After the (foot)ball is over

An Irishman’s Diary about not having birthday parties

No culture of candles: ‘In any case, as well as dry clothes, she heroically rounded up various sweet things to eat and drink. There was only one snag: we didn’t have a cake. Or maybe we did. But we certainly didn’t have candles – they weren’t part of our culture – so it couldn’t be a birthday cake.’ Photograph: Getty Images

No culture of candles: ‘In any case, as well as dry clothes, she heroically rounded up various sweet things to eat and drink. There was only one snag: we didn’t have a cake. Or maybe we did. But we certainly didn’t have candles – they weren’t part of our culture – so it couldn’t be a birthday cake.’ Photograph: Getty Images

Sat, Feb 1, 2014, 01:00

I threw a birthday party, once. I was about eight at the time, and it was an eccentric thing to do then, at least in my family. There being seven children, birthdays happened too often to make a fuss over. Besides, we lived on a farm. Parties, like holidays, were considered a bit frivolous: something people in the town did, not us.

Even so, maybe because I had begun mixing in those circles, I decided to mark my anniversary in style that year. The party even had what we now call a “theme”. The main event was a football match, held in the small field beside the orchard. The food and drink would come afterwards.

It was a glorious affair, as I recall – the football, especially. My birthday falls on what is supposedly the first day of spring (yes, today!) but what in practice that year, like most years, was still winter. This only added to the fun for a bunch of small boys. By the end, the field had less muck attached to it than we did. So our game had to be followed, just as at Anfield or Old Trafford, with a team bath.

For some reason, my mother didn’t seem to enjoy all this nearly as much as the rest of us. In retrospect, I suppose, entertaining a dozen or so of other people’s children, all of whom needed a change of clothes but hadn’t brought one, was a challenge.

Also, I seem to recall there was some issue about her not having been informed of any party beforehand. I was fairly sure I’d mentioned it. But maybe I had just visualised mentioning it, and assumed she would read my mind, as mothers usually did.

In any case, as well as dry clothes, she heroically rounded up various sweet things to eat and drink. There was only one snag: we didn’t have a cake. Or maybe we did. But we certainly didn’t have candles – they weren’t part of our culture – so it couldn’t be a birthday cake.

This was very controversial for my town friends. One guy, who needed to leave early but was a stickler for protocol, kept asking in urgent whispers when the cake was coming. It was as if the party wasn’t legally constituted without one. But it never materialised. And despite this, after a stand-off, the guests all agreed to go home, eventually.

I must have peaked early as a social animal, because I’ve never had a birthday party since. Not voluntarily, anyway. In the intervening decades, some of my siblings have evolved into the sort of people who never let anniversaries go unmarked. And with the bigger landmarks, they occasionally insist on organising them for me too.

But sometime after my eighth birthday, I developed a party aversion. By the time I turned 21, it was severe enough that I went into hiding for a week, lest somebody attempt a surprise event. On subsequent milestones, I had to be informed of the surprise beforehand, to ensure I presented myself.

These days, my enthusiasm such celebrations is approaching that of Stanley Webber, the victim of The Birthday Party in Harold Pinter’s play of the same name. As I’ve mentioned here before, The Birthday Party has a unique distinction in world drama – namely that it mentions my home town. The suggestion is that McCann, one of two sinister strangers who visit Webber on his alleged birthday, is a native of the place.

There is no big significance in the detail. This is the Theatre of the Absurd, after all. As Stanley protests, it’s not even his birthday. But they throw him a party anyway, en route to taking him away, somewhere unspecified.

Which of course is what the accumulation of birthdays do to you, eventually. And maybe that’s the root of my party-aversion: dread at the passing of years. Still, I’m glad I did it once, even if the event traumatised my mother. I’m sure she had fond memories, after the stress subsided.

Parties or not, like all mothers, she never forgot a birthday, at least until the end of her life, when memory in general betrayed her. There was always a card in the post at this time of year, albeit that it might not always be age-appropriate.

Going through papers recently, I found one of the last ones she ever sent me. It featured a cute little teddy bear, playing football, although I must have been at least 45 at the time. Either the card shop was low on stock that year, or she was sending it to my inner child. Who, by the way, had just turned eight – again – and was delighted when I passed it onto him.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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