My Best Chrstmas and "Stay In The Drain"
It was mid-December in the third decade of the twenty-first century. I was at a Toastmasters 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 for that... 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 we 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 Frawleys in Thomas Street to buy my Confirmation suit. Two years earlier I spent some days in 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 equally puzzled. . 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 Sean South and Fergal O’ Hanlon at Brookeborough, County Fermanagh the night before.
I’m not sure if I turned off the immersion this morning or where I put the car keys 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, 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, County Kilkenny 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, famous “Midget” boxer, stunt man and aerial acrobat Johnny Caross. He died in the same hospital a few months later.
On that 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 had an operation 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 that I didn’t get the other question. How would I have fitted my prepared answer, to the other question, into two minutes?
So far I have lived through 77 Christmases, all of them good even if some of them resulted in severe hangovers. But the best one was in 1956, because I was alive to see it.
Stay In The Drain.
Christmas just gone was another good one. It was greatly enhanced by a book, titled Stay in the Drain, by Oliver Kelleher, a man of many parts who was born in the parish of Gortletteragh, County Leitrim and has, for many years, been based in Castlebar, County Mayo. Stay in the Drain, of which the inspiration for the title is a story in itself, takes the reader through the life of the author from breaking spade-handles while trying to dig stony ground in rural Leitrim to, at 21 years driving a Rolls Royce through the streets of Mohill. In the 75 chapters (that’s not a typo) with titles as diverse as My Life on the Road, Being a Celebrity in Melbourne didn’t suit me and My Pet Hates in Life. He says that the two things that he reads up on and studies most are cooking and the stock market. If he happens to read this I am asking him to send me the recipe for Leitrim Boxty. I don’t want any advice on investments; I haven’t the head for it. Oliver doesn’t always win either when he is described as “a cute hoor” or when it goes the other way he will be told, “You’re a right bollix.”
One account is not about his days in Leitrim or even in Castlebar but of his time living in London,” “Someone stole my Ferrari from outside my pad one night. The next night they came back and stole my Rolls Royce. It was at that stage that he had enough so he, “ . . .Bailed out to Castlebar.”
The globe-trotter from Leitrim takes us on a world tour of his own business ventures in Costa Braua, Mayo and further afield. He is not afraid to criticise Church and State but always with balance and integrity. And he has a few “What-IF”s about the treatment meted out to Sean Quinn.
Kellegher devotes a complete chapter to “Robots” and predicts the effects that they will have on our lives; “Many family farms and farmers will disappear to be replaced by factory farms or plantations”...”The cashier in your local supermarket will disappear to be replaced by a scanner that will tell you what to do and say ‘Thank you, hope you have a nice day,’ even though they don’t see you or care too much about you.”
I can fully identify with the author about his growing up on a small farm and with his current approach to computers,” My biggest problem was trying to convince people how little I knew about computers. I’m still limited as to how much I can do on a computer or a Smartphone. I know enough to get by. I remember when computers came out , I asked a neighbour if he knew much about computers. ‘I do’ he said ‘ I know enough to keep away from them.”
No matter what stage of life’s journey you’re at or what road you want to take from here there are a few tips to be picked up from the man from Gortletteragh.
I suggest that you start your 2024 reading schedule with Stay in the Drain.
See you in February.