Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Silent Night for Irish Ann

Recently, I was asked by my online publisher,, to pen a travel thingy about how we celebrate an Irish Christmas over here. I thought and thought - and the more I thought, the more I wanted to do something a little different. The result is a story about my Irish friend, Ann McGoona.

I thought I'd share it with you. Thanks to Susan Beverly at Escape Artist for bugging me to write this. You can find the original article at

Her name was Ann McGoona. A funny looking woman, she was a friend of my wife’s and I’d known her ever since coming to Ireland in ‘82. She was all smiles and laughter, and a serious side too that listened intently if you had a problem. Over the years, she and I had become firm friends. I liked Ann quite a lot because she always had a kind word and a welcoming laugh, and when I met her my day always became that much better. Even if I moaned about the constant rain in this country, she’d look up at me from her tiny stature of four foot nothin’ and say, eyes glinting, “Ah, it could be worse, you could be dead.”

I especially enjoyed her outlook on Christmas. Not for Ann the commercial trappings of that season. Instead, she had the outlook and attitude of a child. And on an Irish Christmas of 2001, I longed to moan to Ann about how cold it was, how bloody frosty! And of the smoke that floated from the coal fires of the terraced houses, turning into a thick mist over the small Irish town of Navan. Oh, how I longed to hear her say, “Feck it. It could be worse, ‘cause you could be dead.”
But she couldn’t say it because she was dead. She was dead of cancer at the age of fifty-four, only a few days before Christmas.

Ireland at Christmas is a magical place. It is a time for family and friends; of kith and kin. Yes, it is much more commercial today than it was when I came here half a lifetime ago. But some of the traditions remain untouched. On Christmas Eve, we still light a candle in the window to welcome the Christ Child. Wives – and yes, these people are usually housewives – still mix the Christmas Pudding in an immense bowl, kneading the suet, breadcrumbs, mixed fruit and Guinness together until it’s just right. Then boiling in a pot for hours on end until the house smells like a baker’s. And finally pouring the Irish whiskey over it until it has just the right potency.

Christmas in Ireland is a time for children, which means that it’s a time for everyone because almost all of its populace are children at heart. And on Christmas Eve, the entire town of Navan still marches down to Mass, and within the draughty church that’s as old as the history of the town listens to the priest retell the story of a child born to a woman, and of His message of hope that was a precursor to his later dying.
Just as Ann had died.

On that almost Christmas night eight years ago, Ann chose to have herself laid out in a simple wooden box and placed in her parent’s front room. That house was tiny by American standards, and the crowd that came to celebrate Ann’s life could not possibly fit within its four walls. Instead, we gathered outside in the frosty narrow laneway and waited our turn to file past Ann. Inside, her family gathered at her head; a priest in attendance. And when it was my turn, I did what everyone else did: I entered the house to say goodbye. I picked up the fragment of fir tree, touching its silky needles into the bowl of holy water, brushing the droplets gently onto Ann’s forehead. Then, like the others, I walked outside to wait.

As I waited I looked up. On that almost Christmas Eve, the stars glittered overhead. A small mist gathered gently above the row of terraced houses, as if a ghostly wreath. In neighbours’ windows, candles were lit, only this time to say goodbye to a friend that they knew held no wrong. And then as I waited, the bells of the local church began to sing. And their song was Silent Night, Holy Night, and for a moment I thought of Ann and the friendship that she had for this Yank who was so far from home, and I knew that I would remember that night and that Christmas for as long as I lived.

Christmas in Ireland offers the simplicity of giving, love and laughter that many other cultures have misplaced beneath piles of torn Christmas wrappings. But it offers more: it offers a people whose hearts are filled with giving. Just like my tiny friend, Ann McGoona
Happy Christmas, Ann, wherever you are. And if I’m moaning about the rain again, let me hear you one more time: “Ah, for feck’s sake Tom, and give over. You could be dead.”

© Tom Richards and Storylines Entertainment 2009.

Tom Richards was born in Chicago but has lived in Ireland since 1982. He has no Irish blood in him whatsoever. Trust me! He is also the author of A Survivor’s Guide to Living in Ireland, a bestseller on

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Warmth of an Irish Christmas

All right. It's true. The cold winds of the economy, nature, and politics are blowing through the country like an out-of-control winter's hurricane. But while public servants might threaten to strike again; while flood waters might be burying houses, farms, and entire villages in the west under ten feet of water; while the government might be readying an early-December budget that's going to blow us all to hell and back; everyone who lives here has a little secret.

