Sunday 15 September 2019

Dermot Bolger: 'Compulsion to be together at this time makes us do all sorts'

Festive berth: My sailor father was summoned home for Christmas by a cunning ruse executed by my mother
Festive berth: My sailor father was summoned home for Christmas by a cunning ruse executed by my mother

Dermot Bolger

There was nothing my late mother would not do to try find some way for my father to spend Christmas Day at home. This wasn't always easy. Like many people in essential jobs, his working conditions were far removed from the rather comfortable cocoon now existing for many white-collar workers in Ireland where offices remain closed between Christmas and New Year.

My father was a sailor, and any time spent with his family was dictated by tides and shipping company schedules. Christmas might see him docked in Dublin, but he could just as easily be stranded in Le Havre or Rotterdam back when workers often needed to exchange Christmas greetings with their families in long distance calls to public phone boxes on street corners, and economics dictated that telegrams were more sparsely phrased than haikus.

I still possess the telegram sent by my mother to the MV Dundalk, moored in Liverpool, in 1959 informing him of my birth: "Baby boy. Both splendid. Love. Bridie."

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However, the most memorable telegram to reach him in a European port arrived just before what would have been their first Christmas apart. It read "Father dying. Come home. Bridie." and threw my father - a Wexford man - into such panic that his captain granted him compassionate leave to find a passage back to Ireland. A friendly ship got him to Dublin on Christmas Eve, but he had no time to think about visiting his young family in Finglas and no way of contacting us. His sole thought was to catch the first train to Wexford, sitting among hordes of emigrants returning for Christmas, fervently hoping he had not missed his father's funeral.

Only when the his parents' front door was opened by my grandfather - looking as healthy as Stephen Ireland's granny - did my father realise that my mother had executed what today we would term a "Ballybrack FC manoeuvre".

Thankfully no sailors observed a minute's silence for my perfectly healthy grandfather, like Leinster Senior League clubs recently did for the mythically deceased Fernando. However, such was my mother's desperation to have her husband home for Christmas that this conscientious woman was prepared to concoct "a cunning plan".

Indeed she had already outlined the labyrinthine plan in a long letter to my father which was meant to reach his ship several days before the telegram, but like many letters to Santa, her letter got lost amid the maelstrom of Christmas mail and even today, six decades later, may be awaiting collection on some dock in Hamburg or Calais. Thankfully, my father caught the last Wexford train to Dublin and Christmas was spent with his wife, who had a fire lit in the parlour in expectation of his arrival.

I'm not sure what complex journeys some readers will have undertaken in recent days, with this same instinct to be with loved ones at Christmas, but I know that - unlike in my father's time - traffic at Ireland's ports and airports will be equally heavy in both directions.

For every Irish-born son or daughter returning from Toronto or Newcastle, someone else's daughter or son will be flying out, eagerly looking forward to being greeted by loved ones in Gdansk or Bucharest.

The instinct to be together at Christmas seems sewn into the DNA of many families linked by unbreakable childhood memories. Few people can emotionally ignore Christmas because this time of year is marked out by absences and new presences around our tables which make us take stock of time passing. Families hold an unspoken census each Christmas, with arrivals hailed and absences mourned. Joy and sorrow are engrained into this season.

This year will be the first Christmas spent alone for many people who have nursed partners through terminal illnesses, while parents of babies will find it uniquely joyous as the first Christmas with their child.

We should respect the rights of people with conscientious objections to Christmas, those who wish to stand aside from the pandemonium for valid and private reasons. They may not mark it as such, but it will still be a landmark in their minds.

It will be a time of enormous pressure for people who are unemployed or on zero hours contracts and are so desperate to get their children Christmas presents that the concept of an unhappy loan shark in December is an oxymoron.

While I oppose capital punishment, at Christmas I could make an exception for advertising executives who callously use every emotional trick to unlock wallets by bombarding children with images of perfect parents coming home with perfect gifts in perfect worlds.

Few worlds are perfect, but if we look back, it is not the presents that we remember from childhood Christmases. If we are lucky, we remember the anticipation and feeling of being enveloped by love when we woke early to clamber into parents' beds, overcome by the sense of an occasion that we could not truly make sense of.

At this time of year, as Byron said, "The heart must pause to breathe". Perhaps the greatest gift we can give to each other is ourselves. Hopefully , few families will need to resort to the subterfuge my mother once engaged in to get her husband home and hopefully, with Skype, the distances will seem less than when families crowded into phone boxes to await long distance calls.

This Christmas excited children will speak by WhatsApp to grandparents in 50 languages. Families will enjoy old rituals or make new ones. Young couples will celebrate this being their first Christmas together.

Some of us will luxuriate in good cheer, and others will wish to get the day finished. But for all of us, it will be special because - consciously or unconsciously - it is how we measure time.

I won't wish everyone a happy Christmas, although I sincerely hope it will be joyous, but I do offer the wish that each of us will have whatever type of Christmas we want.

It gets dark and cold early, but Christmas is always a time of hope, because - as we reflect on another year ending - we invariably find that, as Brendan Kennelly wrote, "Something that will not acknowledge conclusion insists that we forever begin".

Irish Independent

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