In the Rose Hotel, Tralee
Christmas Tree in St. Mary’s , December 2023
The Mermaids is celebrating. I think I saw a 20 on one of the balloons.
Carols on Upper Church Street
Listowel Folk Group adding a sprinkle of Christmas magic to Church Street on December 16 2023.
No, not Mr. and Mrs. Dickens, our own Tina and John Kinsella getting into the spirit of things.
Pierce Walsh was on hand with piping hot mince pies.
What a lovely gesture. Refreshments for the singers and musicians.
Another Great Long Read for Christmastime
For Want of Wings
A Christmas Story
It was the week before Christmas. Suddenly the frost had gently dropped like manna overnight and the meadow to the east of our house glistened in the morning sun. Even the haggard was radiant in its crystal grass-blades and the hill above was coated in a Christmas cloak. The furze slept their winter sleep.
I looked out our front window. The view was stunning. All of North Kerry was emblazoned in white frost. The best window in Ireland, my uncle Mike had christened it once as he gazed out with his eternally satisfied demeanour. From Mount Brandon in the south west to Sliabh Mis and Carrantuohill to the south to the Paps in the south east. They were all there in their December furs. The window itself was now adorned with holly and crepe decorations and my father’s home-made candlestick.
Although I was having an identity crisis with Santy for the first time, having reached the unfortunate use of reason, drifting out of the more predictable age of unreason, I was being infused with Christmas-ness by the frosty morning. Our PYE radio was playing “The Green Green Grass of Home” by Tom Jones (a song I always since associate with Christmas) and the seasonal motto was over our kitchen door proclaiming “God Bless This House”.
Just one thing was gnawing at my heart’s hinterland that morning. A group of us had planned to go out “in the wran” on St Stephen’s Day and I had planned to be one of the first in our area to take a guitar. The previous summer, I had planned to have a guitar by Christmas. There were always bits of electric wire lying around Mick Finucane’s ditches in his Gort below the Quarry to the west. And Mick was such a sound man, he wouldn’t miss a few bits of wire. I had heard about my cousins in Urlee who had made home-made fiddles by using vernacular items. So I brought home the lengths of wire, got bits of a butter box and crafted a home-made guitar of uncertain genetic descendency. It had three of Mick Finucane’s electric fence wires as strings and made a sound akin to a cat with serious stomach issue. It didn’t last long as the strings had a mind of their own and preferred the freedom of shrivellry. And I had worn my fingers away trying to play “Hound Dog”. It was the end of my short music career. I thought.
It need not be mentioned now that Mick Finucane’s cows were found wandering around the hill around that time. I wouldn’t know anything about that.
Now, as I looked out the window to North Kerry, I saw Ned Kennelly making his way up the crystalline path through Mickeen’s Field towards our house. His cap as always sitting at a slight nose-ward tilt on his head. His raised chin to counteract the angle of the cap. A lively gait in his nimble legs. The always-energy of his stride poured out to anyone he would meet. He exuded that bubbly pre-Christmas tingle.
Mysteriously, he was carrying a fairly large package wrapped in newspaper, as far as I could make out. I intuited that something magical was about to happen.
It was that forgotten memory that boomeranged back to me as I headed out for a post-competition walk-jog on Monday night last along the Greenway in Tralee. I had been looking up some old photos during the day in search of sports photos from the 1960s. I came across a musical photo that had been hidden for the best part of six decades. Sitting outside our front door in the 1960s, getting ready for the “wran”.
The rest of the St Brendan’s AC gang are too fast for me so they whizz off to do their 8K while I take the jarvey-journey along the magnificent greenway. They would pass me on their way back later with John Culloty way ahead, charging like a steam train. A runaway human steam train.
I settle into a nice waggly-walk but feel the reminders of the previous day’s national 10K masters championships in my back and shoulders. A glowing walking championships festival in St Anne’s Park in Raheny where masters and seniors walked together. Until the seniors sped away in their 20K and 35K voyages of wonder. I did a pb for the 10K with the help of the real walkers who sped by me at intervals in the up-and-down course.
Now as Monday night reveals a starry sky, the pains come out to share the recovery walk with me. “Your shoulder blades will ache for want of wings” the Romanian poet Nina Cassian had written some years ago. Definitely feel that way now as Sunday’s exertions take their toll. It will be more pronounced on Tuesday when the forty eight hour lactic slump will voice its existence. That poem by Cassian is called “Temptation” and the first line challenges with “Call yourself alive!”