Christmas is just around the corner. And we're all looking forward to it, let me tell you.

So What's Special About an Irish Christmas?

If you're Christian, or just like the spirit of the season, we all know that Christmas is celebrated in just about every country in this crazy world of ours. But an Irish Christmas is...well...a little different. I received my indoctrination to an Irish Christmas in December of 1982. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn't exactly what occurred.

I'll start with the economics of the times: back then, in '82, I was almost penniless. But then the entire country was broke too, so I didn't feel unusual. My good wife Bernie and I counted out the small stipend that I'd received from my miserly employer of the time, and went into the town of Navan to go Christmas shopping.

In those days, the town's shopping district was quite small: a main street filled with assorted shops, chippers, and any number of pubs; and a tiny 'shopping centre' that even had a Penney's. We went wild! As I remember, I was able to purchase a pair of gloves and hat for Bernie (as I remember, she bought me the same), a doll's crib for our daughter, a small turkey and ham for the dinner (together with sprouts, potatoes, and bread); and a small bottle of whiskey to cheer the night away. Materially, it wasn't much of a Christmas.

But that's before the good stuff started.

Unlike Anywhere Else...
Christmas Eve in Ireland is quite unlike any other Christmas Eve I've experienced anywhere else in the world. That evening, my brother in law invited me out for a couple of pints of the black stuff. We wiled away an hour or so in the packed pub, exchanging Christmas greetings with the locals, before staggering through the crisp starry night and to the warmth of my house. There, a local priest was waiting, having barged in for a night cap before Christmas Eve mass. I must admit that I was staggered by the many times he went at the small bottle of Jamieson, and reckoned that he'd get through Midnight Mass with nary a care in the world.

After he left, my good wife and I wrapped up tight, put our child in her pram, and took a walk into the town. In those days, outdoor Christmas lights were foreign to this country. Instead, the warming glow of a single candle lit the window of every home, welcoming the Christ child once again into the world. It was an amazingly serene time: the frost covered streets were empty, not only due to the fact that so few people had cars back then, but because those that did were invariably home celebrating the season with their families. Through the small windows of the houses, we could make out parents putting secret lumpy packages beneath their simple trees. Few people then bothered with boxes to make their Christmas perfect. Instead, they would wrap up parcels any old way; dolls arms, toy rifle barrels, the heads of golf sticks would stick out every which way, as if Santa had been so busy that he simply didn't have time to do anything else.

We walked through the town and into the Church. There, our local priest - possibly feeling a bit better for it all because of the Jamieson that we'd proferred- celebrated Midnight Mass with his congregation. The Church was cold and dark, lit only by the candles on the alter and the Christmas lights that glowed warm upon the face of an infant Jesu hiding in his manger. For a moment, and despite the few hundred town's people that sat around me, I felt one of them, content in the knowledge that I'd at last found a place to call home.

Later, and after Mass, we wandered up to my wife's parent's house. There, my mother-in-law Kathleen had sandwiches waiting: thick slices of fresh ham nestled between white bread, slathered with hot Coleman's mustard. My father-in-law Luke handed us not only a cup of tea but a pint bottle of Guinness too. And for awhile, we sat around the coal fire that sparked and sighed and bathed the small living room in ghostly shadow. We whittled away some time with Luke telling ghost stories of the Banshee, and the time as a young man and he walked through the door to find a neighbor hanging by his neck. In Ireland, Christmas is also a time of ghostly tales, and so it was that night.

And finally we left, walking again through the clear starry night, accompanies by the glow of candles, and to our own home and its warming Christmas Candle.

Christmas here has changed so very much over the years. As the country has grown richer, the pile of material packages under the Christmas tree have also grown. Now, deep in recession, perhaps once again we'll learn to understand the true spirit of an Irish Christmas: a time of starry nights, and simple Christmas Trees. A time of empty, frosty streets and the warmth of family and fellowship.

A time of candles alight in windows, to warmly welcome friends.

For more stories about living and surviving in Ireland, why not buy Tom Richards' book, A Survivor's Guide to Living in Ireland? Just click here...