Christmas at home: How Irish celebrities will celebrate the 25th

Donal Skehan, Louise Kennedy, Barry Murphy and John Brennan share their festive plans

The Irish Times asked four well-known personalities throughout the country about how they plan to celebrate Christmas in their hometowns.

Donal Skehan – The chef in Howth

For food writer and television presenter Donal Skehan, the festive season and his Co Dublin coastal hometown are inextricably interwoven, like a warm winter quilt. “Howth has always been home to me, particularly at Christmas. I know it’s the sort of tagline that you hear about everywhere, but it truly is magic – the nature, the woods, cliff walks, the castle, things like that.”

Of late, he’s noticed an increase in footfall from visitors in search of this seasonal, charming village atmosphere. “Even if you’re not from Howth, it has become a great destination around Christmas time. The beautiful thing is it has so many unique little pubs, restaurants and shops. There is such a wonderful vibe on the run up to Christmas, particularly with everyone trying to get their last bits and pieces in the different shops.”

Yet it is the unique blend of festive traditions and family gatherings on his native soil that draws home locals from far and wide every December. “Particularly in the community, you have a lot of people coming home with their families who have been abroad. Howth has very specific meet-up pubs, which you’d know if you grew up here, like The Summit Inn on the hill or The Bloody Stream. They have sort of become part of the tradition in Howth at Christmas time.”


The Skehan family’s Christmas itinerary is anchored around the heart of this pretty old fishing town. “The order goes into the monger; the order goes into the butcher. I always follow my mum into the queue to pick up the turkey or to collect nutmeg or a side of salmon at the fishmonger at the end of the pier. It’s very much so where Christmas begins and ends.”

On Christmas Day, while his father and brother brave the sea elements at Balscadden Beach, close to the harbour – where the warmth from the beach bonfire and a cup of tea is the best way to recover from the chill – Skehan stays at home to prepare for dinner.

“I’ve been too chicken to do the swim over the years. Normally I’m chained to the kitchen at that stage anyway” he says with a laugh.

“Afterwards my mum and I take the Howth cliff walk as our little break. I’m convinced that the south side of the cliff walk has its own unique biosphere and microclimate, perfect for picking blackberries and sloe berries.”

Even at that point, he has food and drink on his mind as he picks the best of the local winter harvest. “I like to do a sloe gin. It’s something you can make with a little time and very little money. It’s a lovely Christmas drink that we’ve served down through the years – and better still is that it comes from the cliff walk’s hedgerows.”

Louise Kennedy – The writer in Sligo

Louise Kennedy, author of the highly acclaimed collection of short stories titled The End of the World is a Cul de Sac, has never lost Christmas cheer despite her background in hospitality, with its Trojan workloads and endless rosters over the season of goodwill.

“I was a chef before I was a writer, and not even the almost 30 Decembers I spent in kitchens tainted my love of Christmas.”

She takes the train from Sligo to Connolly early in the month to embrace the seasonal buzz of Grafton Street. “I arse around for a bit, then meet my family – all of whom live in Dublin now – for a late lunch. Normally I don’t see my family again until after the 26th. When my children were small, relocating to my parents’ house for Christmas posed logistical challenges for Santa Claus; now they are grown up, they want to be in Sligo with their pals,” she says.

Kennedy rises early on Christmas Eve. “As I potter, I listen to A Child’s Christmas in Wales, the version Dylan Thomas recorded in New York in 1952. Then the daughter comes downstairs and inflicts Bublé on me. The four of us walk into town for an early lunch, ideally in Knox, and I do last-minute shopping, which always includes Voya seaweed-based products from their stand in Johnston’s Court and books from the brilliant Liber. Then I go into Kate’s Kitchen. It is a gorgeous shop all year round but in December there is nowhere like it. Last stop is Shoot the Crows for a drink. My husband and children are Sligo-reared and stay on in town for a few hours, meeting people they knew in school. I drag my exiled nordie backside home and leave them to it.”

With Sligo’s location on the western seaboard, it is inevitable that locals will look for some ocean spray over the holidays. “Every Christmas morning, dozens of Sligonians run into the sea at Rosses Point. I shudder at the thought of it and make myself another mimosa. The nearest thing to an outdoor tradition I have is to walk the shore of Lough Gill on St Stephen’s Day – the nordie in me wants to say ‘Boxing Day’, but it just isn’t worth it. The woods that border the lake are my favourite place in Sligo, the one I most associate with Christmas, and found their way into my story Wolf Point: ‘A cluster of berries the birds had missed; lime-white lichen through freezing fog.’”

