The people who get you (and your sons and daughters, sisters and brothers) home for Christmas
Staff at ferries, airlines and buses work tirelessly to bring families together
“I’m driving home for Christmas
Oh, I can’t wait to see those faces . . .
Well I’m moving down that line
And it’s been so long
But I will be there”
Driving Home For Christmas by Chris Rea
It might be a short few hours’ jaunt or a long, long trek involving planes, trains and automobiles, but the journey home for Christmas is an Irish tradition of sorts. To get them back on time, many others are working right up to the wire to get people where they need to be. What is it like spending the run-up to Christmas getting other people home for theirs?
‘People still come home on the ferry, like they did in the 1960s’
Caitriona Butler, passenger sales manager at Irish Ferries
“The Irish Christmas is different, so there is huge excitement and emotion around. The atmosphere is special. There’s Christmas trees on the ships and minced pies on the menu. It’s mostly carloads of families on the ferry, coming home for Christmas. Families are excited when they’re off on their summer holidays and it’s the other way around at Christmas, with families really excited to be coming to Ireland for Christmas and seeing grandparents.
“Passengers coming from the French ports generally have nice wine and food in the car. Any Santa presents are well hidden and packed away.”
Butler mentions one passenger who managed to bring a small snooker table home on the roof of a car, while still preserving the integrity of Santa.
“People still come home on the ferry, like they did in the 1960s. It’s very popular with students coming home from the UK, from Manchester or the midlands, especially through Holyhead, with their parents waiting in Dublin port to collect them. Onboard there is Christmas music and decorations and there might be a rendition of Christmas songs in the bar at night.
“Most people book well in advance for the ferry but there are usually some last minutes. I don’t think anyone is ever left behind at Holyhead – we always manage to get people home.
“We also see families coming from the Continent with small children of three or four, who are multilingual, putting the rest of us to shame. There’s some traffic going the other direction – English people working in Ireland going home for Christmas and eastern Europeans going back to Poland or Latvia or Lithuania.
“The crew love this time of year even though it’s very busy – they get caught up in the excitement and there is great humour and fun on board in the week before Christmas.”
The last ferry from Britain leaves on Christmas Eve morning and there are no sailings on the 25th or the 26th, but part of the crew stays on board and has Christmas dinner in Dublin or Rosslare port. “Some will still be working, ensuring the ferry is tied to the quay wall and that all is as it should be. But there isn’t the same level of stress as when passengers are on board. The chefs cook dinner and everyone else serves or cleans up.”
In years gone by, the families of crew who were on board “came down for Christmas and stayed on the ship. The captain didn’t go home, and the family joined him and they would have Christmas dinner and celebrations on board,” says Butler.
“It’s not the same after Christmas – people aren’t as upbeat on the way back afterwards,” she adds.
‘A passenger mislaid his bag with a surprise engagement ring in it’
Pat McNally, Dublin Airport duty manager
Pat McNally has worked at the airport for 36 years and is an old hand at the Christmas rush home.
“The airport has got bigger and busier but the big change is there is now two-way traffic. As well as the tradition of Irish people coming home, others are now leaving too, particularly eastern Europeans going home for Christmas. And there are the nannies and grandads going long-haul to Australia, the Far East or the US to visit their grown-up children and grandkids. In the 1980s it was the singletons in their 20s coming back, now they are coming married with kids. Sometimes you see grandchildren arriving who might have never seen their grandparents.”
McNally recalls one year at arrivals a big scene when a woman came home married, to the surprise of her parents and her brothers and sisters who were there to meet her. “She came out wearing the ring. They blocked up the area for a while. It was one of those spontaneous things you see at the airport.”
Then there are the people who have mislaid bags, especially ones with “special toys” in them. “A couple of years ago, a passenger packed a surprise engagement ring in his black suitcase, which he checked-in in London. He took the wrong black case off the carousel. He was very panicked but we found it. He might be happily married by now.”
And sometimes travel arrangements go awry. “It’s amazing how people come to the aid of someone who’s stuck at Christmas. Passengers sometimes identify themselves and ask, ‘do you know anyone going to wherever?’ I remember one woman who arrived on Christmas Eve and needed to get to Ballybunion. We got her a lift to Heuston Station where a member of staff knew someone driving as far as Limerick, and she got picked up there. There’s goodwill in the place and people are aware of someone being stuck.”
McNally mentions a couple who arrived to visit family for Christmas. “They weren’t used to travelling and didn’t speak English. They had a small shopping bag and a letter with a phone number, and they were looking up and down the hall. I think the letter was in Russian.” A member of staff with Russian was located and the couple was united with family at the airport.
Some of the seasonal drama doesn’t involve passengers. During the big snow in 2010, a large tank on the roof of the terminal burst on Christmas Day – when the airport was closed (it shuts down for 12-16 hours from about midnight on Christmas Eve) – and thousands of gallons of water flooded into the building. There was a huge effort to get things up and running again for St Stephen’s Day.
