Friday, 28 December 2012

Christmas in Wexford

My father always made it home for Christmas. I don’t know what finagling he went through with the Blue Star Line but he spent the holidays with us.

He was a merchant marine on the South American run - from London down to Buenos Aires and back - but wherever he roamed he spent Christmas in Wexford.

He would arrive back his case bulging with presents – stacks of American comics for the boys, suede jackets for the ladies. One year he brought a beautifully plumed parrot. God knows how he got it through customs but sailors were good at that type of thing.

His crewmates had taught this hyper-intelligent creature to swear like a trooper and offer graphic sexual advice to any female who passed within hailing distance. Alas, this tropical pornographer was unable to handle the harsh Irish winter. One frigid February morning we found him head down in his cage, dead of the flu.

My father was not uncommon in his desire to be with his family for Christmas; most Wexford men returned, though usually from London or Birmingham.

Work was scarce in Wexford and many local men were forced to work in the UK. They would carefully divvy up their annual two weeks holidays, a couple of days over Christmas and the rest in the summer when the children would be out of school.

Around mid-December the narrow streets and laneways of the old town would throb with anticipation for the return of fathers flush with extra money gained from time-and-a-half weekend pay.

Amidst this excitement the wives would ice the Christmas cake and store away sumptuous plum puddings in muslin bags. The house would be cleaned and aired; families would soon be reunited and, for a couple of days, cling to the normality of everyday life that others took for granted.

My father enjoyed this mass return – he had much in common with these emigrants. He’d been leaving home since he was fourteen – spent his fifteenth birthday in Russia apprenticed on a ship out of Cardiff.

The pubs would do a roaring trade as men stood rounds for each other. It was their time to be expansive: they’d slaved the previous fifty weeks in British factories, returning at nights to lonely lodging houses, their weekly pay mailed home on Saturday mornings to anxious wives.

My father would be in the midst of all this frantic merriment for he loved pubs and good company. Back then women didn’t frequent these establishments; in fact most ladies rarely took a drink, apart from a sherry or two at a wedding or wake.

The pubs would be boisterous and ring with innocent swearwords, particularly on Christmas Eve, for the hour wouldn’t be long in coming until these breadwinners would be forced to take the boat-train again.

Most men would head up to midnight mass. My father didn’t go with them. He thought all religion was humbug; truth be told, he employed a more scathing term when he had drink taken.

He didn’t care much for the clergy either although he had much time for his brother-in-law, Father Jim Hughes, who had spent most of his life on the missions in the Far East and, more importantly, was a dab hand at picking winners at race meets and point-to-points.

My father rarely made a big deal about his disinterest in religion for back then Ireland was run tight as a fist by the hierarchy; I suppose, it wasn’t worth the hassle. Occasionally he even dropped to his knees during the recitation of the rosary, though he always took care to position the racing page of the newspaper in front of him.

He usually left soon after New Year’s; the damp depressing days of an Irish January were not to his liking. Buenos Aires and the southern summer were calling.

By then over in England the emigrant Wexford men would already have clocked in a week on factory floors dreaming of the faraway summer holidays.

My father never gave much thought to summer for he enjoyed tropical sunshine most of the year. Still, he always made it home for Christmas.

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