A very Haughey Christmas but no merry new year
When my publisher told me in 1987 that one of my poems would appear on the then taoiseach’s Christmas cards, I thought he was joking
Charles Haughey at a press conference in Dublin Airport in December 1988. Photograph: Eddie Kelly
A letter from Charles Haughey to Rosita Boland in 2000
The inside of Charles Haughey’s 1987 Christmas card, featuring Rosita Boland’s poem
Christmas cards. They are one of the few paper-based communication rituals that have survived the internet era. Although many institutions, including this newspaper, no longer send cards, donating the money to charity instead, many individuals still do. For lots of people, it’s now the only time of the year they send cards through the post.
Politicians also still send Christmas cards. I’ve never got one, though. However, I’m possibly in a unique position in that although I’ve never received a Christmas card from a politician, I’ve appeared on one. Or rather, an extract from one of my poems has.
Back in the late 1980s, I lived in Australia for a year. Since neither the internet nor mobile phones were in general use then, all my communication from non-family members in Ireland came via the post. Some time before Christmas in 1987, I received a letter from Dermot Bolger with news within that was so comedic I could not take it seriously. Bolger, as the then publisher of Raven Arts Press in Dublin, had published some of my poems in an anthology with other emerging writers.
One of these poems was about the Poolbeg chimneys in Dublin Bay, titled simply, Poolbeg. The year designated to be Dublin’s millennium was 1988; a date and event that caused some controversy. Where my poem and I came into it all was that the then upcoming millennium was being marked on Christmas cards by various people. One of them was Charles Haughey, the then taoiseach.
Bolger told me in his letter that two verses of Poolbeg were going to included in Haughey’s Dublin-themed card. There was to be no fee, but mention was made of a case of champagne, which was apparently due to be delivered to me in lieu of a fee. The only problem was that as I was at the other side of the world, and soon to finish my job in Sydney and start travelling around Australia for several months – delivery would have to wait until I returned to Ireland.
Bolger and I were friends, and I knew he had a robust sense of humour. I assumed the letter was a seasonal joke. I laughed my head off and then forgot all about it.
Some time in January, a letter arrived from home, with a newspaper clipping inside. It was a piece on politicians’ Christmas cards that year, with photographs of them. Haughey’s card, I discovered to my amazement, did indeed have an extract from my poem on it. I wondered where my case of champagne was, and thought of the party I would have once I got it.
Towards the end of 1988, I returned home to Europe and went straight to London to work. No champagne ever materialised. Nor did any cards.
“Charlie Haughey’s Christmas card” became a favourite story to be told late at night, although as I had no supporting evidence – the newspaper clipping having long since been lost – my audiences became ever more sceptical as the years passed.
When another millennium came around, this one being the year 2000, I thought about the card again. By then, we all knew a lot more about Haughey than we had in 1987. We knew so much about his extraordinary past dealings, that he was under public and legal scrutiny at the Moriarty tribunal, and the public were ever-more disgusted, angry and disbelieving at what they were learning.
By then we also knew Haughey’s champagne of choice was Cristal, and I found myself more than once wondering if a case of Cristal had been intended to be dispatched to me from Abbeville, all those years ago.
I can’t recall what prompted me to decide to write to Charlie Haughey and ask if he still had any Christmas cards from 1987, and if so, would he send one to me. The entire thing had been so surreal that writing to him with this request just seemed to be another part of the surreality.
How do you begin a letter to someone who is regularly being called to give evidence at a tribunal for corruption; a figure of widespread public contempt? I mulled over this for some time. In the end, I decided to use a line I had not used in a letter since I was a child; the biggest meaningless cliche of any written correspondence. The letter began: Dear Mr Haughey. I hope you are keeping well.”
Then I had a dilemma. Asking for a card was easy, but should I remind him about the champagne?
By 2000, I had been working as a reporter for this newspaper for a few years, and although I never wrote about politics, I wondered if he might recognise my name and think the letter was a ruse or a wind-up. Sadly, I concluded that my chances of getting a reply would diminish greatly if I mentioned champagne.
Correspondence from Abbeville
Less than a week later, a stiff white envelope dropped through the letterbox. I opened it absent-mindedly, and then almost tore the contents when I realised what they were. Inside was the surprisingly low-key Christmas card of 1987, with watercolours of Dublin scenes on the cover and extracts from some poems about Dublin inside. I was in company with Louis MacNeice, Derek Mahon, Donagh MacDonagh and the Anon who wrote Molly Malone. The card existed.
Also enclosed was a letter, on Abbeville headed paper. Haughey’s opening sentence was: “Dear Rosita Boland. It was a pleasant surprise to receive your letter recalling the Dublin millennium and my 1987 Christmas card.”
He concluded by writing that he hoped “the muse continues to inspire. With warmest regards, yours sincerely, Charlie Haughey.”
There are few things certain in life, but I am quite, quite certain I’ll never be making an appearance again on a serving taoiseach’s Christmas card. I may never have got that elusive case of champagne, but I do have a hell of a story, and I now also have the evidence to go with it.