News Billy Keane

Wednesday 1 October 2014

It's down to St Stephen that we are all able to enjoy the great escape

Published 26/12/2013 | 02:30

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Christmas Day: the one day of the year when you have to stay at home and listen to advice

You'd swear they were locked up for years with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. Out they burst like a team running on to Croke Park for an All-Ireland final and mad for action. For some, St Stephen's Day is the day of the great escape.

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One day at home. One day of full-on domesticity, and they've had enough. Sitting around talking to family and friends is too much for some. Last year, one lad told me he was coping fine until his mother-in-law asked him to hold the ball of wool for her while she was knitting a cap for the child he didn't plan to have for a good few years yet.

It's very hard to escape the treatment on Christmas Day. It's the one day of the year when you have to stay at home and listen to advice and, then, after the third bottle of red, a full-on argument rages but you can't storm out of the house because there's no place to storm to. The pubs and shops are shut.

We have a lovely time at Christmas. The pub is closed and we get a taste of what people who live in private houses do on their nights off. I remember as a kid when my parents went downstairs to open the pub on St Stephen's Day, our hearts dropped. We knew Christmas was over. The private house people were still at home cozying up to the fire and watching 'Willy Wonka' and the lads falling into chocolate vats and only themselves in the house.

Then there was a sudden thundering of bodhrans and accordions and fiddles and flutes. We'd rush down the steps for the wrenboys. Sonny Canavan was the captain of the Dirrah Wrenboys. I was his pet and he always had a shilling for me. Sonny had a glass eye and sometimes he'd take it out and he'd let us play with it.

We were the last of the free-range kids, reared in safer times. We lived over the pub where there was only room for two bedrooms. In and out of the pub all day, playing with our pals and watching the antics of the troupes of wrenboys. Happy days though, mostly.

I will walk down to work tonight with a heavy heart. There's a sense of guilt in that I didn't look after other opportunities that would have given me the chance to stay at home with my family on nights like this.

When the father asked me to take over the running of the pub 20 years ago he said "it's all you're fit for", and that wasn't meant in any derogatory sense. He was saying 'the fun, the talk, and the buzz is for you'.

The thing about the pub is that it forces you to get into good form. In spite of yourself. People come in to have a good time.

There's a cure for depression and loneliness to be had by working behind a counter. And outside too. Some doctors, who really should try to get out more, will go on and on about the drink but there's a huge positive to be had by going out and meeting a variety of people.

The secret is to drink in moderation.

That's the problem with St Stephen's night. Too many overdo it. You never know who is going to walk in the door. There's always that element of fear and danger. I'm lucky, though. We have a lovely clientele and the gardai would never let you down.

And I have the Enforcer on my side. The mother has a weapon now. Her crutch. After getting the hip done. She's 84.75 and there's still no better woman to clear out what she calls 'Undesirables'. There's no glory to be had by taking on an 84.75-year-old woman and so she gets the Undesirables out far more easily than a big huge security man.

In England, St Stephen's Day is called Boxing Day, which either has its roots in the giving of Christmas boxes or the boxing of votes. We could easily change the name here to Boxing Day. There's bound to be violence in your town or city tonight. Maybe it comes from too much drink or drugs fuelling the frustration that Christmas wasn't the perfect day it's supposed to be.

We still get the melodious wrenboys and the roof is lifted off when they come in the door. Your heart would lift, too. There are wonderful pipers from Newcastle West who would knock a good tune out of a hot water bottle. The talent flows in and out all night.

Ah, but there are some desperate chancers masquerading as musicians. There are bodhran players whose drumbeat comes from the coffin of a man who is mistakenly pronounced dead and is buried, only to wake up still alive and pounds on the lid to try to attract attention to his plight.

Then there's the come-all-ye balladeers who sing as if a certain part of their anatomy has been caught in their zip.

You have to make a donation as their third cousin might be a good customer and, in a small place if you insult one, you insult 20.

But then your old school pal you haven't seen for 10 years might walk in the door and that's the talk the two of us will have.

It takes all sorts.

Anything can happen on St Stephen's Day, and it usually does.

Irish Independent

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