An Old Irish Tale for Nollaig na mBan

Jimín Mháire Thaidhg was a standard Irish textbook when I was in National School in the sixties. Re-reading it now, as it breaks all the rules of contemporary political correctness, I remember the laughs at the time. Hilarity in the classroom as our teacher, a native of Connemara, shared these gems with us. More laughs at home as my Mum, a native of Tarbert in North County Kerry threw in her version of it. On the sixth of January every year, the women celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany and Nollaig na mBan by taking their annual day off and visiting each other. One year, my Mum and her siblings used the opportunity to make toffee. They made a mess, and ate the toffee. Then someone brought the donkey into the kitchen and completely wrecked the place. Imagine the sugar- buzz in children of the 1920’s unaccustomed to such an amount of sugar!

It’s a longish piece, but an absolute treasure.

Pádraig Ó Siochfhreadha was born in Dingle, Co.Kerry in 1883. He wrote under the pen name “An Seabhac” (The Hawk) and published Jimín Mháire Thaidhg, an Irish comic classic in 1921.


I must tell you about the Christmas we had. Mam went to Dingle a few days before it – herself and Dad – and they took the horse and cart, with a creel and a box in the cart.
Mam had the money, and she took two geese – one for the vet and one for the bank manager, because he’s the man who minds her money and she thinks the world of him.
While they were in Dingle, I went off to Glenadown with the big knife and some string and brought home a big holly bush, and I got some ivy in the ruins of the church.
As I was passing her door, Nell-Mary-Andy came out and was buttering me up trying to get me to give her some holly. She thought she’d make a right little eejit of me, praising me and calling me a ‘good little boy’ and promising me a Christmas present! I pretended, at first, that I wouldn’t give her any. But, when I untied the bundle at home, I took a couple of branches over. I’m very great with Nell, you know.
Cáit was all excited when she saw the big load I was bringing in.
-Oh!, said she, we’ll make the house lovely, and she was looking at the red berries on the holly and dancing around the floor.
-Oh, aren’t they beautiful? Said she. Did you ever see such a lovely red?
That’s the way Cáit always goes on, even if it’s only a daisy or a bunch of cowslips. All the girls are like that, about all kinds of things.
I was hungry.
-Stop your messing, said I, is there anything to eat?
-Oh! I forgot, said Cáit and she began to whisper. You won’t tell what I’ve made, will you?
¬What? Said I.
She laughed.
-I won’t tell you, because you’d tell Mam.
-I swear I won’t, said I.
-She’ll kill me over the sugar, said Cáit.
-What sugar? Said I.
-And because of the cream! Said she.
-Crikey, Cáit, have you made sweet cakes?
-I won’t tell you, I won’t tell you, said she, Laughing and jumping up and down. Then she went to the dresser and took down two cups.
-Ah Cáit, said I, tell me what you made.
-I won’t, I won’t, said she, and she laughed, dancing and kicking up her heels. She didn’t see the ivy on the floor until it tripped her up and, lo and behold, didn’t she break a big piece off the rim of one of the cups.
Cáit picked it up and she was trembling as she tried to fix it back in place. She started to cry, and then didn’t she try to put the blame on me! I soon told her that it was herself and her jumping around. But there was no point in talking. Al she’d do was cry.
I ended up feeling sorry for her.
-Give it to me, Cáit, said I, and Mam won’t ever know about it.
I took the cup to the dresser and put it under two other cups with the broken side facing in.
-What will I do if Mam finds it? Said Cáit?
Then we each had a mug of tea. That was when Cáit brought out the things she’d made- little cream cakes with sugar icing on them. We got butter in the cupboard and I spotted a big pot of jam with the top tied tight. I cut the knot easily and we enjoyed all the things we had. We put a full spoon of jam on every bit of bread.
When we’d eaten our fill, the jam was well down the pot, but I tied the paper on again and put it back in the cupboard where it had been. It’s a pity Mam doesn’t go to Dingle every day!
Then I got a hammer and little nails and Cáit handed me the holly and ivy. We nailed it around the window, on top of the dresser, and over the fireplace. It was hard to fix it where there was no wood, and I had to drive big nails into the wall. From time to time, huge chunks of mortar fell.
When we’d finished the house, we grabbed Sailor – that’s the dog – and covered him from head to tail with holly, and had a great laugh at him. When evening came, we lit the lamp. The house looked lovely.
It was dark when Mam and Dad came home. We thought Mam’d be delighted but, to tell the truth, she caused ructions when she saw the lumps of mortar missing from the walls. I had to disappear until she calmed down. It’s hard to please some people!

The following day, Cáit told me what Mam brought from Dingle: nine big long candles standing in the creel, three of them red. They were as tall as the window, and she brought a box full of raisins, and one of sugar, and of tea, as well as a big barm brack from the shop. There were bottles too – some with yellow drink in them and others with something purple, and a big jug full of black stuff. She had a big lump of meat, too. I heard she bought apples too, but I didn’t even get one that night because of the damage we’d done with the nails. She put everything into the cupboard and locked it.

