Wednesday 23 October 2019

David Robbins: Hereditary nostalgia reigns in Christmas Day's quiet period

David Robbins

There is a dangerous period on Christmas Day. Mass is over, but it's still a couple of hours until lunch is served. It's an ominously quiet time, when anything might happen.

In our house, it was the time when my father would say: "I think I'll just pop over to Sandymount ... "

My mother would roll her eyes. She would like to say something -- plenty, perhaps -- but she thought of us and the day, and merely sighed. For my father, going to Sandymount was like going down a trap door into the past. It was where he spent his happiest years. Part of him never left.

When he talked of those days, his eyes shone. To hear him describe them, we thought: forget Hollywood, or Monte Carlo; the place to be in the 1950s was the Strand Road in Sandymount.

His friends had exotic nicknames. "The Fish" Salmon. "Pimple" Collins. They sounded like characters from a Damon Runyon story. We wondered how they came by those names, and imagined long nights in dark pubs, when the talk spun and whirled into surreality.

He told us of dinner dances in the Shelbourne, black tie and taffeta affairs. We saw old photos, tables of dapper men with slicked down hair and women in evening gloves. Sandymount's Rat Pack.

And there was Ned Brown, my father's best friend, tall and dashing we thought, with a twinkle in his eye and a ready smile. Ned was a well-kept, thorough man. One summer, my father and his friends, fuelled by Hemingway's accounts of the country, invaded Spain. Ned insisted on learning the language first.

They went to Cadiz and, by all accounts, had a ball. My father spoke wistfully of it many times afterwards. Every now and then, he would make us fetch the atlas and find it there.

"Maybe next summer, boys, we'll go there. What do you say?" But we knew it would never happen, and perhaps he did too.

In those days, there were only two pubs in Sandymount: Ryan's and O'Reilly's. You drank in one or the other, but never both. It was like being Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil. My father was an O'Reilly's man.

At weekends, he would take my mother to Pembroke Cricket Club, where they held "socials".

She joined the ladies' committee and there is an old photo of her among the other wives, in their Doris Day dresses and elaborate hair. She loved those evenings because there was singing around the piano; my father liked them, I suspect, because the bar stayed open late.

One of the cricketers was the resident pianist. My mother pronounced this word in a faux-posh accent, so that it sounded to us like "penis". We would nudge each other and giggle every time she'd say: "Oh, he's such a fabulous penis."

In those days, the women organised the parties, made the food and arrived early to arrange everything. And then they waited, making small talk until the men came over from the pub.

They would arrive, bottles of porter clinking in the deep pockets of their long overcoats. The music would start, cigarettes would be offered around and the Irish courtship ritual would begin.

Public house opening hours played a large part in the rhythm of life back then. Holy Hour and closing time were the fixed stars by which they navigated.

Now, of course, closing time is a notional thing and pubs hardly seem to close at all. My father became an accidental dog lover because the only place you could get a drink on St Stephen's Day was at the RDS Dog Show.

This was the world to which my father escaped most Christmas Days. He had other ways to get there, too, mind. An old movie might take him back, or a snatch of a song. 'Some Enchanted Evening' would do it every time.

Westerns starring Richard Widmark, and thrillers with George Raft or Edward G Robinson reminded him of the days when he courted mother by taking her to "the pictures" in a ramshackle Sandymount cinema they called "The Shack".

What was so bad about the present, I wondered later, that he had to escape to the past? I promised myself I would look forwards, not back. And yet, especially at Christmastime, I find myself thinking of my father and his mates. I can see them, with their collars turned up against the snow as they make their way from O'Reilly's pub to Ned Brown's house after closing time.

Perhaps nostalgia is hereditary after all.

drobbins@independent.ie

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