Memories of an Irish Christmas

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Christmas at Granny’s

Bank of Ireland, College Green

Bank of Ireland, College Green

No matter what kind of discomfort or inconvenience I was experiencing as the result of a cold, damp November in Dublin, I would always remind myself that Christmas was just around the corner. As a 10 year old, I remember trudging to my piano teacher’s house on the South Circular Road for my weekly lesson, buoyed up with the anticipation of colored lights, family gatherings, amazing food, and Christmas carols. Somehow, it just never got old. Despite my father’s thrift during the rest of the year, come Christmas time, he pulled out all the stops.  There was always an interesting assortment of presents around the tree and he didn’t spare any expense when it came to the Christmas dinner menu. I remember him making eggnog laced with whiskey one year, and he gave us kids a taste. I couldn’t believe that a mixture containing raw eggs and alcohol could taste so creamily decadent, and I have not had eggnog that compares with it since.

In my early childhood years, we headed over to my paternal grandparents’ house every Christmas Eve. My grandfather, Fred Price, worked as head porter for the Bank of Ireland, College Green, and he and my grandmother, Violet, lived in a cozy cottage set back behind the imposing old Irish Parliament building. As a five year old sitting in the back of my father’s car, I was always impressed by the friendly salute we received from the security guard who waved us through the gate to their house. This small gesture imbued me with a false sense of importance, and I was fully convinced that my grandfather owned the Bank of Ireland.

My mother’s bond with her mother-in-law was a strong one, perhaps because she lost her own mother to breast cancer at the age of 15. To Violet, who was mother to two sons, Ron and Eric, Eileen was the daughter she never had. Together they would set to work in the kitchen creating all kinds of delectable Christmas treats. Of course I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, but I now realize what culinary geniuses they both were. I have been known to burst into tears after tasting a rice pudding that almost made my mother materialize in front of me. Like music, food has its own unique type of nostalgia, especially when it connects you to a memory of a beloved parent now gone.

Christmas dinner in the Price household was a gourmet feast. To this day, I try to copy some of my mother’s and grandmother’s creations, but they just don’t live up to the memory. I always make two types of stuffing for the turkey; one with sausage and one without. (The sausage stuffing is my son’s favorite part of the meal). I still make my mother’s classic mashed carrots and parsnips which I prefer over sweet potatoes any day, and at least two kinds of potatoes – usually mashed and roast. So far, I haven’t even attempted to duplicate Granny’s Christmas pudding, with its rich mixture of sultanas, raisins and currants, steeped in Guinness. But just recently, I’ve been thinking more and more about giving it a try. Perhaps next Christmas…

Christmas Eve was magical. We would sometimes attend a carol service at St. Andrews Church of Ireland (a Protestant church) in Suffolk Street, which also happened to be the place of my christening some years earlier. This was just a short walk from Granny’s house.  Sadly, St. Andrews is no longer a church, but today it houses the main Tourist Information Office in Dublin. After church, we would congregate in our grandparents’ living room in front of the fire, ready in our pajamas, and waiting for the crucial bed time. Granddad would supervise the setting out of biscuits (cookies) and whiskey for Santa. He convinced us that Father Christmas would appreciate this far more than the usual glass of milk. The whiskey would “warm him up” for the rest of his busy night. He also informed us that Santa didn’t use a sleigh, but totally went with the times, and now made his visits in a helicopter. Not only that, but he wouldn’t be coming down the chimney. After all, there was a blazing fire going. Instead, he would knock on the front door and Granddad would let him in, provided of course that we children were already asleep in our beds. Granddad stressed the importance of this last bit to avoid the catastrophe of Santa skipping our house altogether.  This was because Santa is basically a very shy person, who doesn’t like hanging around making small talk – especially on Christmas Eve.  It didn’t seem to alarm Granddad that Santa would be flying a helicopter around after downing some of his best Irish whiskey.

After the ritualistic laying out of the cookies and whiskey was complete, we children would be herded up to bed and tucked in beneath our eiderdowns. And this sleepy little girl would drift off with her ears straining to hear, not sleigh bells like normal children, but the sound of helicopter rotors beating the air, as Santa made his approach to land in the courtyard between the Bank of Ireland and Granny’s house.

(An excerpt from Hilary’s memoir on growing up in Ireland)

The Green Goddess

            It was a dark and stormy night. I was driving home late after spending an evening in Dublin with friends at the cinema. A real classic, “Xanadu” starring Olivia Newton-John. Oh well – that’s two hours of my life down the drain.

            The Fir House Road is long and curvaceous, and takes you almost to the foot of the Dublin Mountains where my parents’ house lay, on the outskirts of Tallaght Village. It was a pleasant enough drive most days. However, on this particular night, the wildly gyrating trees that flanked the road were making me nervous.  The sky was dark and furious, and my loud singing was not drowning out the deafening winds. There were branches and limbs down everywhere, and my nimble little Citroen Dyane was dodging between them. She was bright green, my Citroen. My grandfather had christened her “the green goddess,” and from then on, that’s what my whole family called her.  I liked to pat her dashboard and tell her what a good job she was doing. Some of my less reverent friends called her a hair dryer on wheels. I thought this was pretty offensive considering the hours of fun she provided to those same friends, who loved nothing better than to hang out the top of her nifty roll-down sun roof, and yahoo at startled passers-by.  Mind you, these were the same friends who told me what a great movie Xanadu was.

