Tag Archives: Christmas

Spies, sex, and snow – a new ‘Fairytale’

'Fairytale of New York'

‘Fairytale of New York’

It’s December 13 and I’ve yet to hear ‘Fairytale of New York‘. Is that a record? (Sorry.)

After 30 years of the song every Christmas, this is probably not a bad thing. Over the years I’ve heard it often enough – at Pogues’ concerts, in convenience stores, badly sung in crowded bars, blared out in taxis, whistled by a guy at a bus-stop, and so on.

The fact that I now live in a city where the song is rarely played on radio (in my experience, at least) or in a bar, and is unknown to most people I encounter, has been something of a relief. There was a time when it wasn’t Christmas until I heard those first piano notes but, away from Ireland, they’ve become less, not more, resonant.

Of course, as an Irish immigrant in the U.S., this surely amounts to a form of treason. After all, there are few songs of the last 30 years that speak so specifically to one particular aspect of the Irish-American experience. (A gritty, mid-century, Irishman in New York experience that seems a million miles from what’s sold nowadays to planefuls of shoppers by Aer Lingus, it must be said.)

Much as I still admire its craft though, Shane Macgowan and Jem Finer’s song doesn’t speak to my experience. But that also doesn’t mean that I haven’t been seeking out voices from home, and so, in recent weeks, I’ve been listening at length to another emigrant Irish songwriter.

Seamus Fogarty

Seamus Fogarty

Seamus Fogarty is a Mayo man based in London, who writes songs about bodysnatchers, Vincent Van Gogh’s ears, working on building sites in England, missing a bus and sleeping in a church in Carlow town, the health of Irish traditional music, and burial at sea, among other topics.

Luckily enough his new album, ‘The Curious Hand’, also contains a Christmas song, and – joy to the world – it’s not a million miles removed from the beer-stained, exhausted mood of ‘Fairytale’.

‘Christmas Time On Jupiter’ begins with the singer waking on Christmas Day in a Chicago hotel room, to find a Mexican spy he’s spent the night with rifling through his wallet.

From there – with a touch Shane Macgowan would be proud of – things go downhill.

I struggled out her door, into the winter snow,
I was alone with my thoughts, my feet were crunching away,
I was sitting by a fire on Christmas Day.
‘Mented from the drink, a shadow from the night before,
When I got into my house I was offered more.
And we sat around, a momentary family, raising a brief glass to our asylum…

As family Christmases go, it’s hardly traditional, but – as much as ‘Fairytale’ three decades ago – Fogarty evokes one type of immigrant life at Christmas, where casual friends and booze might be just enough to keep the loneliness or the homesickness at bay.

It may not prove as enduring as the Pogues’ song but it updates it, and so it’s taken the ‘Fairytale’ spot on my Christmas playlist. Not that – thankfully – I’m likely to hear either in the store tomorrow.

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An Adult’s Christmas in Oregon

dylanMy Christmas rituals are few. I tend to spend December 25 in different places – in recent times Wexford or Los Angeles; this year, Portland.

One of my seasonal constants is “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, the Dylan Thomas short story. Every Christmas morning I take 20 minutes to “plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find,” as the narrator puts it.

This year, for a change, I’ll listen to Thomas reading the story. The poet, ailing and alcoholic, made a recording of the piece in 1952. It’s a remarkable piece of audio, as Thomas, leaning on all the intonation and nuance of his Welsh accent, tells his tale of a young boy’s Christmas in a snowy, seaside village.

But while searching for the recording this week, I across the poet’s other great evocation of childhood, whose lines are probably more pertinent for a man in his late 30s, far from his childhood home (“the farm forever fled”), remembering Christmases past.

“Fern Hill” is not a seasonal poem. It’s set in a time of plenty, a period of huntsmen and herdsmen, when the grass is green and “the hay fields as high as the house”.

These years have passed, and Thomas remembers them with a mix of nostalgia and affection and fatalism. “I was young and easy under the apple boughs,” the poem famously begins, while, a few verses later, we read that “time allows / In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs / Before the children green and golden / Follow him out of grace”.

All of which seems oddly suitable for an adult’s Christmas in Oregon. Having long since strolled out of the fields of grace, I rarely run my heedless ways these days. Which is why the bittersweet reality of “Fern Hill”, and not the comforting nostalgia of “A Child’s Christmas In Wales”, is a more fitting read this year.

“Once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.”

Once is enough to be thankful for. Happy Christmas.

Portland, OR, December 2016

Portland, OR, December 2016




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Winter hiking above the Angels


Ascending the fire road

I was probably half way, and two pints of sweat, in before I thought: “this is a good idea”.

After all, who hikes on their Christmas break while battling eight time zones of jet lag and seasonal quantities of food and drink?

That’s the question I asked as my brother-in-law and I pulled into a parking lot above the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena last week, just after the Christmas weekend.

We’d promised each other an easy ramble in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Of course it never works out that way.

Thirty minutes in and the gentle grade up through Millard Canyon already reminded me that no amount of flat running or biking can prepare your thighs for the upward pull of a brisk hike.

