Friday, 31 December 2021

St. Stephen's Day in the Model County

 One of the glories of the extended Irish Christmas season of my youth was St. Stephen’s Day. The British called it Boxing Day, but that’s another story.

St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr and there was a vague echo of violence to the day around the “Model County” of Wexford.

Christmas Day itself was devoted to family, stuffing oneself, and generally lazing around in front of the fireplace.

On occasion in my teens I played a semi-legal and frowned upon Christmas Night dance in the Town Hall. These were promoted by Johnny Reck, a legendary Wexford character, and tended towards violence due to an excess of drink and lack of security.

After one particular tumultuous Yuletide evening Johnny washed his hands of such promotions declaring, “it’s not worth a visit to the dentist on Stephen’s Day!”

He was right on that score for it definitely would not have been seemly to arrive at the Co. Wexford Hunt on the morning of the 26th with your jaw in a sling.

My family was split politically. My father’s people were “big Fine Gael farmers” while my mother’s were hard core Fianna Fail with deep roots in pre-Troubles Sinn Fein.

Suffice it to say this faction wouldn’t be caught dead at the West Brit sport of harassing decent Irish foxes.

Though connected to the horsey set, my father’s people were more likely to bet on the ponies than ride them. Still, my father religiously escorted us to the hunt taking care to be there well in time for the handing out of the  “stirrup cup.”

This was usually some form of hot whiskey, the smell of which wafted amidst the ordure of fresh horse manure outside some rural pub. With the hounds baying, the steeds whinnying, at the blare of a loud bugle, all would set forth in pursuit of the wily Wexford fox.

A gate to some big field would be thrown open and off the hounds would tear followed by the riders charging towards some huge ditch or hedgerow. There, the inexperienced met their Waterloo, ending up nose deep in Wexford muck, the unlucky ones being mortifyingly dragged by the stirrup.

We proletariat, on foot, would gallop past these fallen gentry, trying to conceal our laughter, and save energy for the long morning ahead of racing up and down hill, glade, and ploughed field. I never saw a fox being apprehended, much less killed, but it wasn’t for want of effort.

Eventually, we’d make it back to my Fine Gael grandfather’s for Stephen’s Day dinner at 1pm sharp.

A reserved and silent man, he did occasionally crack a smile at the tale of some horsey friend or neighbor who had come a cropper in a thorny ditch.

After one such dinner I had my only experience of mumming. The custom has long since died out around Co. Wexford and was probably in its final throes when I witnessed it.

I knew something was amiss when my Granny moaned, “Sweet Jesus protect us!” and blessed herself in unison. This was her all-purpose shield from misfortune that ranged from the death of a family member to the sighting of a lone magpie.

“The mummers have arrived,” said she to a reciprocal sigh from my grandfather.

And there they were bold as brass – four men in dresses, their faces slathered in everything from damp soot to their wives make up. One was brandishing a wooden sword, another waving a small birdcage that housed a wren, while their comrades danced a hybrid jig-tango, as they parodied a tale of St. George slaying the dragon.

At the end of the performance there was an unspoken, but vaguely threatening demand, for refreshments and payment, to which my Granny produced four large dusty bottles of Guinness while my grandfather meekly counted out an equal number of ten-shilling notes.

With the dragon safely slain, the mummers uncorked their large bottles, pocketed the legal tender and departed, while my Granny’s warm old kitchen descended once again into silence.

Meanwhile, up in the County Hospital, a mud-spattered Fine Gael horseman had a bone set, and at the dentist’s Johnny Reck spent some of the takings from his semi-legal Christmas Night dance, as another St. Stephen’s Day limped to a martyr’s close.

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