Saturday, 5 January 2019

Christmas in Wexford

It’s been thirty years now since I’ve spent Christmas in Wexford. But as many of you can testify the memories of an Irish Christmas stay strong.

Of course, your relationship to “home” changes when your mother, father, and the old house are gone, but once you come to terms with those losses there’s still a whole vista of nostalgia to reacquaint yourself with and treasure.

Back in my youth Ireland had certain universal traditions: a delirious Christmas Eve followed by midnight mass or service, and a dead certainty that from Christmas morning on until New Year’s Day one could relax and celebrate with family and friends. 

And yet, each town and county had its own traditions. In Wexford the main one was the sheer joy of welcoming home emigrants.

Like many other areas of Ireland, Wexford was scarred by emigration. Because of the proximity of the UK and the low cost of travel, there was often a casual nature to many an exit.

You could go out for a drink on a Saturday afternoon with some of the lads home from London, and find yourself still in their company on the Rosslare ferry to Fishguard later that night.

By the same token you had to be very down on your luck not to make it home to Wexford from London, Dagenham, or Birmingham for “the Christmas.”

The boat train that arrived twice a day would be jam packed from Dec. 20th on, and the old town would echo with the footsteps of returning emigrants as they strode up and down the Main Street making sure that nothing had changed in their absence.

Families would return too – local men and women accompanied by their English wives and husbands, the children with hilarious cockney & scouse accents, sounding like pintsized Jaggers and Lennons.

Christmas lights would stretch from lampposts across the narrow streets and Woolworths, our one department store, would be chockablock with flirting teenagers, and anxious grown-ups seeking bargains for Christmas presents.

Few people had much money back then and the rich took care not to flaunt it, for it would have been considered the height of bad taste to make even the lowest feel less valued.

Was that a Christian ethic or an awareness that every Irish family had at one time experienced either repression or famine – and there could well be another come-uppance lurking just around the corner?

Whatever, Christmas was a time of communal joy, and the pubs reverberated with good fellowship as everyone – both emigrant and stay-at-homer - vied with each other to buy their round.

Faces would be flushed from the heat, overcrowding, and the sheer delight of seeing an old classmate - resplendent in the latest London fashions - flash a twenty-pound note at a dazzled barman.

And while the owner was shouting, “Ah lads, come on now, drink up, or the guards will take me license,” many would already be winding their wobbly way up to the Friary or one of the diocesan churches for midnight mass.

Others would arrive beyond fashionably late, and the wiser priests would stall their entry so as not to suffer the inevitable tumbling into pews or the loudly whispered greetings among the hard chaws back by the holy water font.

Nor was it unusual for the flutered devout to doze off into a fit of snoring until rudely awoken by a comrade’s elbow in the ribs. For attendance at midnight mass meant that you could forego the bleary downtown excursion for last mass the following morning.

But there was something else about this late night religious tradition – the pure joy of knowing you were home and taking part in a communal celebration about who you were and where you came from.

A very happy Christmas to the Irish Echo community and special best wishes to those undocumented who will once again not make it home for fear they will not be allowed back in the US.

I remember the feeling well in my own undocumented days, and the hope that something would change for the better the following year. My heart goes out to you.  Hang in there, perhaps in 2019.

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