Anyway, this storm was really making me nervous. Some of the trees were dipping frighteningly close to the road. What if one of them uprooted itself completely and fell on my slow-moving bright green target? I stepped on the accelerator a little harder, which made, that’s right, not one iota of a difference. Well – what could I expect from a car that does 60 miles an hour on a steep downward incline with the wind at its back?

So I was on the home stretch with about two more miles to go, when a most terrifying sound assaulted my ears. It sounded like a banshee who got her kicks scraping her nails across a blackboard. I needed to get out of here. I pressed the accelerator even harder. Hurry up and get me home you ridiculous hairdryer! Finally the noise subsided. And I felt a sense of peace all around me. It was going to be okay. I was imbued with the knowledge that I would make it home safely. Everything seemed clearer somehow. The air inside the car had mysteriously become brisk and fresh. And when I looked in the rear view mirror, I was struck with how clear the back window was. I keep this car so clean, I thought, feeling very impressed with myself.

As I pulled into the driveway, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Now, for a hot cup of tea and a good book. My parents were out, but my 19 year-old brother George was home. I have no idea what made me walk to the back of the car before locking it, but I did. And a good thing too, because the hatchback door was conspicuous by its absence.

I ran to the house, opened the front door with my key, and called out to George: “Hey George. Can you come out here for a minute and look at this?”

Now, the thing you need to know about George is that it’s almost impossible to impress him. You could tell him you have a home-made rocket and are about to launch the first Irish airship into space, and he would look at you nonchalantly and wish you a safe trip. His kindergarten teacher had written in the comment portion of his report card, “George is a very calming influence in class. He is a bit like the Rock of Gibraltar. The only problem is, the other children have made a game out of trying to surprise him.”  And sure enough, when it came to my current dilemma, he didn’t disappoint.

He strolled outside and stood there, sipping on a mug of steaming tea; “Oh, your door came off did it?”

“Yes George. Yes, the door came off. It must be back down the Fir House Road.”

“Oh.”

“Well…could you come with me while I go look for it?”

“Oh…alright…yes.”

We climbed into my car and headed back down the Fir House Road. What was I thinking? It isn’t breezy in here, it’s a gale force wind.  And of course the back window looks clean. There’s nothing there!

We drove slowly, squinting ahead of us in the dark. George spotted the forlorn, bright green door lying there in the middle of the road. It had obviously been driven over by a real car. He got out, retrieved it, and laid it gently on the back seat. We drove home silently, still slightly stunned by recent events. At least I was stunned. George seemed as unruffled as ever – the perfect companion at such a time.

On arrival back at the house, we examined the rear door hinges, and found that the door had just been wrenched cleanly off, and nothing was actually broken. Incredibly, we were able to put the door back on without a problem. I don’t know why I was surprised. A co-worker had recently showed me how to fix the gear shift mechanism, which had popped out, by strategically inserting a piece of wire coat hanger. This was something that never failed to impress my friends:

“Oh look at Hilary,” whenever I reached under the hood with my piece of coat hanger, “she can fix her own car. She is so handy.”

The only real damage to the rear door was to the latch, which had taken the brunt of the violence from the real car and could no longer be locked. After closing the door as securely as we could, we headed inside and I put the kettle on for the long-awaited cup of tea.

“Wow George, that was some adventure, wasn’t it?”

George was already relaxed in front of the T.V. and looked up absent-mindedly at the sound of my voice.

“What? Oh. Right. Yes.”

********

             Years later, I was reading up on the Citroen Dyane, and discovered this particular model was named for Diane, Roman goddess of the moon. So apparently Granddad was more on the money than he knew.

Green_Citroen_2CV

Glendalough, County Wicklow

Glendalough, County Wicklow

When visiting Glendalough, which means “Valley of the Two Lakes,” for the first time, you might be spellbound by the shear timelessness of the place. Indeed, you will be surrounded by grave stones that are so worn by time, they are impossible to read. Perhaps not surprising considering some of them date back over a thousand years. St. Kevin founded this ancient monastery settlement back in the 6th Century, and for many years, it was a bustling monastic city which boasted not only church buildings and monastic living quarters, but workshops, farms and houses. Now, with just a handful of ruins remaining, and of course the cemetery, it has a serenity that somehow survives, despite being a tourist attraction.

My first memory of this incredibly beautiful place was as a rambunctious 9 year old, on a school field trip, playing tag with my friends among the ruins and burial sites. But I would always stop in my tracks at the sight of the round tower. That edifice fascinated me…and it still does. Our eyes would grow wide at the tales of our headmaster, who informed us that when the Vikings invaded, the monks would seek refuge inside the tower, using a ladder to climb up through what I can only describe as a slit of a window, and then hastily pulling the ladder up after them. The tower itself is almost 100 feet tall, and there are no doors. The walls are exceptionally thick – I’ve never measured them, but they have to be at least 2 feet deep.

There is no cost to visit Glendalough. You can wander around the site and enjoy the beautiful lake trails for free.  You also have the option to go to the adjacent Visitors Center and view a film on Glendalough, and for this there is a small charge. Either way, if you plan to spend any time in Co. Wicklow, I would definitely include Glendalough on your itinerary.