A Galway Christmas tale

In 1939 my mother and I spent Christmas with both my grandmothers and on a cold bright day we set off for Galway by train.

It was about a five-hour journey and we had comfortable seats near a window. I was given something to read but preferred to look out of the window at the snow-clad empty fields and dark clumps of trees in the landscape of rural Ireland.

The late sun was setting, a fiery ball of scarlet throwing long shadows over the rose-tinted fields. It was very beautiful, deserted and empty, neither man nor beast to be seen.

My maternal grandmother’s house in Devon Place was warm and quiet with a banked fire in the breakfast room and we were glad to get into bed and drift off to sleep.

On Christmas Day we had dinner with my other grandmother who was an invalid.

Once or twice a year she was carried down the stairs to the drawing room and sat at the head of the table presiding over the festivities.

It was a small gathering, just grandmother, an uncle, my mother and myself.

At the dinners of yesteryear 11 children and their parents celebrated Christmas in the dining room next door. It was the only time of the year when all the family were together, making an unlucky thirteen at the table.

Grandmother always made sure that a maiden aunt or a solitary uncle joined the gathering, thus ensuring no bad luck would fall and also fulfilling her family responsibility of hospitality to her kith and kin.

Outside the night was cold and dark until moonrise but indoors all was warmth and light with a roaring fire and lamps and candles.

We had the usual Christmas fare but instead of plum pudding we had mince pies, brandy butter and Norah’s delectable shortbread and strawberry preserve.

After dinner my mother and I walked home, being careful not to slip on the icy treacherous pavement.

The moon was up and one night before the full and everything looked so different under the bone-white moonlight. The houses were darkened with just an occasional light showing in a downstairs window.

Our footsteps rang out in the still air as we rounded the corner. I clutched my mother’s gloved hand tightly as I felt I had to look after her as my father was far away in Africa.

It was to be the last Christmas my mother would spend in her old home and it must have been a poignant time for her.

The following day we were to visit my uncle who was a doctor and a widower with four children. He lived six miles out of Galway in a big house called Glen Inagh which was surrounded by fields.

I was delighted to meet my cousins, three girls and a boy, and while my mother chatted to her brother-in-law we romped in the big schoolroom at the back of the house. There was an upright piano and we all took turns in playing and singing carols in between thumping out Chopsticks.

That Christmas my mother taught me to make a certain kind of biscuit which we called Kisses. They were always on the tea tray in Mazabuka and I loved them.

They were diamond shaped and sandwiched together either with homemade lemon curd or raspberry jam and conjured up the same sort of memories as the madeleines in Marcel Proust’s book.

I remember my mother using her hands to shape the pastry into small balls which were then flattened with the back of a fork the result being a diamond shaped lozenge.

That Christmas we spent lot of time with my maternal grandmother and while my mother sat and read to her I explored the study/library which contained many volumes of Chatterbox and the novels of GA Henty, the latter had inspired my uncles to a life of adventure.

It was too cold to venture out into the garden but I managed a few walks along the narrow streets.

Due to the biting cold there were very few people around in the streets save for a gaggle of poor children clad in stained cast-off clothing with bare dirty legs and runny noses.

Their hair was knotted and dull, their voices hoarse and loud, as they wandered up the street scuffling and pushing one another into the gutter.

Suddenly a little shop window caught their eyes, with its tinsel and cotton wool balls of make believe snow.

The display must have had some kind of magic for them and they halted in front of the window jostling one another for the best view.

They gave hoarse cries of wonderment at this splendid spectacle as they stood breathing out into the frosty air.

I joined them in front of the window and we looked at each other with mutual curiosity and a touch of wary hostility on their part, and curiosity mingled with bewilderment on mine.

My next Christmas would be very different.

Back in Africa, with the temperature nudging 100 degrees, the house servants collected outside the back verandah waiting to receive their Christmas boxes from my father and presents for the children, usually some brightly coloured sweets or coloured pencils.

The research station cattle hands put on a lion dance for us. They shouted and sang as they advanced on an imaginary lion lurking in the tall thick grass outside the drive. They brandished spears made of plaited grass and stabbed the lion to death. It was all very exciting and hot and believable.

John Kelly’s uncle had the district around to lunch every Christmas Day. My father was always asked to carve three turkeys and two hams, to feed over 100 people including all the farmers and their wives. Being a vet he had an understanding of the birds’ anatomy so would carve with surgical precision.

Christmas in the southern hemisphere was always hot and there was a plague of black and scarlet beetles feasting on the flowers outside. They made a satisfying squelch when you trod on them.

The raucous chattering of the rain birds and the call of the piet-my-vrou signalled rain, bringing relief to the parched earth and the maize drooping in the African gardens.

The thunderheads would build up on hot afternoons and everywhere I heard the shrill insistent noise of the “Christmas beetles”.

We would breakfast in the dining room with the hot sun streaming through the windows served by the houseboy Samiyoba, whose cap was askew as he had been imbibing twala the night before.

He served the bacon and eggs with more than a faint tremor in his hands and got black looks from my father.

The scent of my mother’s tuber roses outside the verandah was heady and sweet and the smell of the petunia bed after the gardeners had watered the garden drifted through the windows.

I remember the smell of the burnt toast that my mother breakfasted on, the pawpaw garnished with slices of lemon and a bowl of fresh mulberries, all plump and juicy, while we drank homemade lemonade with a lump of ice.

What a contrast to the substantial breakfasts of Devon Place: the plates groaning with eggs, bacon and black pudding, all accompanied by soda bread and grandmother’s special marmalade.

There was holly aplenty in Galway but no greenery, except for ferns, in Mazabuka. I had a hearty appetite even when suffering from malaria and ate everything put in front of me.

Nothing could have been further from that single snowy Galway Christmas, the centuries of tradition in a place where the moon of wintertime shone down upon a frozen landscape.

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