The Spectator has Fergal Keane recalling childhood Christmas’s at his granny’s in rural Co Kerry. Hunting the wren, goose rather than turkey for dinner, and St Stephen’s Day rather than Boxing Day (weirdly, it was both in our house in the early sixties). But the focus for the piece is Patrick Kavanagh’s spare and devout evocation of Christmas before the wealth and dislocation of the Celtic Tiger.
I have only to read those words now and I am taken back to an Ireland before the plenty, and the vulgarities, of the Celtic Tiger. It was certainly a poor place. The politicians and the priests were locked in a joyless tango. I need not elaborate. You will all be familiar with the litany of woes described by every memoirist to emerge from the narrow, rain-sodden, priest-addled byways.
But as Patrick Kavanagh knew, there was a lot more to the story than that. His poetry of Christmas in particular suggests another narrative, more complex and more forgiving, rooted in the traditions of the Irish countryside but transcending national boundaries.
It is both celebratory and awestruck and above all filled with gratitude for the coming of the Christ Child. In this land of small farms the young child wanders from cow-house to farm gate to where his father is playing the melodeon to serenade the neighbours on their way to Mass. On the morning of Christ’s birth he is alert to the hidden music of the commonplace.