The Castlerock College Christmas Fete has always been a massive event in the O’Carroll-Kelly social calendar.
“A fete worse than death,” Honor always calls it as we’re loading her brothers into the cor, then she ends up having a better time than anyone, pinning a donkey’s tail on to a picture of Rassie Erasmus, throwing wet sponges at the captain of the 1987 Castlerock team, whose missed kick cost the school a place in the final, and trying to guess how many penalty points Hennessy Coghlan-O’Hara has managed to have expunged for clients in the previous 12 months.
The centrepiece of the fete is the famous mince pie-eating contest, sponsored by the wonderful people at Caviston’s, although it’s not so much a contest any more as, like, a coronation? For the past 19 years, it’s been won by Reuben O Raghallaigh, the six-foot-seven, 24-stone hooker on that same 1987 team, who ate a record 43 mince pies to win in 2021 and is going for the magical, probably never-to-be-beaten 20th title in a row this year.
You’d have to say fair focks.
With three o’clock – the traditional stort time for the contest – fast approaching, we all gather in the school gym. Reuben, wearing a Santa hat and a pair of red trousers with a stretchy waist, takes his place behind the long table with literally a mountain of mince pies in front of him. That’s when the adjudicator, Josh Bermingham, the kicker on the 2006 team – couldn’t hit a toad’s orse with a badminton racket – steps forward with an, I don’t know, grave expression on his face.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he goes, “we’ve had no other entrants for the contest this year,” and there’s this, like, groan of disappointment from everyone. “So I have no choice but to declare Reuben O Raghallaigh the winner of... ”
But Reuben isn’t happy. He stands up and shouts, “Come on, there must be someone out there who’s man enough – or woman enough – to take me on!”
He’s a bit of a showman, in fairness to him – I think he’s in auctioneering.
“I will!” a tiny voice beside me goes. I look down and I realise that it’s come from my son, Leo.
Everyone laughs – including me. Yeah, no, Leo has a healthy appetite – like a lot of seven-year-old boys – but Reuben could eat a rake of mince pies and then probably eat him.
Leo storts walking towards the table. I’m like, “No, no, no, Leo – your old dear would have a shit-fit.”
Sorcha is manning the sugar-free gingerbread cookies stall this year and she specifically told me not to let the kids eat too much because we’re supposably going to a carol service tonight.
Honor goes, “Dad, let him! You’re always worrying that he doesn’t have the big-match temperament. He won’t get it if you keep holding him back.”
So I just go, “Fine – whatever,” and everyone cheers as Leo sits at the table.
My expectations, it has to be said, are low. I’m just hoping the kid spews his ring after six or seven pies and his little stomach will be empty by the time we hit Foxrock church.
The contest gets under way and the crowd is very much on the side of the underdog. No one expects Leo to win but they’re all, like, chanting his name as he horses into a plate of mince pies with lattice crusts.
Even Reuben is going, “Fair focks to the little goy for having a go!” but then he can well afford to be – I want to say – magnamanimous? He’s eating three pies for every two that Leo eats.
After half an hour, Reuben has polished off 30 to Leo’s 20 and they’ve both got, like, bits of pastry and flecks of mincemeat filling all over their faces. Surprised to find himself still in a contest, Reuben engages in a bit of mind games.
He’s like, “Look at him! His little glasses are all steamed up!”
Which they actually are? But Honor reminds her brother to maintain his focus. She’s like, “Slow and steady, Leo! Slow and steady!”
An hour into the contest, it’s Reuben who storts to slow up. When he swallows his 44th – breaking his record from last year – he raises his hand to declare his innings.
He’s still confident of victory, though, because Leo is only on 30 and he must be thinking – like me – the kid couldn’t have much room left in his stomach.
But half an hour later, the kid is closing in on 40 and the crowd is going ballistic, going, “Lee-oh! Lee-oh! Lee-oh!”
I race to the table. I pick my son up and lift him onto my shoulders like a champion. Then I hear what sounds like the distant roll of thunder above my head
The incredible thing is that he’s totally unfazed by what’s going on around him. People talk about my performance against Newbridge College in the 1999 schools cup final but I’ve never seen a human being more in the zone than Leo in that moment.
When he eats his 40th, everyone is storting to believe. The word has gone around the fete that something very special is happening in the gym and everyone comes running, including Sorcha, whose reaction is predictable enough.
“Oh! My God!” she goes. “Ross, the carol service!”
And I’m there, “Please don’t stop this! Listen to that crowd! This could be the makings of him as a rugby player!”
With a sheen of sweat on his forehead, Leo swallows his 45th to draw level. Even Reuben shakes his head in admiration, then cheers him on as he picks up mince pie number 46 for the win.
He takes a humungous bite. For a second or two, I think he’s about to vom, thus forfeiting the contest, but he takes a moment to steel himself – no doubt using some of the visualisation exercises I taught him from my own days as a crowd favourite – and he pops the last piece of pie into his mouth.
We all wait what feels like an eternity for him to swallow it. When he does, all hell breaks loose. People are cheering and high-fiving and chest-bumping each other. Lots of others are in tears.
I race to the table. I pick my son up and lift him on to my shoulders like a champion. The crowd are going, “Lee-oh! Lee-oh! Lee-oh!” when I hear what sounds like the distant roll of thunder above my head.
All of a sudden, his stomach gives way and a deluge of mincemeat and pastry vomit rains down on me, covering my face, the front of my shirt, my chinos and my Dubes.
But in his moment of triumph, I honestly couldn’t give a fock.