“There is still a great buzz at the airport at Christmas,” says McNally. “It can be a very joyous time.”
‘Christmas is like a week of Fridays and Sundays’
Oisín Quinn and Ger Dowling, Citylink bus service
“People are regularly so excited to be going home for Christmas that they leave their luggage in the hold and walk off. We have to check the bags and try to make contact with them,” says Oisín Quinn, who works in marketing at Citylink. One person left a wallet with €500 on the bus and had it returned. “I believe in wallet karma. People are very grateful to get their stuff back.”
Ger Dowling in Citylink’s Galway booking office agrees. “Tags fall off bags very easily. When we are trying to identify things left on board we see all sorts in bags and wallets. We say nothing and pass it on, ” she says.
Buses will be very busy all Christmas week, travelling every hour between Dublin city or airport and Galway, loaded heavily with baggage full of presents. There will be “welcome home” banners on the buses and mince pies for passengers. The 6.15am airport bus on Christmas Eve is especially busy, with people just off long-haul flights heading for the final leg of the journey home to Galway or Limerick.
Passengers are “relieved and excited and tired” when they get on the bus at the airport, says Quinn. One customer told them about her pleasure getting on the familiar bus after a transatlantic flight. “It’s the last leg of my long journey home. When I sit down after a long flight I know I am a few hours from home, ” she told him
Two passengers working in Ireland and heading home for Christmas, one to Canada and one to Germany, managed to switch bags getting off the bus, says Quinn. The person heading to Germany copped that they had the wrong case, and left it with the bus company, but the passenger who had his case was already on their way to Canada. The bags were eventually reunited with their owners.
“Every day is going to be crazy,” says Dowling. “Christmas is like a week of Fridays and Sundays” – the busiest normal weekdays. She has “students and their mammies” on to her regularly. One mother rang in September enquiring about the last bus on Christmas Eve for her daughter working in London. Yes, it’s all on the website, but “she trusts us, and there’s an element of what we say is gospel and she will relay it to her daughter”.
The last bus west will leave the airport at 12.30am – just after midnight on Christmas Eve – so passengers will arrive in Galway at 3am on Christmas Day. At other times of the year “there’s always another bus soon after, but at Christmas people can be anxious about delays, especially if there is snow or bad weather, and whether they will make the last bus home if they are working late.”
Then the first bus after Christmas Day leaving Galway for the airport is at 1.15am on Stephen’s Day, so there is very little downtime for staff. “The drivers work 364 days of the year, and they lose part of their Christmas with loved ones to drive other people home,” says Quinn. And Dowling points out: “People have to get back to Dublin, or they have to take back their life in London.”
“Every day we deal with lots of people. At Christmas there are more of them and they are happier,” says Dowling.
‘Sometimes people bring boxes of chocolates for the crew’
Hilary Carroll, cabin service manager with Aer Lingus
“Christmas is a joyful occasion for staff,” says Hilary Carroll, who has worked as cabin crew at the airline for 20 years, both long and short haul. “Sometimes Irish people travelling bring boxes of chocolates for the crew. It’s a very giving time. This is a rewarding job. It’s lovely when passengers say ‘great flight, job well done’.
“There are a lot more young families coming home for Christmas now, because air travel is cheaper and there are more flights from the US,” says Carroll. “So you see young people who have been abroad for a few years, coming home with children and babies.
“The passengers are in high spirits sometimes, though travelling with very young children can be stressful and sometimes people are travelling without a partner – maybe a mother coming home with two or three young children.
“Occasionally at Christmas we get groups – for weddings, or of tourists coming in to Ireland from the US, maybe to look up their roots. American passengers at Christmas sometimes wear Irish sweaters and use an Irish accent. I don’t know what they’re expecting; we just play along with the banter.
“There are bereavements as well, and we are often aware of those circumstances.
“Then there are the nervous passengers. They are happy to see the tail with the shamrock at the airport and the green uniform. Some people come over and touch the aircraft as they are going onboard, and ask what saint’s name is on the aircraft. Nine times out of 10 we will be aware of a nervous passenger.
“I had a passenger who had a panic attack on board before take off. She had got off a long haul from New York and became distressed. We tried to talk her round. In the end, she left the plane and didn’t travel. It was her own decision. Her companions continued the journey.
“Children on flights can be entertaining. There was a family with young kids flying around Christmas, and the little girl turned to her father and pointed out the window , ‘look at the snow outside.’ It was the clouds.
“People sometimes think they’ve lost their passport as they come on board. I usually suggest they empty their bag and go through everything. They usually find it. Sometimes they put the passport into the seat pocket. And you wonder, ‘why would you do that?’”
This year Carroll will be flying from New York on Christmas Eve, landing in Dublin at 8.30pm. “I’m looking forward to it. There will be carols in the arrivals hall and you can see families waiting for their loved ones to come out.”