But the clear, crisp canyon breezes and southern California sun made for an easier trek than my last mountain outing in winter, a wind and rainswept day on Lugnaquilla.

Keeping on track

Staying on track

As we ascended, below us, in eerie green-brown silence, lay a city of 10m people. Ahead – with the exception of a stray biker or two – the path was clear. The city of Los Angeles, that great mechanised metropolis a mile or two away, was just another part of the scenery – alongside the lightening-battered weather stations or the broken-up fire road we were hiking on.

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness,” wrote John Muir, the high priest of the Sierra (who I doubt ever troubled himself with as minor as hike as Brown Mountain). I’d add that it’s also the clearest way into one’s mind, particularly a mind sedately muddled by the temptations of the holidays.

By the time we came out at the Brown Mountain Road junction (710m – an ascent of 400m from our start 80 minutes earlier) our minds were clear of anything but the desire to drink water and photograph the views – south to the Pacific Ocean and north and west into canyons of wilderness.

We could have gone on of course – with the summit ‘just’ another 650m up. But common sense – or the part of it which resides in tiring leg muscles – prevailed. Not before a speedy, if dusty, descent down into the City of Angels though.

On the way we even briefly encountered that rarest of phenomena – Los Angeles rain. Winter hiking indeed.

View from Brown Mountain Road Junction.

View south from Brown Mountain Road Junction


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All the Christmases roll down

Every person, every family, will have their rituals today.

From food to gifts to visiting, Christmas routines have a durable, longstanding feeling. Even those who dislike the day have their trusted way of doing so.

My habit is waking early on Christmas morning and taking 15 minutes to read a story written by the poet Dylan Thomas.

A Child’s Christmas In Wales, written in 1950 but composed in stages over the preceding years, was famously recorded for broadcast by a cash-strapped Thomas in New York in 1952. The poet died a year later and the story was published in 1954.

A dream-memory of an early 20th century Christmas in seaside Welsh village, on the face of it the story, its characters and movement, are from a different world.

It’s a place one of snow, cats, sleeping old men, postmen on icy laneways, “always uncles”, an frost-bound hibernating town above a “forlorn sea” at the foot of a white world.

It’s opening lines are, to me, a pure seam of Christmas memory and emotion – a childhood distilled, words worth reading once a year.

“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find…”


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Haiku at Christmas

Main Street, Wexford, December 2014. Pic: Cormac Looney










Lights, crowds, families,

”Tis the season’ they sing.

Winter watches on.



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And through it all the river, clearing the heart

River Shannon, Athlone, January 2015. Pic: Cormac Looney

River Shannon, Athlone, January 2015.
Pic: Cormac Looney

A place to start.

Maybe it’s Jeff Buckley’s voice at 2 o’clock in an almost-empty Sean’s Bar: Iheardtherewasabrokenchord – broken like the afternoon.
The sun of that day, July of ’98, hanging high over the Shannon, sifting, and the green-topped Peter and Paul’s.

Or a June morning, 4am and sleepless, sitting with my mother on the porch, the light already up.
I’d trade 100 other early mornings for whatever that conversation contained. It remains, somewhere.

Then the fog, always always the fog, murk in summer, freezing in winter.
Friday nights at St Mel’s Park and no idea what was coming from the white, the dirt floors of the stands, the roars.
Feet frozen eyes blinded. Fog there and fog home.

And when there was no fog and no rain the sky, huge above the flatlands and the river, a canvas for stars, for purples and reds, marked by high cirrus and vapour trails.
When people left that’s where they went.

‘I just can’t recallll San Francisco at alllll’ sang Bob one summer, all the month long before I left the town for that city.
The afternoon I left spent with my best pal in a pub on the Left Bank, ‘one more for the road lads one more we’ve time’.

Or further back, to years sinking away from me into the Callows. 1,000s of days of childhood, classrooms, soccer, tree gum on hands, bicycles and books.
Churches, halls, pitches, paths. Chilly Christmas Eves in a hotel on the main street of a town that was the only town.

And through it all the river, clearing the heart of that country. Taking it all, all of us and all we were, west – carrying us to open water.
And I was carried too. But there I was, at the start.


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‘He wanted to stay in that cafe forever’

If Christmas means anything it means home – a place or a sense of home.

The lucky ones will find themselves there today, at home, among friends, family or even alone.

I woke this chilly Christmas morning in one place I can call home, Wexford, the town where I was born. Lucky, I rose with a sense of peace, my wife alongside me, other family members stirring.

The feeling of home struck me so strongly that I was brought to another place, taken from the streets of Wexford to a snow-struck hill town in North Carolina.

A young man sat in a cafe there, in a poem by Charles Bukowski. There’s no mention of Christmas, or home, but the verse is suffused with peace, a feeling of contentment and acceptance, the Christmas spirit.

