Through the keyhole: Christmas disasters


From Aidan Gillen’s peeping Tom to Dustin’s Seoige sisters and Joseph O’Connor’s wheezing, sneezing Santa,  PATRICK FREYNE hears about some unusual Yules

Neil Hannon

A few years back Cathy [Davey] and I were living in a house large enough to accommodate more than just us and a few dogs. We knew this good fortune couldn’t last, so we grabbed the opportunity to invite our extended families to stay for Christmas.

In our heads this is how it would be: beautiful rosy-cheeked children in Victorian attire playing jolly games throughout the house, laughing with joy as they unwrapped hand-carved wooden soldiers under the perfectly decorated tree; well-fed aunts and uncles smiling benevolently as they gathered around the Steinway for a rousing rendition of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, while we, their generous and humble hosts, quaffed port by a roaring fire, congratulating ourselves on our exquisite taste. Simple!

The reality proved a bit less romantic. What follows is a rather blurry summation of my memories of those few glorious days.

Dogs of all scales and varieties arguing, peeing and being generally tripped over. Grandparents scolding anyone who so much as breathed during Miss Marple.

Teenage nieces dying of boredom. Our insanely enormous tree shedding the majority of its needles all over the house long before Christmas Day.

Me showering Cathy with many expensive gifts, then grudgingly handing over a few small crappy ones to everyone else.

Cathy giving me many orders. Cathy asking me whether I had carried out these orders. Cathy being angry with me because I had purposely, and with malice aforethought, misunderstood her orders.

Tripping over the decomposing bodies of sadly expired nieces.

Trying to organise the comings and goings of various parts of our families who, for one reason or another, didn’t want to bump into various other parts of our families.

Cathy’s mother reminding her at two o’clock that the turkey takes six hours to cook, not 45 minutes.

Large dogs finding interesting things to eat on sideboards. Large dogs being thrown out the back door. Cathy feeling sorry for large dogs and letting them back in.

Hideous seating miscalculations resulting in the use of garden furniture, piano stools and bean bags at the dinner table.

Attempting to promote uncontroversial conversation between Cathy’s “artistic” family and my own eminently shockable parents.

Attempting to broker an early evening film deal between the Indiana Jonesites and the Harry Potterists.

And, when it was all over, poor frazzled Catherine receiving a lecture on liberal politics from my squiffy eldest brother while trying to watch Come Dine With Me.

It took us weeks to recover from the Christmas “holiday”, but we did.

And, to be honest, I’m thoroughly proud of what we achieved. We might even do it again some day. Some far distant, barely conceivable day.

Neil Hannon and Cathy Davey have just released the Dogs in Distress charity album, Oscar the Hypno Dog, featuring David O’Doherty, Sharon Shannon and others

Emma Donoghue

Our son, who’s nine now, was due to be born on Christmas Eve. He was our first kid, and we thought we were completely organised. Everything was nicely planned. My partner is an academic, and we thought she’d finish the term and could take her parental leave after that. We’d bought the cot and had the room more or less ready.

Then a tree fell on our house in the middle of the night and I gave birth five weeks early. The night the tree fell I heard a shaking and thought, Oh, a train is passing the house. Then I woke up a bit more and realised there are no train tracks near the house.

We ran down, opened the front door, and giant branches were in our face. It looked like the world was turned sideways. We were very lucky.

If it had fallen at a slightly different angle our bedroom might have been smashed. As it was the parked car in its path was flattened and the porch was ripped off the house – houses in Ontario have wooden porches.

Then next day I gave birth. It was clearly from the shock of it. But I have to tell you that the shock of having a baby is way worse than the shock of having a tree falling on your house.

Even though I’d read all the maternity books, I’d always skipped the section on premature birth because they always had a list of women at risk: women who don’t eat right, women who smoke. I thought, I’m none of them.

So suddenly we had this baby five weeks early and we were in a complete state of chassis. Chris was trying to finish her term teaching and he was very small, frail and cold – and we couldn’t use the front door of our house. It was chaos. We had to pick our way over the rubble in the back of the house to get in and out.

I became so passive. I was weepy and anxious. I was tearful and worried the baby wouldn’t nurse well. But friends and family rallied round and two friends came over. One filled our freezer with food and the other painted the room and put the crib together, and we went ahead and had visitors for Christmas anyway.

My brother-in-law cooked Christmas dinner. We stuck a picture of the baby on top of the tree instead of an angel. I remember such a feeling of being loved and looked after. We had a great Christmas.

Dustin the Turkey

My best and worst Christmas happened on the same day. I had just moved in with Gráinne Seoige on Christmas Eve (I had been dating her for a couple of months), and everything was running brillo until Caroline Morahan pulled up in her Fiat Panda and told Gráinne that I had been seeing her as well.

Gráinne closed the door on me and Caroline drove off giving a gesture that was not at all ladylike. So there I was, a turkey on Christmas Eve, carrying a few pounds on the belly, homeless and scared in the big bad world. Just then Síle (Gráinne’s much younger sister) pulled up to see her sister.

I gave her a couple of my killer lines, like, “Can I borrow your phone, please? I need to phone God and tell him I have found his missing angel,” and, “Did you fart? Coz you just blew me away.”

