Read An Irish Christmas Feast Online

Authors: John B. Keane

Tags: #Fantasy, #Short Stories, #Short Stories (Single Author), #Fiction

An Irish Christmas Feast

BOOK: An Irish Christmas Feast
6.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


3B Oak House, Bessboro Rd

Blackrock, Cork, Ireland.

© The Estate of John B. Keane, 2004

ISBN: 978 1 85635 450 9

Epub ISBN: 978 1 85635 990 0

Mobi ISBN: 978 1 85635 991 7

This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author's and publisher's rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

To John and Dors

With Much Love

A Look Back

Don't talk back to me about poverty. I remember a time when there was nothing anywhere. Only the very few had more than enough to eat. Only half the population had barely enough. The rest were simply hungry and broke. One of the saddest memories of my youth was the national school. The teachers were, for the most part, caring but often caring with too much force. The sad part of school was the hunger of small boys who came from impoverished backgrounds. I remember when I was first elevated to the upper classes, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh, I was approached by the smallest scholar on the upper floor.

‘Keane!' he called listlessly, ‘any chance you'd bring us a cut of bread and jam.'

This was during the morning break. Every so often I would bring him something to eat. He died from diphtheria in the late 1930s. He was a lovely soul. His emaciated face is still with me. He had a voice like a lark and a spirit that was pure and free but he was no match for poverty and indifference.

At the time there was a saying ‘he's out of all books now' which meant that the
in question would have gone through all the classes in the national school, first book, second book, third book and so on. ‘He's out of all books now,' the mother of an aspirant would say proudly to a prospective employer as she tendered him for the inspection of a grocer or a hardware merchant or a draper.

I knew another boy in that school at the top of Church Street in my native Listowel who confided in me once that he had never eaten an egg, not even at Easter. When I looked at him in astonishment he declared that he had eaten the half of an egg all right on occasion, and sometimes a quarter of an egg and sometimes the cap of an egg but a whole egg never. Other things I remember about this boy were: (1) He never wore shoes; (2) He never wore an overcoat; (3) He never wore underclothes; (4) He always wore a smile.

There was a crude joke circulating at the time about a poor widow who was sometimes given to grandiose actions. She had seven children. Each morning she would boil an egg and distribute it between the seven before they went to school. The egg, of course, would be soft boiled so that the yolk could be spread over the faces of the offspring in order to give the impression at school that there were eggs galore at home. The reason I recall these incidents is to highlight the degrading, debilitating poverty forced upon a long-suffering people and to show how infinitely better-off we are in the new millennium. I know there's still poverty at home but it's nothing like what it was. I know because I was there and I saw it. Outspoken people would ask in anger if this was what Irish patriots went out for. Other folk would ask was this what Pearse and Connolly died for. You will find many historians who will tell you that there were no real solutions to the horrific problems of the last millennium on its countdown to its last gasp.

Surely, the Holocaust need never have happened. The story, however, could have been worse and the megalomaniac Hitler might have succeeded. I wish I could say that the Holocaust was the final chapter in man's inhumanity to man. Alas more recently we have had the Serbian conflict and the barbarity of East Timor and there will be more because, as the old woman said when her husband threw her out into the cold of winter, that is the nature of the bashte.

The bashte in question is the raging animal inside us which has to be subdued every hour. If the dear and gentle reader finds me in a reflective mood he must make allowance for the fact that I haven't touched alcoholic drink for several days in a bid to improve my lot and answer my correspondence. Writing on an empty stomach is dehydrating so I propose presently to take up my glass and empty it before it's too late. There's a time to drink and a time to drive but never at the same time.

The simple truth at the end of the day is that the people of this country never had it so good but like all people in such a position they don't know when they're well off. They lose weight so that they can put it on again. I decided that I was not going to walk into the new millennium nor was I going to run or gallop or tiptoe. Instead, I was going to dive in and fervently hope that I surfaced in another world surrounded by friends who were my enemies and without that accursed pain in my back.

There's a man in this town who goes to bed in the early afternoon of Christmas Eve and does not rise until the following night. He does it, he once told me, because he doesn't want to be happy. He mistrusts happiness because it always fizzles out on him and leaves him sick and sorry. Now I'm a man who wishes to be happy and a man who wishes happiness on everybody and this, remember, is the very same man who has hurled wild abuse at innocent football referees merely doing their job. Towards the end of the last millennium I desisted from abusing referees because of age and reduced voice power.

