Bringing the turkey home

Christmas is coming and with it comes memories of seasonal market days and expectant trips home for the long-awaited holiday

Con Houlihan

Perhaps it was Alice Glenn who made popular the joke about Kerry turkeys voting for Christmas. Indeed, if they could foresee what was in store for them in the two months before Christmas, they would certainly vote for it because they are the best weeks of their lives. About late September they are brought in from the fields and they are kept in roomy, warm sheds where they are better fed than ever before.

They have a good time in September too because, by then, the blackberries are ripe. They love them and when they have eaten the ones low down, they will fly and fly and fly until they have eaten the ones at the very top.

We had a dog, aptly called Joker, who would never bother with blackberries near the ground because, like most dogs, he didn't enjoy fruit but he loved to leap up as far as he could and bring down very high blackberries. It may have been an acquired taste but he ate them.

The first Thursday in December used to be a mighty occasion in our town. It was always a market day but at this time it became a big turkey market day. Turkeys were brought in by horse and cart and you could never estimate the total number because they were all over the town.

They were even down as far as the Latin Quarter, which is a long way from the town centre. It was a great pity that someone didn't do a documentary on that special occasion: you wouldn't even need a camera -- a sound recorder would do. The combination of turkeys voices speaking in different languages was a symphony in itself. And then you had the men with the scales shouting out the weights. And then you had the banter between the buyers and the women who sold the turkeys.

You might think that all turkeys spoke in the same voice: they didn't -- like human beings they had their own accents and some of them were so excited by the presence of the multitude of their fellows that they became almost out of their minds.

Sometimes, when standing with my horse at that wonderful fair, I couldn't but think about a poor boy who grew up in Victorian England and who was mainly responsible for the Christmas that we all know now. Charles Dickens is to the novel as William Shakespeare is to drama. He left behind a great body of characters and phrases that we use daily in our speech and have probably forgotten from whence they came.

Before Dickens became such a huge influence in these islands, the goose was the popular figure at the Christmas feast. You would know that from the old rhymes: Christmas is coming

And the geese are getting fat.

Please put a penny

In the old man's hat.

And the biggest market before Christmas in these islands was The Nottingham Goose Fair.

One day while on a train going to a Connacht Final, I was in the company of Mayo people and for some reason the subject of geese came down. I couldn't know why because the time was July and one of the company said: "A goose is sufficient for two but not enough for three." Where had I heard that before? Believe it or not, it is in an essay by the great Doctor Samuel Johnson.

Coming home for Christmas was always regarded as one of life's pleasures but if you travelled on the last boat to Cork, you might think otherwise. It was called the Dagenham boat because many of the passengers worked in the famous factory in that township. They had a long journey from Paddington to Fishguard and then, depending on the weather, they might be in Cork in about 10 hours. St George's Channel can be rougher than you would expect. This was especially so in the old MV Inisfallen. In theory it was fitted with stabilisers but in fact it could pitch and roll simultaneously. And by the time that gallant boat reached the mouth of Cork harbour, most of the passengers were down below deck, glad to survive.

In theory, if you had a fairly good night, that voyage could be a symbol of life itself: you travelled on a rather stormy sea until you came into the harbour and then all was calm and pleasant. Of course, it didn't always work out that way. And yet whether the night was calm or rough, there was always a great embrace in Aherne's Pub On Penrose Quay. It was a wonderful time for hugging and kissing. For better or worse, that is all changed now. Most people come home by plane and they are hardly out of Heathrow Airport before their plane's arrival is being announced in Cork.

A few years ago there was a programme on RTE about Christmas in Kerry around 60 years ago. Three women sat around a fire in Ventry comparing their childhoods. One woman said: "If I found an orange in my stocking on Christmas morning, I would be the happiest little girl in the whole world."

Times were hard but there has been a great improvement in the meantime, so much so that people used to say that we have Christmas all the year round.

What they meant was that they could enjoy red meat three days a week. This may not be true now but, no matter how bad the times, people will always find enough to cheer them up for Christmas.

Fogra: My heartiest congratulations go to Nicolas Carolan for his lovely series Come West Along The Road. It was especially pleasing to see Thursday night's offering again because it was so simple.