The Spirit of Christmas Past–our very own Gabriel Byrne–is here to bring you two lovely holiday presents.
The first is his fine rendition of the classic poem. Turn the lights down, pour an eggnog, and listen for the sound of reindeer hooves on the roof!
The second present is more personal: the gift of memory.
In the first section of his autobiography, published in 1994, Gabriel offered a snapshot of life in Ireland as a child and a young man. The chapter below is a vibrant and incisive look at a particular Christmas Eve in Dublin when he was in college. He captures the language, the spirit, and the place beautifully.
An Excerpt from Pictures In My Head, by Gabriel Byrne
To support myself I took a job as a postman during the Christmas holidays. This next chapter is an account of a paynight after one such turn of duty at Crumlin post office. It was typical of many excursions to town for the craic on Saturday nights. Images and impressions recalled in hangover the following day.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
Christmas Eve. Cigarette smoke fogs the snug of Mooney’s, Crumlin. Tidal rise and fall of song and laughter. Postmen sink pints and slag us, their sissy student helpers of ten days past.
“Another Christmas over. Thanks be to James’s Street.”
Army-coated amateurs, we braved the dogs of Walkinstown as we humped our sacks to the sleeping houses. Seeing dark of night turn to gray of morning under the lights of the Ballymount Road.
“Give us a song.”
“I will in me—“
“Her eyes they shone like diamonds.”
“Fair play to you, sunshine.”
“See ye’s next year, lads.”
“Not if we can help it.”
Swell of laughter.
Every year Aunty K. sends a turkey from Kildare. It’s hanging now from our kitchen wall. The beak scrapes against my hand. I shiver. A paper star turns the hallway red.
We meet at the roundabout. Joe, Pat, Dave and me. Trousers creased into offensive weapons, smelling of Christmas present Brut, we lounge across the seats of the 77 like gunslingers.
“Dame Street. Keep the change. It’s Christmas.”
Twelve chin Doberman conductor with Santa Claus cheeks.
“The git up of youse! I hope it keeps fine for youse! Feet offa dem seats. Bowsies!”
“He’s going to burst me one of these days, the size of him,” says Joe.
Urging and cursing the bus around corners, through lights, past queues. A lifetime before the terminus. Skip before the stop. Onto the pavement. Neat as a bird landing on a branch. Oh, Dublin is alive and sinning tonight, boys.
Outside Trinity, unseeing, uncaring, a couple are wearing.
“She’s ating yer man,” says Dave enviously.
Greenbacks in our pockets courtesy of the P & T.
“Now lads, the crawl is yer only man. From Guiney’s to the Half Way House.”
“Ah, I don’t agree with this oul’ Christmas lark at all at all. Gone too commercial for my liking, so it is.” A mournful night telephonist on his break.
“That’s the man that punched Ulick, ye know. Oh yes.”
Dave is saying to a girl. “And what’s Santy bringing you for Christmas?”
We leave him and head up the carol singing street. The clink of a collection box. “Herdlepress.” The smell from Bewleys. The swollen-ankled women laden with parcels. The laughing, linking girls. “Get the last of the cheeky Charlies.”
“Herdlepress.” It’s Barney, shell-shocked in a submarine in Kimmage in World War Two, making an art of selling paper.
“Merry Christmas, Barney.”
“Same to you, lads, with knobs on.”
A tinker blows a tin whistle. His sister shakes a cardboard box full of holy pictures. Above the neon pulse of Christmas lights, the sky is riddled with stars. Like spilled drink, the people pour onto the pavements from the roaring pubs.
Children look through windows for Da’s not coming home.
Into the Bailey.
“Hoi. Hawz it goeen?” Aideen from Dalkey, a pint in her hand. “Loike the malebowt in here. Isntit? Hay. Haven’t see you at lectures for eons.”
“He was on the hop,” said Pat.
“Ooh I see.”
In the corner a girl cries quietly. Her boyfriend stares ahead, unrepentant.
Outside, girls from a factory with nylon smocks and paper hats push through the crowds.
“Wait for us, Bernie. Me cups is rattlin’.”
At McDaid’s a crowd. Two men circle each other like cocks. ‘Not so bleedin’ tough, now are ye?’
“Stick one on him, Lar.” A voice from the crowd.
“Ah now, come on, lads, break it up, it’s Christmas,” someone else calls.
“You shut your mouth.”
The fighters pay no attention. Fierce in their war of stares.
So many pubs. So many pints. So few Christmases. Only Joe and me left now. Half past eleven. A snake of a queue outside the chipper, melancholy from celebration.
“Give us two large cod and chips, please.”
“I only got two hands for Christ’s sake.”
Sweating Mario. Face like a grayhound, cigarette hanging from his lips. Dreaming of Sorrento in the middle of Dublin.
“Where’ll we be this time next year? Or will we be here at all? That’s what I want to know,” says Joe.
On the drunken, homeward-heading bus, a man is singing, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.” He thinks he’s Bing Crosby, Joe says, but everybody listens. And when he finishes, we all clap and stamp our feet and shout. “Give us another one, Bing.”
Through fogged-up windows, the lights of houses pass quickly as all the other Christmases of our lives. The man starts to sing “Adeste Fidelis” but he winds down like a gramophone, not remembering the words.
Someone else starts “You made me love you. I didn’t want to do it.” We all join in, swaying from side to side polishing imaginary windows like Sonny Knowles.
Then, the silence of Christmas Eve, the roundabout again.
“Happy Christmas, Joe. See you tomorrow.” A good bit away, I hear them singing in the church–midnight Mass. A bell tolls.
The clock ticks in our hallway. The light from the dying fire flickers on the walls. A car passes. Stillness again. Soon the room is dark except for the candles burning in the window. I am tired. I lean my head against the cool pane. Soon it will be Christmas morning.
Happy Holidays to each and every one of you! heart