It was our first Christmas away from home and the 24th. of December, 1968 will always be special for ‘The Hennessys Folk Group’. It was a corker of a Christmas!
We, Dave Burns, Paul Powell and I, had been in Ireland since June and had settled in Cork City under the guidance of our Manager, Christie. We had just finished a gig in one of Cork’s ballad lounges and it was about 11.15 p.m. on Christmas Eve when we packed our instruments into the group’s A 35 van and made our way to the fine cathedral for Midnight Mass. Our Christmas duty done, we headed out to Christie’s home in Ballintemple where we were assured of a warm Yuletide welcome.
Being the only driver, I was keen to have a bite to eat, a quick drink (two at the most) and get back to our caravan in Togher on the other side of the city. Christie was already glowing with festive spirit when we arrived and soon had us all sat around the kitchen table enjoying the delicious ham sandwiches and mince pies which his lovely wife Marie had just made. Large bottles and an assortment of chasers were being disposed of at an alarming rate while I struggled manfully to make my half pint of stout last another hour.
The level of laughter and boisterous banter threatened to disturb the sleep of Chris and Marie’s five kids tucked away upstairs.
Seeing my chance to get the boys back on the road home, I stood up and boldly proposed a toast to the health and happiness of our hosts and family and suggested that we should leave our good friends to get some sleep as the children would be up in a few short hours.
The thought of breaking up such a splendid party was too much for Christie and the boys. There was time for “one for the road”. But I was not to be swayed. My resolve was firm, we would be on our way!
It was then that Christie played his ace.
“Have a little drop of soup”, he said, “it’ll do ye good and set ye up for the drive home”.
For a split second I wavered and the next moment a large steaming bowl of broth was shoved in front of me and a spoon pressed into my hand.
“Yerra, get it down ye”, encouraged Christie, “I’ll bet ye never tasted the like of it”.
He was right. It was wonderful. I couldn’t stop scoffing it. It was addictive. This broth had a depth of flavour and a quality of consistency I’d never tasted before, or indeed since. It warmed me up alright. In fact I was in danger of boiling over as I polished off the last drop. I was sweating like a pig. Off came my jacket and pullover as I sat there puffing away Billy O. I then noticed four pairs of eyes staring at me intently.
Christie clapped me on the shoulder.
“That’s put the colour back in your cheeks”.
“Aye, you were looking a bit pasty, mate”, said Dave.
“Have another drop”, piped up Paul as he opened another three large bottles, “we’re in no rush”.
“Relax and take your time”, advised Marie, “it’s Christmas and you don’t have anywhere to go except that cold old caravan”.
It all made perfect sense, there wasn’t any rush, was there, and next thing I knew I was half way through the second bowl of Ballintemple Broth. A wonderful sense of well-being washed over me and by the time I’d seen off the second helping I had a grin on my face which would scare a donkey.
Still, there was a faint niggling at the back of my mind which caused me some concern. We really had better get going…
I attempted to rise from the table, but horror, I could not move my legs.
“Hey, I feel really weird”, I said.
It was as though my backside had been superglued to the chair. My arms, eyes, ears and lips all worked fine but, from the hips down, nothing. It was as if my body had been grafted on to someone else’s legs!
Using my arms, I levered myself into an upright position and, pulling my jacket from the back of the chair, I fished through the pockets for the keys of the van. Nothing! I checked again. No keys.
Then, as one, the others burst out laughing. Stunned, and in some confusion, I attempted to reach my overcoat which was hanging on the kitchen door. Perhaps the keys were in there. The top half of my body swung through ninety degrees but, sadly, my legs stayed exactly where they were. Gales of uncontrollable laughter all round the table.
Defeated, I slumped helplessly back into the chair.
“Ah, Frank”, said Christie, drying his eyes, “you’ve been had, boy”.
I looked at him. “What?”
“We knew ye wouldn’t drink while ye were driving so we had to take drastic steps”.
“What?”, I asked again.
“It was the grub”, said Dave.
I just looked at him.
“Nice soup, was it?”, enquired Marie.
“So it should be”, exclaimed Christie, “there was a half bottle of poteen in it”.
“You’ve drunk more than the rest of us put together”, screamed Paul.
By now the whole kitchen was howling, with glasses clinking and clanking everywhere.
“But how are we going to get home?”, I said, recovering a tiny bit of sense.
“You’re not going home, you’re staying here the night. The front room floor has plenty of cushions and blankets laid out and the fire’s well banked up”, said Marie. “Now, any more for soup?”
What a night. I think we closed our eyes just as the kids opened theirs. After a few hours’ sleep it was rashers and eggs, then off to the hospital to entertain the staff and patients. We met up with the Lord Mayor of Cork and his party at about 12 noon where we played for their short carol singing session and then, courtesy of one of the city’s best hotels where we played regularly, it was a slap-up Christmas dinner with all the trimmings.
Funny thing was, although the meal was absolutely beautiful, I’d have swapped the lot for another bowl of Chris and Marie’s super soup.