13 reasons for Santa to visit

Christmas dinner is the one meal of the year when the Maher family will sit down together at the table – all 15 of them. By Rosita Boland


All over Ireland tomorrow households will be marking their own Christmas Day traditions and rituals. For the Maher family, in Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, it is the one day of the year they all sit down as a family together for dinner. That’s because there are 15 of them in the family; 13 children and parents Paul and Edel Maher, and there isn’t enough room in the kitchen to eat together on a daily basis.

“We bring out the kitchen table into the livingroom, push back all the furniture, and join it up against another table,” says Paul. “That way, everyone gets to sit down.”

The Maher family home is a modest sized house with dormer windows. The only indication that a big family live here is the white minibus parked outside. “It seats 14, but even that’s too small for us now,” Paul says ruefully. The arrival of their 13th child, Daithí, a few weeks ago, means the family have now outgrown the minibus. They also have a car, which Paul uses to drive to his security job at Dublin airport.

It’s hard to know where to begin talking to the parents of 13 children. Why so many? What happens at Christmas? How do they manage every day?

When I arrive at the house mid-morning, the fire is lighting, baby Daithí is whimpering in Paul’s arms, and Caoimhe (1) is waking up from a nap. Everyone else – Eoin (15), Cian (12), Darragh (11), Cathal (10), Conor (8), twins Odhrán and Oisín (7), Fionn (6), Aisling (5), Cillian (4), and Sadhbd (2) – are out at school or playschool, or with Edel, who’s currently doing a pick-up in the car.

Paul dictates the names of all the children to me, and their ages. He gets the ages of two of them wrong, as Edel points out right away when she gets home shortly after and glances at my notebook. She’s come back with Darragh, Sadhbh and Cillian. Darragh has injured his hand and the doctor has recommended an X-ray in Drogheda, so that’s the logistics of another unexpected journey to fit into the day,

There are four different drop offs each day to different schools, and four pick-ups, although the two older boys now walk home together. There are also regular evening journeys for GAA practice. As we sit talking while the parents fill me on the daily routine, I realise Edel hasn’t taken off her outdoors jacket. There’s no point, because having come back from one pick-up, she’s leaving again shortly, this time in the minibus, to do another one.

“We start getting ready for Christmas in July,” she says. “We just pick up a few things as we go along, especially for the younger kids.”

The budget for each child is €100, out of which comes a big present and a surprise. Sometimes, the parents buy a collective gift for some of the children, usually the more expensive computer games, that they can all share together. “If it was a games console or something like that, we’d buy one,” Paul says “and they’d all have to share. Other families might buy one per child.”

As all this is going on, I’m watching most of the contents of a full tin of biscuits vanish into small mouths. The amount of food the household gets through is such that they go shopping usually three times a day, says Edel. She shows me a 2kg tub of dairy spread: “We’d get through one of those a day.”

The Mahers have never received, or sought, sponsorship of any kind from any company, although they are aware such practise is common for parents of large families in the US and Britain.

The reason they usually go shopping on a daily basis is because their kitchen is not big enough to store much. Although there is a chest freezer in an outside shed, they have a regular cooker and fridge-freezer. The galley kitchen is so tight on space, the table is pushed up against the wall, into a corner. “You’d better not bring a cat in there with you,” Paul jokes, as I go to look, “because there’s not enough room to swing one in there.” It’s the kind of kitchen that you look at and imagine from the size of it that it would seem crowded with more than one person in it, and yet 15 people are fed out of it, three times a day. “When we win the Lotto . . .” Edel says with a sigh.

The younger children eat at the table; the older ones eat standing up at a counter or in the adjoining livingroom. But tomorrow, they’ll all be sitting down for the one meal they share together a year.

“I love cooking, so I’ll do the whole dinner,” Paul says. “Multitasking is something I’ve had to learn over the years. I’m not being sexist, but it doesn’t come naturally to a man; stirring two pots at once, and talking. To be honest, Christmas dinner isn’t much different from the Sunday dinner we do, except there’s a few more bits and pieces. What most families have as a big Christmas dinner, we have as a normal Sunday dinner each week.”

Paul is a twin, and one of eight. Edel is one of five. They first met in The Irish Times, where they both worked as security guards. “When we got married, we said we’d like four or five kids,” Paul says. Then, as he puts it, “The stork just kept bringing them.”

They’re very polite, but it’s clear neither of them like being asked why they have so many children. “Asking someone why they have 13 children and how they do it is the equivalent of asking someone who has one child how they do it. It’s no different; we all just get on with being parents,” Paul says.

“The rooms are all full now,” Edel says. “And the children are all healthy. And I’ve turned 40.”

“People have a preconception that when they come into the house, there will be complete bedlam. It’s not like that,” Paul says.

“Ah now, it can be a madhouse here sometimes,” Edel says, rolling her eyes.

By using some of the downstairs space, they’ve created six bedrooms in the house. One of them they’ve kept as a guest room, but with Eoin, the eldest, turning 15, they’re thinking about giving it to him, as he wants his own space. What happens when the others get older, and also want their own space? “I’m sort of dreading having a houseful of teenagers,” Edel says. Then she’s gone to pick up Aisling, with no need to put on her jacket again.

What about time for themselves, as adults?

“I have the time in the car when I drive to work,” Paul says. “And Edel has to make a hospital visit to see a relative this evening. It sound weird, but she’s looking forward to driving to Dublin to visit a hospital, because she’ll be on her own, whereas most people would see that as a chore.”

Edel comes back with Aisling. She still doesn’t take off her jacket, but goes into the kitchen to start making lunch for some of the children and start the dinner.

Paul shows me the front room, where the Christmas tree is, and where the gifts are left on Christmas Eve.

“We’re literally getting into bed at 4am when the kids are getting up, so we get up again. All the kids line up outside the door, smallest first, before they go in to open their presents. I film them every year.” He’ll be doing the same again tomorrow morning. “It started off with just Eoin and now it’s a conga-line, snaking round the corridor.”

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