It is shortly after dawn on Christmas morning and there is a chorus of chatter coming out of the open front door of Austy Bob and Katy Ann’s cottage in the village of Glen, on Clare Island. It gets louder as the dancing shadow of a lantern, the clip-clop of the horse and the creaking of the trap trundles around the back of the barn, past the forge, and onto the narrow road.
The grey mare is faced west for the church.
Father, Mother and four of the smaller children climb aboard. Among them the youngest, my ex-husband, Michael Bob.
They are snuggled in home knits and coats sent back in tea chests from Chicago and Coventry.
With limited space in the trap, the teenagers are happy to travel the mile-long odyssey on shank’s mare, but not before an expected intervention.
Always stubborn as a mule, the grey mare refuses to budge, not even an inch. Her whinnies and snorts are a regular feature of early morning calls for feast day worship. A frosty Christmas morning in the late 1950s is no exception.
Prepared for the regular equine intransigence, one of the older boys, John or Patrick, lights a sheaf of oats under her. It does the trick every time. She takes off with more flight power than any Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer: up to the crossroads, across through Gurteen with its frosty thatched roofs and twinkling candlelight, careering around Thomas’s Height with just enough last-minute deceleration to avoid throwing her human cargo overboard. Katy Ann is prepared though and holds onto her clutch like a Mother Hen.
She knows the final hill past the hall and the priest’s house in the village of Kille would put a halt to the damned mare’s gallop: there was a sense of poetic justice in its abrupt steepness.
“That’ll halt you in your gallop, you sthrap.”
Across the pathway through the graveyard the gaslights are already flickering through the stained-glass windows of the church, with the dark gloom of the adjacent roofless abbey yawning up at an awakening sky.
Over 60 years later, this Christmas, there is a steadier stare from the church lights courtesy of a subsea cable across Clew Bay. They still make magic though for the children as the choir settles into their pews and islanders deputise for the priest: they lead the liturgy, giving out communion with more solemnity than a cardinal in the Vatican.
Despite the changes to the sacred services, it is easy to exhume those distant days. It is easy to smell the crisp starchiness of MB’s altar boy soutane; to conjure the congregation bellowing out Adeste Fideles as Mass was delivered in Latin long before the Second Vatican Council; to smell the fresh straw in the crib and bring back the sound of the cows chewing their evening repast as, like the poet Patrick Kavanagh, a young islander makes the music of milking.
Myself and our pirate princesses had not spent Christmas on Clare Island since 2017. We love the unique intimacy in this small community during the festive season. There is the excitement of jumping onto the ferry in all weathers at Roonagh harbour laden with boxes and bags. There is the anticipation of landing at the island pier warmed with a complimentary whiskey and lots of laughter during the voyage.
Over these Christmas days, as we play cards in the house where MB was born, we talk of those long ago days.
Now there is a stove sitting squat in the middle of the opened chimney breast where the hearth, with its cranes and hooks, once was the nerve-centre of the house.
It was across its mantlepiece that nine stockings would be placed on Christmas Eve. They were filled with homemade toffees, an orange and a little bottle of red lemonade. In later years when the older brothers and sisters were earning money in London, Nottingham and Chicago, Santa’s munificence extended to such exotic treats as toy soldiers or little cars.
Right through the 1960s and 70s, MB recalls how it was a fatted goose that would be boiled first for soup and then roasted for the Christmas dinner. Katy Ann would fill its cavities with a potato and herb stuffing that could be eaten cold. Porter cakes were in abundance for the days afterwards as neighbours dropped in for a cup of tea or a sup of the crathur.
These Christmas days as the smoke billows up a chimney that was built by the Congested Districts Board at the beginning of the last century, the spirits of the past are always present. That is not because Austy Bob’s pipe and cap hang in one corner of the room still, or because there is a photo of himself and Katy Ann on another wall. Time still moves to a different beat out on our offshore islands.
It is happy to stand still and breathe in the oceanic air. During these festive days it can shape-shift, infusing the present with the past.
It is truly magical.