In my probe into that part of the millennium through which I have lived I recall a confrontation I had with a teacher in my final year in the national school. Our catechism told us that the world was four thousand years old and when I questioned this with another boy we were told that we were guttersnipes. Then, not long after, in the secondary school there was a priest who was also a teacher. If you mentioned to him the name of Charles Darwin he would strike you with his walking stick and if he hadn't a walking stick he had an equally damaging fist.

Were there no solutions then to the evil procedures which governed us? I believe that the first place to look for a solution to injustice and inhumanity is deep within one's own heart or better still look to the Sermon on the Mount according to Matthew beginning with:

Happy are the poor in spirit:

Theirs is the kingdom of heaven

Happy are the peacemakers:

They shall be called sons of God

Happy are those who are persecuted in the cause of right:

Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

As I look around me I don't despair. The good in us marginally outweighs the evil so there is hope for the future and here to cheer you up is a quote from St Paul's epistle to the Corinthians: ‘Take a little wine for thy stomach's sake and for thy frequent infirmities' and as my late and great friend Roger O'Sullivan used to say, ‘What profit it a man to gain the whole world and be wet in his shoes'. A sobering thought my friends, a sobering thought, but one that reminds us that we should look for the antidote of humour when we are threatened with evil.

The Course of Time

Edgar Guff, if one was to believe the observations of his parish priest Canon Coodle, was the possessor of an enormous appetite for whiskey. His puce-coloured nose would also bear this out as would his bloodshot eyes and unsteady gait.

‘He would drink whiskey,' the canon informed his housekeeper Hannie Hanlon, ‘out of a senna saucepan.'

Hannie shook her head in disgust.

‘Otherwise,' the canon continued, ‘he's not a bad fellow at all and you could trust him in any enterprise that doesn't involve whiskey.'

The pair had adjourned to the presbytery kitchen after the evening meal and, as was their wont, would discuss minor parochial business until the evening confessions commenced in the parish church which stood impassively next door where it dwarfed every other building in the town square.

Hannie Hanlon had, a few moments before, completed the dusting of the four ornate confessionals. As she neatly folded her duster she heard the muted but unsteady footsteps approaching along the side aisle where she stood admiring the copper plaque which carried the name of Canon Cornelius Coodle and was affixed prominently to the central door of the canon's confessional. The canon's box, as it was called, was greatly favoured by penitents of both sexes and all ages and not merely because he was somewhat deaf but also because he was tolerant, discreet and sympathetic.

‘Sure you couldn't shock the canon,' the more hardened sinners would assure themselves as they confidently made their way to his box.

Hannie did not have to look around to discover who the first arrival was. The creature's light footfall indicated that it could be none other than Edgar Guff who, despite his surname, rarely expressed himself in public. There was also the fact that he always arrived at the confessional well ahead of the prescribed time, often by as much as an hour on busy occasions such as Christmas and Easter. Seating himself on the innermost extremity of the long wooden stool, which led to the confessional, he nodded respectfully in the direction of the stern-faced housekeeper. She acknowledged the salute with a solemn nod, decidedly discouraging and not in the least bit conducive to further exchanges.

People of the parish would say that Edgar Guff was an exceptional listener and could hear most of what the penitents said especially when they were expected to raise their voices or provide clarification for transgressions at the confessor's behest. This was not often but when it occurred it was always interesting, not that Edgar would ever dream of betraying the confidences which his proximity to the confessional conferred on him.

Edgar was a professional sitter. That is to say, he was engaged by busy sinners such as lawyers, doctors and wealthy businessmen to hold places on their behalf next to the confessional. As soon as one of his clients arrived, always impatient and always in a hurry, he would hand over his seat near the confessional door and make his way to the far end of the wooden stool. For this service, he would be paid a half crown. From his lowly position at the end of the stool he would patiently wait as those who were seated nearer the confessional were shrived, thus allowing him to advance in the right direction. After a while he would find himself in the most prized position, right outside the confessional door. If his next client noted that Edgar was too far from the confessional the restless creature would exit to the town square and indulge in measured peregrinations until he judged that his sitter would be better placed.

During the busy seasons Edgar would spend nearly all of his waking hours on the stool. He was often asked by cronies if he was ever obliged to vacate his place due to a call of nature.

