My Best Christmas
It was mid-December in the third decade of the twenty-first century. I was at a Table Topics session. Because of my dubious ability to read upside down, I could make out the Topicmaster’s list of questions at the top table. One jumped out at me. “What was your best Christmas ever?” I hoped I’d get that one. I had an answer.
My best Christmas was Christmas 1956 but I didn’t know it at the time. About the eighth of December that year, I developed a pain in my stomach which didn’t feel all that serious. . Various stages of discomfort, ranging from relatively mild to severe pain, continued until the end of the month. By this stage, a hard lump could be felt in my stomach. All kinds of remedies from the relic of Blessed Martin de Porres to Lourdes water to many folk “cures” were applied. None of them did me any harm. Medical intervention hadn’t been sought. And because of the thinking of the time and the climate in which we lived, I don’t blame anyone. On Sunday, December 30th Doctor Clearkin from Blessington was called. As the December light was fading he examined me. His work illuminated by lamplight as rural electrification was still in the future. . He told my parents that if it was appendicitis then I was “a very strong boy.” He was puzzled and didn’t make a diagnosis. His best guess was that one of my testicles hadn’t descended and he insisted that I was too ill to be out of bed.
He called the ambulance and on its arrival, I wanted to sit in the front but Mick Byrne, the driver, was adamant that I would be parallel with the horizontal in the back. I don’t know what time we arrived at Baltinglass Hospital but the doctor there was equally puzzled.
I was loaded up again and hit the road for Mercer’s Hospital in Dublin. It was only my second visit to the Capital. The previous May my father brought me to Frawley's in Thomas Street to buy my Confirmation suit. Two years earlier I spent some days in the hospital with a knocked-out elbow so I wasn’t all that perturbed by the clinical environment. My details were taken as well as the name of the local postmaster as the post office in Lacken was our nearest phone.. I received a penicillin injection every four hours and I still remember the taste of liquid paraffin. Many doctors examined me and all were confused. One of them described me as “intelligent” but very few people have agreed with him since. .
Whenever I hear the ballad “Sean South from Garryowen” I’m transported back to the radio of Patsy Cavanagh from Craanford County Wexford, who was in the corner of the ward. It was New Year’s Day 1953 and the main news item covered the shooting of South and Fergal O’ Hanlon at Brookeborough, County Fermanagh.
I’m not sure if I turned off the immersion this morning but I’m amazed at how many names of my fellow patients I can remember after more than three score years. There was Seamus Osborne also from Craanford, and Tony Hand, from Arklow, who was younger than me and whose father was in the army. Pipe smoking Kerryman, Tim Toomey, who was a guard in Enniskerry. When he learned that his father had died he asked me to say a prayer for him. George McCullough, a farmer, from Goresbridge who was a seanachai and didn’t know it.
As an eleven-year-old rus-in-urbe, who had a sheltered childhood, I was mesmerised by the antics of one patient, “Midget” boxer and aerial acrobat Johnny Caross. He died in the same hospital a few months later.
Later, on the first day of the New Year, my father came to visit me. He was able to tell me that one of the surgeons in Mercers had “his hands blessed by the Pope.” When, not quite out of earshot, he asked a doctor about my condition, he was told. “Well, He’s an unusual case.” ( I was still a mystery to the medical profession.)
I was operated on the next day. They found an appendix abscess which was removed and arrangements were made to remove the appendix some weeks later. The second operation was duly performed and I didn’t ever ascertain how close to death I was. I meant to look for my medical records before Mercers Hospital closed in 1983 but procrastination got in the way.
Oh, at the table topic session I was asked “If you had to cook for eight people on Christmas Day what would you do”. I wasn’t disappointed. How would I have fitted my prepared answer, to the other question, into two minutes?
So far I have lived through 76 Christmases. But the best one was in 1956 because I was alive to see it.
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It is often said that we Irish do death very well. If you agree with that or even if you don't you should tune in to Kathy Burke's podcast Where There's a Will, There's a Wake. Kathy Burke is a much loved British actress and one of the most versatile. She is also a comedian, playwright, and director. She first entered the nation’s consciousness, big time, aged 26 when she appeared on TV in Harry Enfield’s Television Show.
During her career she has played a variety of comic characters, arguably the most memorable was Waynetta Slob, an uncouth, chain-smoking, pizza-munching council-estate mother – she captivated audiences with her confident brashness and ready ability to appear in an unflattering light. She is at her best in this podcast.
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Happy New Year