Next day Mam killed a goose and a duck. When the goose was cold, she put paper around its head and plucked it and left it hanging on the back of the door.

We had a great time on Christmas Eve. Cáit and myself got two big turnips and cut them in half and made a hole in each of them to stand the candles in. Then we stuck little branches of holly in them and Cáit put a frill of paper around them. They were lovely and we lit them long before it was dark; but Mam put them out again.

That night, Mam put potatoes and fish on the table for us but neither myself nor Cáit ate a single bit, because we knew other things were on the way. After a while, Mam took out the brack and cut it for us. Then she made tea, and gave us an apple each.
When Mickileen’s father passed but the door, Mam called him in and gave him a drop from a bottle with three stars on it. She gave Dad a drop too. Then she got a drink for herself from another bottle and they all said, “May we all be alive this time next year’, whatever they meant by that.
Big-Betty and Mary-Andy came in next and Mam put a drop from the yellow bottle into two glasses, added sugar and boiling water and stirred them with a spoon. At first I thought they wouldn’t touch it. Mary-Andy said,
-Oh! A drop of that would kill me! But she downed it all the same and it didn’t kill her either. As the night wore on, a log of young men came in and Mam gave them their drinks out of the big jug, When I saw them all drinking, I got an unmerciful longing for a drink myself.
When Dad went out with Mickileen’s father and Mam was talking to the women over by the fire, I took a swig out of the jug. It’s a wonder the taste didn’t kill me. I couldn’t swallow it back, and was afraid to spit it out on the floor. I ran out the door with my mouth full. Mam saw me.
-Where are you off to now, Jimeen? Said she, but I couldn’t say a word. I opened the door and spat. She followed, and saw me coughing and wiping my mouth.
-Ha-ha, said she, I wouldn’t put it past you, you rascal. Weren’t you the nosey one?
It was horrible stuff.

It was late when we went to bed that night, because Mam was getting the goose ready for Christmas Day. She cleaned it out and washed it, then stuffed t with boiled potatoes and onions and salt and pepper and butter and loads of other things. She sewed it up with thread. Myself and Cáit were watching her.
On Christmas morning, Cáit and Mam went to first Mass. Myself and Dad were left in charge. When Dad was milking the cows, I went to look at the things in the cupboard. I took an apple and filled my pockets with raisins. There was a piece of brack cut, so I took that too.
When I was closing the cupboard, a thought struck me- I took the yellow bottle and half-filled a cup. I tasted it, but boy, as bad as the black stuff was the night before, the yellow drink was seven times worse. It would burn the throat off you. I didn’t know what to do with it. I called the dog and put the cup under his nose but he wouldn’t look at. All he did was sneeze.
Then I thought of another plan. I got a fistful of meal, wet it with the stuff from the bottle, and left it on a plate in the yard. The big gander gulped it all down. At first I didn’t notice anything odd about him. Then he began to cackle. He stopped after a while, and started walking around with his head to one side. Round and round he went in a circle. Then he stopped, spread his legs apart and started shaking himself backwards and forwards. He’d make the cats laugh. Then he lay down and closed his eyes, for all the world like Old-Dermot when he dozes in the big chair by the fire.
Finally, he lay flat out on the ground, stretched his neck, spread his wings, and there wasn’t a trace of life in him. It was as if he were dead. I was terrified that he’d die- and I didn’t know what to do. I heard Dad coming in from the cowhouse and I ran inside. When Dad saw the gander he stopped and started talking to himself.
-Upon my word, that fellow’s really plastered, he said.
-Jimeen, he yelled.
I was sweeping the floor like mad. I came to the door.
-What did you do to the gander? Said Dad
I stopped. I didn’t like to hide the truth on Christmas morning, so I told Dad the story, in fits and starts. I could see he wasn’t pleased.
-And you’ll pay for your tricks some day, my boy, said he. And I suppose it was you finished off the cat, too, down in Poulalin?
I thought I’d fall out of my standing. I didn’t think a living soul knew about that. I felt sheepish then. I didn’t think a living soul knew about that. I thought, of course, that Dad would tell Mam everything. I went to Mass and prayed all through it that God would keep me safe from all the trouble threatening me.

When I came home, Mam had the gander beside the fire and he was recovering. She never found out what happened to him because, when Dad came home, she was trying to find out from him who’d come that morning and got whiskey.
Dad was making a joke of the whole thing and wouldn’t tell her. He threw me a look that left me feeling quite uneasy.

Still, Dad’s alright.

I just had to share this piece with you on Nollaig na mBan, Women’s Christmas.
Enjoy it, have a laugh. Contemplate the hardship of Jimín’s mother’s life and that of the women of her time, and
Count your Blessings

Beannachtaí na Féile

About haysparks

Viewing the world, the human condition, our history, evolution and health through the prism of food.
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