Joseph O'Connor: Stage presence
Published 24/11/2010 | 05:00
One of my earliest December memories is the kindergarten Christmas play when I was four. The story was set on Christmas Eve. Santee was readying to hit the skies with Rudolf, but the Weatherman was in a huff with the result that there was no snow. This particular weatherman was no Met Eireann meteorologist, but a moody and easily aggravated wizard who presided over a wicked junta that created the world's weather from their headquarters at the South Pole. He was required to have a scowl that would frighten all the gnomes. (Think Brian Cowen in shorts, you're not too far off.) The Weatherman was my theatrical debut, my chance to shine. I played him with the gusto of a High-Babies Daniel Day-Lewis. Yeah, I drank that Santee's milkshake!
A girl called Niamh was my Tánaiste -- I mean my wife, sorry. But it wasn't a marriage made in heaven. The story required that she often hold my hand. This would have been fine, but Niamh had the runniest nose in all Dun Laoghaire, which she persisted in wiping with the same hand that she employed to clutch my own. When the only thing bonding yourself and your leading lady is mucus, it's hard to truly give of your best.
Reverend Mother gave me a beard made of cotton wool, and a crêpe-paper tunic with spangles glued on to it. The effect was panto-mode Twink meets Osama Bin Laden. Why a nun in 1970s Ireland would have had a false beard, I don't know, and I'm not entirely sure that I want to. The reindeers wore beige tea-towels which made them deeply convincing.
Some even had paper hats with antlers crayoned onto them. The more committed would vigorously attempt reindeer noises. Since reindeer were not among the native species of the greater Dun Laoghaire area, creative improvisation was practised. There were moos, baahs, bleats, hoots, barks, roars and oinks.
One classmate assured me with the autocratic conviction possessed by toddlers that a reindeer sounded 'exactly like a bat'. But alas, I hadn't heard a bat either.
You can see that the production was a tinderbox. And the spark was on its way. One morning at rehearsal, a confrontation erupted between the shepherds and the Holy Family. A shepherd had called the Virgin Mary a rude name. She responded with an upper-cut to the chin. It was 'one in, all in'.
Never had I witnessed such a fisticuff.
Reverend Mother was about as effective at halting hostilities as a Celebrity Bainisteoir would be in Fallujah. Driven back from us in fear for her very wimple, she was helpless before the tsunami of tots. There were thumpings and bootings. Bits of manger were brandished. It was like one of those 19th-century 'Punch' cartoons of Irish people enjoying themselves on a coffin-ship. I recall seeing Saint Joseph bawl at the Bethlehem innkeeper 'You're CLAIMED', and reflecting that the gospels might have turned out somewhat differently had the real Saint Joseph opted for such an assertive approach. It also might have led to some interesting carols, such as 'Away in a Manger, No Crib for a Bed, Don't Tell Me You're Full or You're Gonna Be Dead'. Reinforcements arrived, a crack team of postulants, renowned for hard-assed tactics and unfair use of the scapular. In the scuffle, one of the Wise Men proved he wasn't that wise after all when he was caught spitting at an archangel and snapping a leg off Baby Jesus. Baby Jesus was played by Roddy, my lovely eldest sister Eimear's most prized dolly. He had eyes that looked at you crossways, and was devoid of genitalia, so there was enough on his mind already without assaulting him.
But I remember the Baby Jesus being hurled across the classroom, then being used to bludgeon one of Santee's elves while she was sat upon by Our Blessed Mother in Heaven. It's an image that stays with you, somehow.
December, in my childhood, was a difficult month anyway, for a reason I remember almost every time I enter a church these days, which doesn't happen as often as it used to back then. For it was on the eighth of December, in 1966, that the younger of my two sisters was born. It's a date that used to see the beginnings of Christmas in Ireland, in the days before we decided it had to start in August. Country people would come to Dublin to do their shopping for the season, and the lights, such as they were, would be switched on by the Lord Mayor, resulting in power-cuts from Kerry to Donegal. That date is also the feast of the Immaculate Conception, a day of obligation for Catholics. And since my mother was in hospital, having given birth that very morning, it was my beloved and devout grandmother and my wonderful father who took upon themselves the duty of taking my three-year-old self to Mass. The church was packed -- it was a different time in Ireland -- and we arrived late and stood in the back with many others.
When the time came for communion, my father and grandmother took it in turns to hold me while each of them approached the crowded altar to receive it. I began to feel left out. And I didn't like that feeling. And anyone who was in Glasthule Church, on that December day in 1966, may still remember what happened. During the fervently reverent silence that descended immediately following communion, the priest approached the tabernacle and piously opened it, replacing the chalice and bowing his head. My three-year-old mouth opened and out came the blood-curdling shriek: "He's lockin' it all away!! And I didn't get any!!"
It was the beginning of a difficult relationship with Catholicism generally, and I often think it goes back to that moment.
As for the beautiful baby who had been born to our family that morning, perhaps few would have expected that one day she would record a song called 'Nothing Compares 2 U', which would enter people's memories with such beauty and power. There is possibility in the air, something mysterious in December. And no amount of tinsel and gaudiness and noise can ever truly crush it.