Barry Murphy – The musician in Limerick

Barry Murphy, singer and guitarist with folk-rock band Hermitage Green, grew up in Limerick and has spent every Christmas in the city – so he can’t imagine being anywhere else.

“Christmas really starts for me around midday on the 23rd, just when the hustle and bustle and last-minute shopping starts in the city. That’s when my brother comes home from London to Shannon Airport. My dad drives in to collect him and we stop on the way home for a pint at Durty Nelly’s pub, just by Bunratty Castle. When we come into town the entire river front is fully illuminated with the Christmas lights, with the days being darker.”

The Murphy brothers use this time as an opportunity for last-minute shopping at Keane Jewellers or Brown Thomas. “We get a few extra bits and bobs while still managing to take in a few sneaky hot whiskeys or pints of Guinness at Tom Collins pub or Jerry Flannery’s,” he says.

The night comes to a close on Clancy’s Strand – a riverside street that overlooks the city’s medieval quarter. “My granny lived there and my aunt now, so it was always a tradition to call there on the 23rd, after all the shopping was done. We still go there to have a little bit of finger food before heading a few doors down to my brother’s pub, The Curragowar, for another hot whiskey or pint of Guinness. That’s where family and friends congregate who have come back from abroad.”

On Christmas Eve, Murphy heads to the city’s Milk Market area – which is milling with shoppers looking for fresh produce for their Christmas spread. Across from the market is Nancy Blakes pub. “It’s usually a good place for a last-minute drink once you’ve everything done, then it’s home to my parent’s house where we have the first of mammy’s home-cooked ham to devour. If we’re being good we might even go to mass at St Munchin’s Church - for a bit of craic.”

Murphy – who retired from professional rugby before he joined the band – says Christmas Day is downtime with family, but after that things liven up once again around Limerick. “The craic starts on the 26th, where, depending on the fixtures, you go out to the Limerick Racecourse, which is always a great way to shake off the cobwebs of Christmas Day and you get into that happy period between then and New Years.”

If there’s a good rugby match on, he’ll head with friends and family into Thomond Park. “There’s nothing like a Christmas game between Munster and Leinster in Thomond Park, after that it’s into Gerry Flannery’s to hopefully celebrate a Munster win.”

The band winds off the year by playing at Dolan’s Warehouse – the city’s most popular music venue – before finishing off on New Year’s Eve to watch the fireworks over the Shannon and King John’s Castle.

John Brennan – The Hotelier in Kenmare

While most of us are coasting gently into festivities, hotelier, author and television personality John Brennan is just getting into gear. “Christmas for us personally is very different to most people. As everyone winds down for the festive holiday, we wind up, as we are open in the Park Hotel and are always very busy.”

Working hard over Christmas is something he has always taken in his stride. “It’s always a joyous time as everyone is in good form and looking forward to a relaxing time away. The lead up this year will be a busy time as the hotel is fully renovated since last year so all the decorations and locations are changed. The one thing that is still a cornerstone for the festive holidays are the open fires and garlands. We already have the puddings and cakes made so just need to make sure our local supplier, Margaret Lehane, has the turkeys fattening and we should be all set.”

He’s particularly proud of his hometown at Christmas time. “Kenmare is always looking its best as it welcomes many people to the town from around the world. As with all rural towns we have many families coming back from the UK and States which is wonderful. There is always a good atmosphere around the town with the smell of mulled wine and mince pies as you pass shops. The local marketing and enterprise group have done a stunning job on street lighting in recent years. A town well lit up for the festive holidays sets the tone for festivities.

“On Stephen’s Day we have a treasure hunt that brings our guests around the streets in the hunt for clues. It is hilarious to read some of the answers on their return. The Kenmare Golf Club, located just beside the hotel, is another bustling place. On a crisp December morning there is nothing nicer to see guests taking to the fairways to work off the Christmas excess.

“As for all the team working we actually have our Christmas dinner on the 20th. Best to get it out of the way! Last year when we were closed for the first time in 40 years we did not know what to do with ourselves. By 3pm on the 25th we were thinking, ‘What do we do now?’ Long walks in Dromore Woods, the Old Road or Gleninchaquin are always favourites. By the 27th, Derrynane beach beckons and a blast of Atlantic air to clear the cobwebs. Nothing like a good walk followed by turkey sandwiches with cranberry relish on Harrington’s bread with a sprinkling of stuffing. Roll on December and the festive holidays. Working or not, it is always joyous.”