I had Síle eating out of me wing, and I spent Christmas Day round her gaff. Plus, as a super bonus, she’s a vegetarian – and a better kisser than her sister.

Dustin is appearing in Cinderella at University Concert Hall in Limerick

Joseph O’Connor

The weirdest set of memories I have of Christmas would be of December 1998. I was contributing an occasional article to the Sunday Tribune at the time, and I came up with the idea of writing a feature about the Santas who take up residence in Dublin’s department stores each Yuletide.

I interviewed a few of them briefly, but it soon became disconcertingly clear that this would be an occasion requiring a bit of Pilger-like bravery. In essence, I would have to go the extra mile for the story. I would have to be that Santa.

Thus it was that on a particular Saturday morning, in a particular store in Dublin, I turned up at 8.30am to get into my red suit and fluffy beard. I had attended my publisher’s Christmas party the previous evening and had gone home close to dawn, in a somewhat literary condition. Also, I had a heavy cold, which you mightn’t think would matter. But not many children want to encounter a Santa who is coughing like a broken-down train and reeking faintly of fag ash and gin.

All week the idea had seemed a bit of seasonal fun. Now, as I was led to my throne, sneezing, head pounding, peering in abject horror at the dozens of excited youngsters on the other side of the velvet rope, I could see this was a dreadful mistake. My elves began giving me encouraging beams. The rope was raised. Off we went.

“Santeeeeee!” the mites cheered, a tsunami of glee. “Er, ho ho ho,” I coughed back, somehow resisting the temptation to wipe my streaming nose on my beard or simply to get up and run. I had the feeling that the elves would beat me senseless if I tried to escape, or that amiably chubby Mrs Claus would sit on me. The hour seemed to last about 400 years. I remember every second to this day.

Eleanor Tiernan

Last Christmas my dad was in hospital, getting a heart bypass. It was kind of strange, because he’d normally be the one who’d be minding everybody, but it was totally a reverse of that. It’s a huge operation where they pretty much stop your body working and start it again to do the heart bypass. It’s really worrying.

It was Christmas week, and he was in Blackrock Clinic and we were in Athlone, just driving up and down to him every day. So Christmas was minimised for us. Helping him to get back to himself was the priority. Blackrock Clinic is a lovely hospital, and I suppose we got to know other patients and their families who were also around the hospital.

One of the things about a heart bypass is that it affects your physical heart, but it affects your emotional heart as well. I’m getting emotional just talking about it. We all found ourselves getting really emotional. We watched all these Christmas movies in the room in Blackrock Clinic, and anything that had even a remotely sentimental touch had us in buckets of tears.

In ET there’s a bit where the kids are on the bikes, trying to get away from the police, and Elliott has ET in the basket. The music is quite powerful, and ET makes the bike fly. We all started crying.

We looked over to each other and said, “Oh, Jesus Christ.” We wouldn’t usually be like that at all as a family.

Dad’s great now. You’d barely know it was the same guy. I’m really looking forward to Christmas this year.

Aidan Gillen

One December nearly 20 years ago I was bussing all over Mexico with Lisa, my girlfriend at the time. Mexico is an amazing place to visit at any time of year, but Christmases are extra special. Families take all the furniture out of their main living rooms and install life-size lit-up Nativity scenes there.

Anyway, coming up to the 25th we headed for the mountain city of Durango. It’s a hot, dusty place but, like nearly everywhere in Mexico, beautiful and unpredictable. You’re in these places, nothing’s happening, then all of a sudden everything’s happening. We checked into a massive old (empty) Spanish colonial inn with a vaguely creepy receptionist, and I went off and got some supplies of beer and crazy fireworks that kids sell on the streets, which are just gunpowder wrapped tightly in newspaper triangles, the size and shape of apple turnovers.

So it’s Christmas Eve, the first I’ve ever spent outside Ireland. It’s very cool – uneventful enough, just hanging out on the balcony, lighting the bangers and dropping them down into the street to explode.

Around midnight I’m lying in bed when I really start to get the feeling I’m being watched. I’m convinced I can see some tiny flicker of light coming from the door, where I’d also earlier semi-registered and disregarded some kind of hole cut in the wood. Lisa’s asleep. I’m not.

There’s nobody else in this place. I decide to make it look like I’m heading to the bathroom, then get down on the floor and crawl stealthily to the door. When I make it that far, holding my breath, I look up. Yes, there are two holes in the door that my face is now up against.

Terrified, I slide up the door to the nearest hole, and there’s this eyeball there, looking at me, blinking casually.

I retreat and decide it’s time to wake Lisa up and tell her the good news. The phone starts ringing. I pick it up, but, of course, there are no words from the other end. Then there’s a knock on the door. I get it together and go over, genuinely thinking this might be it, that there might be a fight to the death here.

It’s the guy, of course, the guy who’s been spying, and he’s asking me if there are any problems. I say there’s no problem. I go back to bed and don’t sleep. The next day, Christmas Day, I examine the door properly. There are two beds in the room, and the holes are very carefully carved through the thick wood and angled to afford prime views of each bed. We move on to the next town.

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