If the body is not alive, the mind comes into play as I head west along the Greenway with the lights of Ballyroe rising up the hill to my right.
And the discovery of the old photo chases me out under the stars and so I recall Ned Kennelly coming in our front door all those years ago. No knocking on doors in those days. We lived “ar scáth a chéile” on our Lisselton hill, seven hundred feet over the valley of North Kerry. “God bless all here” he announced as he came into our kitchen.
My mother had the strong tea pouring in no time but my eyes were on the packaged object which Ned had placed beside him. He chatted away to my mother about Christmasses long ago and how the price of candles had gone up and how the Christmas boxes were getting smaller. I got the impression that he was playing the waiting game with me…whatever was in the parcel was a funny shape, wide at one end and tapering away to slender at the other end. I could read the writing on the The Kerryman that it was enclosed in. A cord was holding the wrapping in place.
I was sitting on a thistle for what was like half my life with my legs hopping on the cement floor. I noticed that Ned was roguishly absorbing the intensity of my impatience.
And then he turned to face me directly and I experienced fully how alive his eyes were. He says “I think you have music in you! You had better let it out, boy bán”! That expression was often used on our hill of people who were not good at cutting turf, digging spuds, shovelling out manure or pulling a calf from a cow.
He had me trína chéile.
He began to tear the Kerryman pages away with a ticklingly crackling sound. Like the seventh veil, the last page came way and fell on the floor and there it was in Ned’s hands! A guitar! A beautiful brown and white guitar. With real strings. Six strings. And Elvis Presley’s name on it. A world of possibilities was held in those hands.
I was struck dumb. My hands fell by my sides and I was disarmed. I was also confused as maybe Ned was showing me someone else’s guitar. He had a big family himself and he was probably going to ask us what we thought of their present…until he repeated the sweetest words: “I think you have music in you… and this is for you…”
He reached out the guitar and my arms accepted it gratefully. My mother said strongly “What do you say!” Not a question. An order.
The rest of that pre-Christmas day was a day with strings attached. It was a stringed Christmas. I am not sure what Santy brought to be perfectly honest a few days later on a frosty Christmas morning. I had an Elvis guitar and it came from my new hero, Ned Kennelly.
Later it was revealed to me that Ned had heard about me going west to Mick Finucane’s Gort in search of the golden fleece of the strings and my aborted guitar-construction. When his eldest son gave up his musical career, left his guitar at home and headed off to England, Ned had decided to gift the guitar to me on that magic week before Christmas in the swinging sixties.
After a goose dinner on Christmas Day, I borrowed a wire clothes hangers from my mother’s wardrobe. I didn’t ask permission as it’s hard to believe how scarce wire clothes hangers were in the 1960s. Anyway, I didn’t want to bother her by asking as she was busy all day with food and washing up. My father was still recovering from his busy weeks as a postman so I grabbed the clothes hangers, ran out to the shed and fashioned the wire into a mouth organ holder.
Then came St Stephen’s Day. With my two-day old guitar-friend, I headed down the hill on my monster-bike. On my head was a made-up cowboy hat that had been thrown away by my father, a bit of black polish on my face and a pair of wellingtons on my feet and a few pieces of crepe paper hanging loose. At Lyre Cross, I joined Mossy Henchy, Pat O’Connor and Tom Mulvihill. Off we went out in the “wran” as we called it.
We cycled to every house from Lyre to Lisselton Cross, through Ballydonoghue and Kilgarvan, via Tullahinell and Asdee and back through Guhard, Farnastack, up Scralm and into Larha. Coining we were! I can see the faces of the audience that awaited in each house. Delighted to be honoured by musicians fulfilling an ancient tradition, they would throw the pennies at us after a few bars of music. We were stars. We were on tour. We were making money from music and we were mesmerising the population of three parishes.
We had enough pocket money for the first weeks of the new year and the whole world was opening up ahead…
I smile now as I look up at the stars on my return jog into Tralee. There’s Venus and Mars up above me as far away as they were six decades ago. The lights of Tralee draw me towards the town as John Culloty, as expected, powers past me with a good quarter-mile to spare over Ursula Barrett, Ivan from Spain and Kenneth Leen.
I see a falling star…
Well, my musical career never happened. After years strumming my Elvis guitar, even with new strings from Fred Mann in the small square in Listowel, it was revealed to me that I didn’t have a note in my head. Or in my hands. Someone told us after the day in the wran that we were given money to stop playing! The boys with me may have some musical talent, but my well was dry.
