtarach. You would also see them coming across the sand dunes from Ard na Caithne and up the Cluainte Road towards An Buailtín. As you scrambled over a ditch you could make them out coming over from Clochar and Tíorabháin, and there was always a chance that you would catch a glimpse of the occasional little light on a cart coming around Gráig Corner.
The windows of every house in every village were also lit up and it was like Tír na nÓg (‘The Land of Youth’ of Irish legends) to see them as far away to the East as the bottom of Mount Brandon and from Baile Dháith up as far as Na Leataithe. It was as beautiful a sight as anywhere on earth and if a bird or a hare chanced to start from a furze bush you would wonder at the cheek of them in disturbing such a peaceful scene.
©: Muiris Ó Bric. This passage is from his book, Spotsholas na nDaoine
('The Spotlight of the People'), published in 1995 by Coiscéim, Dublin.
We are grateful to the author, who now lives in New York, and to his publisher for permission to publish it in our own translation.
Translation ©: Wales Famine Forum
Published in The Green Dragon No. 5, Winter, 1997.
Sa Ghaeilge / In Irish.
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