“…the meal was
and the
the waitress was
unlike the women
he had
she was unaffected,
there was a natural
humor which came
from her.
the fry cook said
crazy things.
the dishwasher,
in back,
laughed, a good
the young man watched
the snow through the
he wanted to stay
in that cafe
the curious feeling
swam through him
that everything
that it would always
stay beautiful

*Charles Bukowski, “Nirvana”.

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The eighth of December

Dublin. Pic: William Murphy

Pic: William Murphy

Every eighth of December rushes into one,

A memory dropping away, leaving just lights and traffic and mothers and young children

Green Dublin buses, darkening winter streets, throngs crossing.

But present always – a blaze of lights, which I still see, 30 years later.

That drew us, pushing, hand-in-hand, across Grafton and Henry and O’Connell Streets

One more shop, one more cup of tea.

‘Do we have time, before the train?’

Every eighth of December was a rush to the 90 bus, at teatime, down the long Liffey to Heuston.

This is gone, as is she, as is the ten-year-old who was with her.

But the lights remain, every eighth of December.

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And the fog gathering and the light dropping

Dublin, November 2014. Pic: Cormac Looney

Dublin, November 2014.
Pic: Cormac Looney

November. Seriously. November.

A month of damp mist, zero mellowness, no fruit. No bright colours of any sort.

All the wind and rain of December without the Christmas food and drink. A month with his hands in his pockets, stiffed on his paycheck, killing time before the place closes.

Without snow a city that just looks cold, mouldy and dirty. The dreary Dublin that emigrants don’t miss and visitors don’t see.

One man said of November in another place: “It only believes in a pile of dead leaves, and a moon that’s the colour of bone.”

Maybe he was talking about here.

And then, walking home at dusk: a clear sky after a week of rain. And silence and the fog gathering and the light dropping above the park, ten minutes from darkness in the clean, cold air, and finally home, to a good coffee or maybe something stronger.

November has its moments, even in November.


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Miley and me

Miley. Pic: Michael Connors.

Miley. Pity the waiter.
Pic: Michael Connors

Eating dinner recently I glanced over my shoulder – to be greeted by the sight of Miley Cyrus’ backside.

Add me to the millions who’ve seen the popstar’s derriere in recent months then.

Impressive as it was, Cyrus’ bum played second fiddle to her mouth, with which the pop star dispatched a series of requests, loudly, to the wait staff.

The location was the Chateau Marmont, where my wife and I were meeting friends for a Christmas dinner.

My other half had told me that we were likely to encounter a famous face or two at the hotel, a Hollywood celeb bolthole for more than 80 years.

(So much so that I had my ‘I love Nespresso too!’ monologue prepared in the event I bumped into Clooney in the gents – next time G!)

Watching Cyrus source a clean fork, or whatever, may not have been the most dramatic episode in the Chateau’s history (there’s been one or two) but, in fairness, it did cause us to pause mid-mouthful (and also pity the waiter).

A genuine, bona fide, shock and awe star no less. Much as I’d like to pretend I’ve no interest  in the comings and goings of A-listers I couldn’t resist glancing once or twice at Cyrus’ table for the rest of the evening.

(BREAKING: 20-something Team Miley eat and yap for two hours before bouncing out into the night. World continues to turn.)

Me. Digestif time. Pic: Clare Kleinedler.

Digestif time.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Truth to be told the sighting was probably a little wasted on me. Without my dining companions I probably would have missed it altogether – despite Miley’s wracking bell tones.

I’m hopeless at spotting celebs. In the newsroom, on a news site, it’s usually no problem; but in the flesh…er, is that the guy from that TV show?

Cyrus could have plonked herself on the table and twerked the wine bottle and my response would still have been one of outraged confusion and, probably, indigestion.

This is in contrast to my wife who, in a former career, made a living off her celeb-spotting skills. (An hour after the Cyrus episode she noticed Bobby Cannavale, recently seen in Blue Jasmine, shuffling through our hotel lobby. I thought he was a porter).

Nonetheless if you’re going to have a glammed-up dinner why not do so in a dining room with the hottest name in pop? And Ridley Scott. And the daughter from Veep.

Unfortunately for Miley though, she was upstaged on the night, proving a bouncing, jabbering distraction to the real star of the evening:  the restaurant’s famed spaghetti bolognese – or rather the cook behind it.

Chef Spence in action. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Chef Spence in action.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

The dish, a Chateau staple, came from the kitchen of executive chef Carolynn Spence, a pal of my wife’s and something of an Eirophile (we had a good chat about Dan Donnelly’s wandering arm).

Over the years I’ve eaten plenty of spag bol but I can’t ever remember it tasting like the one we had that evening. The meat sauce melted on my tongue, the pasta (not too little, not too much) was my sort of al dente.

This plate was so good that not even one of biggest celebs in the world could distract me from it – well, maybe for half a minute.

The rest of our night was devoted to equally important things – catching up with friends, including a chat with chef Spence. Maybe we should have invited Miley over for a drink.

Then again there’s more important things than celebrity. Even in Hollywood.

The Chateau Marmont, West Hollywood. Pic: Gary Minnaert

The Chateau Marmont, West Hollywood.
Pic: Gary Minnaert

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