The next Christmas, I found a drum at my bedside when I woke up on Christmas morning. I had obviously given hints to Santy that perhaps percussion rather than strings was how I could release the music in me. The drum however created logistical problems as I often got inspiration to play it late at night when my parents were trying to go to sleep. And my pet dog Spot attempted to accompany me with a terrier-wail that reached a high pitch. My father suggested strongly that if I went out the hill and played during the day, it might be a better idea.
The drum dream died too. I tried the fiddle later. It felt like a guitar that never grew up, so my fiddling doodled out. As did my dream of music.
I had to rebrand my borders and redefine my definitions. Life ensured that. As Albert Camus said “You will never live if you are constantly looking for the meaning of life”.
The Methodology of Music
When I think back now, Ned Kennelly’s saying that I had music in me may not have been a mistaken reading of my child-psyche. Years later I would discover that music and art have many dimensions. Humble or otherwise, there is both in all of us. Some may find the means to express them in a day or a week. Others may take years. For many, it may take half a lifetime to find the methodology of the music, and it may come out in the most amazing ways, once you meet the moments and mark the miles.
Some months after that stringed Christmas, when I watched Ned fashion the treadle for a sleán out of a piece of raw ash, I began to understand what expressing the music meant. When I saw him putting a patch on a wellington so lovingly that the wellington became a friend of his hands, I understood it more. I began to see what he meant by music. When summer beckoned all along our hill, I saw him turn the green earth of the hill field to set spuds where furze bushes had grown only a generation before. I heard his music then too. The instrument of the spade and his keen eye were composing music with the earth that April day.
As I listened to the words of Petula Clark singing “Downtown”, I hinged on the words “the music of the city”. Much later I was privileged to watch, live on stage on Broadway, “The Phantom of the Opera” with its haunting song “The Music of the Night”. Even this very Christmas Eve in Tralee parkrun (for which I was presented with a certificate for completing 100 of them), I could hear the music of the feet and hearts. Some as sweet as Sissel singing “Shenandoah” – although my own foot-music was more heavy metal than Chopin’s Nocturne, Opus 9. And what comes on the radio on the way home from the parkrun this morning but Cass Elliot singing “You’ve got to make your own kind of music”! Life re-pitched in its own chaotic creativity.
The generosity and the advice to make my own kind of music outlasted all the Christmasses of my life. The potential that Santy was there in all of us every day was the lesson I learned from Ned. It would carry beyond “Twixtmas” into the years.
Ned has long since gone to his eternal reward. I chatted with his son Eamon this Christmas Eve to tell him about the gift of neighbourly love that I was given on that Christmas week long ago. The guitar has now merged with nature but the abiding legacy of its gifting marches on.
As will my memory of Ned Kennelly who taught me how to put lyrics to the melody of life on a Christmas when my shoulders wanted wings.
A Craft Fair
Listowel Community Centre on Saturday December 16 2023
Fifi Shades of Cake with her scrumptious cakes…almost too good to eat.
This Killarney man had the most gorgeous rustic stables, all made from fallen wood and tree branches. My photo doesn’t do them justice. If you don’t already have a nativity set, this stable is a must buy.
If you are after knitwear for a small one, these are perfect.
This elf was guarding Santa’s door.
I met my lovely past pupil, Paulina, now the mother of two lovely children.
An Old Christmas Card
William MacNeely Christmas Card, 1949
A Christmas greeting card from William MacNeely (1889-1963) from 1949. He was the Donegal-born Bishop of Raphoe from 1923 until 1963. Following his ordination as a priest, his first appointment was to the teaching staff of St. Eunan’s College in Letterkenny (1912-16). MacNeely subsequently volunteered as a chaplain in the First World War, serving with Irish battalions in the British Army from 1916 to 1918, seeing action on the Western Front, during which he was injured in a gas attack. He was appointed Bishop of Raphoe in July 1923 (at the relatively young age of thirty-five). He served as Bishop for over forty years. He died on 11 December 1963. The design of the Christmas card is most likely the work of Richard King (Rísteard Ó Cíonga), a renowned stained-glass artist who also contributed much of the artwork for the ‘The Capuchin Annual’ publication
A Date for the Diary
A Christmas Fact
In the 14th century, Christmas pudding was a type of porridge made using mutton and beef alongside spices, wines, raisins, currants and more. Over time, people slowly added more alcohol alongside eggs and dried fruit until we eventually ended up with the Christmas pudding we’re all familiar with today.