Barry Egan: This Man's Life
Santa might come but once a year - but in our house we seem to have been preparing for his arrival from the North Pole since August.
These last few weeks, the excitement around the house is almost unbearable as every bedtime comes with a litany of increasingly joyous questions along the theme of: how many more sleeps before Santa comes?
With two more sleeps until Santa comes, my daughter, almost four years of age, is currently in a parallel universe of happiness, her every utterance centred on the great man himself.
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Last Wednesday I took her to meet the great man himself at the Santa Express in Santa's Manor Home, Palmerstown House Estate, Johnstown.
Even allowing for I've-had-too-much-mulled-wine hyperbole, it was one of the greatest nights of my life. Forget seeing Prince in concert in Paris when I was 20, or U2 in concert in the Nevada desert when I was 30. Going to see Santa on a magic train on a freezing night with all the lights of the estate lit up... and my daughter barely able to contain her joy as she said Santa! Santa! Santa!...bettered that.
The Santa Express in Johnstown has to be one of the best Santa experiences in the world for children of all ages. It was extra magical on the train journey to meet Santa that my sisters Jackie, Marina and Karen and all their kids had joined us.
Before the Egan clan got on the train we all went on the spinning cups and then the carousel. There is something beautifully mad about being 51 and riding a horse around a carousel with your daughter on the unicorn opposite as your sisters follow behind on other magical animals.
My daughter was laughing out loud and saying that she wanted to fly up into the sky on the unicorn with Santa and the reindeer.
Fifteen minutes later she was sitting on her father's knee addressing Father Christmas in Santa's Manor Home. She told him that she had gone to bed early all year (no comment) and that she had a carrot for the reindeer and a glass of Guinness ready for him when he arrives.
Maybe it was the talk of Guinness or the beard but Santa that night at Santa Express reminded me of Ronnie Drew. Every time I pass Neary's pub on Chatham Street, I see Ronnie standing there outside on Christmas Eve holding a pint chatting to me. I met him there one Christmas many years ago and I can never forget it.
Though many a Dublin pub can justly lay claim to having the good ship Ronnie sail through their doors (and I suppose honourable mention has to go to O'Donoghue's on Merrion Row, where The Dubliners were loosely formed over pints in 1962).
Cut to Christmas, 2009, in Berlin, The Dubliners are treating me to a glimpse of the rare oul' times. Sitting in a pub in East Berlin, John Sheahan is remembering the first meeting he had with the band in another pub up the road from O'Donoghue's: Doheny & Nesbitts.
John, then a mere boy of 26, had just left his pensionable job at the ESB to join The Dubliners in 1965 and a "row broke out and it was all 'f**k you' and 'f**k you' and the band broke up! I think Ronnie accidentally kicked Barney under the table on the shins. I went home and I thought: 'Jesus, what am I after doing? I've given up my job and the band is gone!'"
That night in Berlin, John's mind then turned to the late Ciaran Bourke, "the long-haired wayward chieftain sloping in from the Celtic mist", who died on May 10, 1988.
John remembered the night in the early 1970s they went drinking together "somewhere in France. I asked Ciaran what he wanted to drink when we got to the pub. He eyed a long line of liqueurs on the top shelf and said, 'I think we'll start on the left-hand side'. I don't remember much after that. But Ciaran was a dreamer and a philosopher, a gentle soul."
John also had fond memories of another poetic soul who died in August 2008. In the mid-1960s, women in Ireland would come up to the other members of The Dubliners and say that Ronnie had "our Lord's face and Our Lord's eyes".
John recalls on his own wedding day, April 8, 1967 on Haddington Road, seeing Ronnie's piercing, icy blue eyes full of tears.
"He was hugging my mother Mary and crying his eyes out. I'll never forget it. It was as if he was after losing a son himself!" John laughs. "He felt a certain affinity for my mother because her maiden name was Drew. Drew was such an unusual name then."
They were unusually brilliant men too. There was no one like them. There was more than a touch of the James Joyce and the Samuel Beckett about them, about the way they spoke, their stories that came out of their mouths.
Sitting next to me on the bus to Hamburg, Barney McKenna told me a story about a charity gig that The Dubliners played for The Irish Wheelchair Association in the mid-1970s in Dublin.
"A huge row broke out. There were coshes in socks and everything flying around," he recalls, before adding with immaculate comic timing, "and by the end of the fighting, there was more going out in wheelchairs than came in."
Walking down the road in Hamburg at Christmas in 2009, the lads, even at their advanced age, still looked like the Jesse James gang en route to rob a bank in Missouri in 1867.
Back in 1960s Dublin, they stuck out like a sore thumb. Asked whether they ever got threatened or beaten up for the way they looked, Barney turned to me and laughed over a pint in Fischerhaus restaurant in Landungsbrucken in the port: "No, we were hardy boys. Ciaran was a hard man. And I was brought up in Donnycarney North."
Barney (who sadly passed away on April 5, 2012) said with yet another beatific Barney smile. "We were walked off Achill Island one time when we went there to busk in 1963. Put off the island."