When I was a child I played with the baby Jesus

In winter I am overwhelmed by darkness, because the dark is the only thing that remains unchanged in a thousand Leitrim winters

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell

Thu, Dec 12, 2013, 01:00

On my way to Galway I stopped in a charity shop and met an old woman with a coloured hat, and lots of bags, who looked like she was on medication because she was chatting away to herself. She seemed so wonderful and unconventional that I forced myself into her private world to say hello. She wasn’t used to people saying hello, and though she replied with a blessing she kept her eyes to the ground and listened with a wary tilt of her head.

“You’re a Roscommon woman, I suppose?” I asked.

She grunted.

“If you were on the road all your life you would have no home too,” she said, as if she was in the middle of a different conversation. Then she looked me in the eye.

“I never settled anywhere,” she declared.

“And where were you born?” I wondered.

“I don’t know,” she said, still eyeing me. “I’d love to be able to say where. But I’m camping out all my life. And it pains me to talk now, because I have a shortness of breath from the heart and I never have conversations, and so you’ll excuse me, sir, if I don’t talk to you.”

I felt I had invaded her space, so I apologised.

“You done nothing wrong, sir, ’tis no harm,” she said.

And then she repeated herself, reciting the words slowly and carefully as if she was being interrogated by some tyrannical but invisible policeman.

“I don’t know where I was born and I’ve never had a home.”

“Well happy Christmas,” I said.

“Same to you,” she replied, shielding herself from my sentimentality, as she waddled out the door, looking straight ahead.

Carols in Galway
I was heading to Galway for a carol service in St Nicholas’s Collegiate Church near Shop Street, which was glowing inside with hundreds of little candles, and all the pillars were draped in shadows, and the darkness seeped in the windows and filled the vaulted ceiling, and the choir wore Christmas hats.

When I was a child I loved playing with the Christmas crib. I’d get out the baby Jesus and his mother, and the shepherds and their animals, and I’d play with them, and shine a torch through the roof to create moonlight in the stable.

When I was a teenager I loved going into pubs where girls in Santa hats and miniskirts of red velvet with white furry hems and black stockinged haunches pressed up against me with their hot whiskies.

My collaboration with Santa
When I became a parent I loved collaborating with Santa to make the world perfect. The old green shed behind the house became a storeroom. Santa stored presents in there until Christmas Eve. Then he’d come down the chimney with big dirty boots and leave snow tracks all over the carpet, even when it wasn’t snowing outside.

The shed was painted green one summer by three beautiful boys who came in a white van on a blue day and said they possessed the best paint in the universe. Paint that was used to colour the ships that came from Harland and Wolff, they said. Paint that would never come off in a thousand years of wet Leitrims.

So they sprayed it on and vanished down the road in a white Hiace, and for years we used to store the debris of our past in that shed. Things that didn’t last: manual typewriters, old record players and telephone answering machines, long-forgotten furry toys in black plastic bags, a hammer that was lost and never found, a high-heeled shoe enfolded in a cobweb and a picture of Jesus on his mother’s knee that had been hanging on the wall of the house when we bought it.

The cat had kittens in that shed one year, but a prowling tom arrived soon after, and left them strewn around the yard, like wet gloves in the rain. When the shed had been battered by 20 Leitrim winters, the green paint peeled off and it looked so ugly that we knocked it.

In winter I am overwhelmed by darkness, because the dark is the only thing that remains unchanged in a thousand Leitrim winters.

And I realise that all the sheds and stables and Celtic Tiger mansions cannot last.

And in truth I cannot say where I came from or where I’m going, or when if ever the darkness will lift.

Which I suppose is what makes the fragility of candlelight so beautiful, and the idea of God camping on the side of the road with a homeless woman so powerful.

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