‘Never!' he would answer firmly and then he would explain that he was always on the move so to speak in his earlier years when he was addicted to pints of stout. It was costing him too much in lost revenue so he changed over to whiskey which made hardly any demands because his bladder was never full.

When Hannie Hanlon returned to the presbytery kitchen she was asked by the canon if Edgar Guff had taken up his place.

‘Just a few moments ago,' she answered.

‘That gives me the best part of an hour,' the canon intoned happily as he settled himself comfortably in front of the gleaming Stanley. Later when the three curates arrived the canon was ready to lead his curates onward and outward against the forces of evil. From their confessionals they would keep the enemy at bay with forgiveness.

As the first penitents arrived, several at the same time, Edgar Guff, sitter-in-chief of the parish, fortified himself for the long hours ahead. He withdrew a voluminous handkerchief from his ample, inside pocket and gently blew on his purple proboscis after which he skilfully removed the cork from a noggin of whiskey, cleverly camouflaged by the handkerchief, and indulged in a modest swallow which instantly alerted him to his responsibilities.

Thereafter his clients began to arrive like clockwork. It was a boom time for sitters especially for Edward who had a large clientele, most of them generous if the occasion deserved it. Their contributions were nearly always doubled at Christmas so that Edward need not worry about the wherewithal required for the purchase of extra whiskey. He had already swallowed several half ones in the two public houses closest to the church and since these activities took place during intervals he wasn't in the least befuddled. To employ one of his own phrases he was just warming up and would be quite capable of swallowing the two noggins in his pockets before confessions ended for the night. He would, of course, feel a little groggy later but he would find his way home without difficulty and enjoy a good night's slumber before the noonday sittings of the morrow.

As the night wore on he started to grow drowsy, finding it difficult to keep his eyes open for long. The spirit of goodwill, luckily for him, was abroad and whenever he started to drop off he would be wakened by concerned penitents who sat near him. His clients came and went and not one neglected to pay his fee. He found his hands being opened wide on numerous occasions and almost always two half crowns were pressed against his palm.

Only once in that long night was he jolted into wakefulness and that was when Canon Coodle raised his mighty voice in anger in the nearby confessional. Edgar sat upright at once. It must be some sin of outrageous proportions if the canon raised his voice to a shout. Edgar Guff nor indeed any of the other penitents had ever heard anything like it before.

Edgar deduced from the trembling, plaintive utterances that the penitent in the box was female. She was in the process at long last, after years of neglect and suffering, of acquainting her parish priest with the behaviour of the perfidious wretch to whom she had been chained for more than forty years. Edgar had missed the earlier part of the poor woman's disclosures but he gasped as he had never gasped before when she made the ultimate accusation. This was that she had not been in receipt of a single kiss from her husband for twenty agonising years. It was this that prompted Canon Coodle to shout ‘What!' at the top of his voice. When she repeated the charge in broken tones he thundered the word ‘What!' a second time.

Drunk as he was, Edgar Guff's heart went out to the victim of this disastrous marriage. He longed to lay his hands on the throat of the monster who had treated her so abominably for so long. But no! He must never reveal what he had heard or allow what he had heard to influence any future actions of his in relation to this confession or any other. The secrecy of the confessional was sacred and it dawned on a drunken Edgar, not for the first time, that he was an officer of the Church. He would agree that he was not a very high-up officer, that he was below the rank of assistant-to-the-sacristan or even a common altar boy but he was a Church officer no matter what.

He sat fully attentive as he heard the movements in the confessional. The penitent's door opened and there Edgar Guff beheld the dowdy clothes and tear-stained face of his wife, his one and only who had not qualified for a solitary kiss in twenty years. He sat stunned as she shuffled along the aisle and then she was gone.

Suddenly he sprang into action and dashed into the night.

Outside she moved slowly and carefully, picking her steps in the darkness. Gently he forestalled her and placed an arm around her shoulder, his drunkenness totally dissipated by what he had heard. She turned to look into the face of the person who had come to her aid. Suddenly her sobs filled the night so that passers-by turned to stare. Overcome by grief he shepherded her into a laneway where he held her in his arms until her convulsive sobbing ended and she stood silent and limp, totally dependent on his support.

He took her hand and led her homeward. The days that followed were filled with silence and when she accepted silently his offer of a walk by the river on St Stephen's Day he knew that if he played his cards right there was a chance, just a chance mind you, that things might work out in the course of time.

BOOK: An Irish Christmas Feast
6.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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