Christmas has crept up again. A time for joy to the world, and peace among men or, conversely, of panicked late night shopping, and the anxiety that accompanies the realisation that you have exactly seven minutes before shops close. It's Christmas Eve, and you are empty-handed (aside from, if you are like me, a few little presents that you accidentally got for yourself ). That perfect gift has eluded you once more, and all the time you thought you had, as you browsed nonchalantly, has vanished into the ether. Aimless wandering is one thing, but the real challenge comes when setting out with a specific, particularly hard to please person in mind. This can lead to blind panic, often resulting in decidedly bad choices. I aim to, at best, give something of practical use to the recipient, preferably something that they wouldn't buy for themselves, or, at the least (and this is perhaps the last refuge of the desperate ), to knock a laugh out of them. Some notable failures include impulsively bought jewellery, assorted DVDs (which now lurk, mockingly, on the shelf, still clad in their original cellophane ), and a festive geansaí, which, upon opening, was immediately earmarked for return. One year out of frustration and laziness I bought a friend a book that I suspected she would never open, but that I wanted to read. After an appropriate waiting period I 're-gifted' it to myself, and everyone was happy – I got the brownie points and the goods. This year I hope to avoid the blunders of the past, and furnish my nearest and dearest with things that will, without hyperbole, change their lives for the better.
Ireland has not sunk so low into the depths of depression that we are obliged to give each other canned goods and toilet roll. Yet. With this in mind I paced the streets, paying particular attention to quirky, Irish-made things. A stall, helpfully named 'Galway Made' in the Eyre Square market seemed like a good place to start. Three Galway-based artists share the stall, and all have high quality, imaginative work. Wicked Candles produce wax wall-hangings and vases (€22 ), tealight holding wax lanterns, as well as the more traditional hand-poured candles (€6-20 ). Blankbeauty do retro crockery – fine china cups and saucers, mugs (€8 ), jugs and serving dishes with 70s vintage designs. And Aoife McGough of Seodra Bán makes jewellery from (cow ) bone, and also offers classes where you can make your own piece, design and fashion it with your own fair hand in a one-day class (€65 per person, €120 for two people ), and vouchers are available if you know anyone who has a deep-seated, though as yet unfulfilled desire to make their own jewellery (www.seodraban.ie and www.bonecarving.ie ).
St Nicholas' Market
The Saint Nicholas’ Market, which is now open from 9am-6pm every day until Christmas Eve, will provide even the least imaginative among us with innumerable options. There’s more jewellery, art, crafts, and clothes than you could shake the proverbial stick at. It’s nice to know that most of these are made locally, and the stall-holders will be happy to tell you about the often very unusual processes involved. The Blow In Gallery, run by Peter McManus, has been at the market for seven years, and he sells his own work, and that of four other artists. They are bright, boisterous, colourful scenes, mostly from around Galway, in what could be described as a 'post-modern expressionism' style. One of my favourite prints features Cross Street during the Arts Festival, and celebrates the quirkyness of Galway's winding streets and varied architecture – the buildings and lamp posts leaning and bending, framing the throngs of onlookers and street performers in a warm embrace – the aesthetic equivalent to a hot whiskey on a cold day. The pictures are available with or without frames from as little as €12 for A4 size, or two A3 sized prints for €40 to delight Galwegians and blow-ins alike.
Colm Hickey's 'name on a chain' stall sells leather bags, jewellery and quirky bits from Morocco, Guatemala, Mexico and Nepal. As he travels to these places to buy directly from the craftsmen, he can guarantee that everything is fair trade. One leather satchel in particular (€70 ) is on my Christmas wish list.
For photographic prints of Galway, Clare and Mayo go to Pat O'Connor's stall; panoramic prints are €30, and small prints are €15, or three for €40 (www.patoconnor.org ).
'Away with the Fairies' of Kinvara have been making and selling their 'freshly caught fairy' dolls (€12 ) at the market for eight years, and offer a customisation service on their website (www.awaywiththefairies.ie ), where you can order a doll to your own specifications. Ade, and his wife Rachel – who started making the dolls as a hobby before realising its commercial potential – also make fairies for a variety of occasions.
For jewellery there is Ash Stone, who make necklaces and bracelets from semi-precious stones, glass, and even lava stone, in Gort (www.ashstone.org ). Seahound Ceramics sell porcelain and clay ear studs and rings (€5 ), as well as ceramic picture tile wall-hangings (from €18 ), made by Simon Murphy in Furbo. Tangles Handcraft, from Moycullen, sell crocheted baby cardigans, alongside copper and enamel pendants and earrings (€20 and €8 respectively ), and eye-catching painted wooden rings (€5 ).
Instruments and gadgets
If you think you can live with the sound produced by someone learning a musical instrument in your environs or, less cynically, would like to 'give the gift of music', Powell’s Four Corners have a multitude of bodhráns made in the Claddagh by Michael Vignoles (from €75 ), and ukuleles (from €35 ) which are selling fast this year. For a quieter alternative, they also have an art department upstairs. Duffy’s Fishing and Shooting on Maingard Street have plenty of gadgets for outdoor types, as well as people who think they're MacGyver: anyone who has ever thought a Swiss Army knife too cumbersome will rejoice at the Swiss Army Card (€21.50 ) which can mingle with your bank cards until needed to perform some emergency DIY. If you have recently left the house without gloves you will appreciate the value of a Zippo Handwarmer (€23.95 ), which fills with lighter fluid and uses a ‘flameless platinum catalytic reaction’ (I am assured ) to keep your digits warm for 12 hours. Alternatively, a hipflask (from €21.95 ) can achieve the same end, though utilising a slightly different, less scientific mechanism. If there's someone in your life who has been obliged to use the backlight of their phone in lieu of a torch, they will appreciate the value of a decent one, where the battery life is measured in hours, rather than seconds – Duffy’s sell Cheetah rechargable torches (€125 ), made in Carlow, which will withstand the vicissitudes of farm life for many’s a long year. LED Lensers are also (metaphorically ) hot right now in the torch world (€20-300 ). They can last up to 200 hours on AA batteries, which is good news for farmers and festival-goers alike.
Abstract present ideas
Most people have at least one acquaintance for whom it is nigh on impossible to buy; either they have everything (a rare complaint these days ), or are particularly hard to impress. There are some eclectic ideas on www.greatdaysout.ie, especially for those with a penchant for heights and potentially life threatening situations, although they also do spa break packages, presumably to help you relax, having fallen out of an aeroplane. A 60ft bungee jump in Leenane, Co Galway is €39, and there are plenty of surfing, quad biking, off road driving and paintballing packages for around €50.
There is an entire category of presents that could be classified as largely useless; the ‘novelty gifts’, with about the same monetary value as a cheap Christmas cracker toy, which are designed to elicit a chuckle. Imagine the unparalleled joy on the face of a recipient of an acre on the Moon (€22.99 on www.giftsonline.ie ), or a copy of Pride and Prejudice, Robin Hood, or Romeo and Juliet with the names of your choice appearing in the place of Mr Darcy, Romeo et al (€22.95 ). In these trying times, where value does not necessarily reside where we once thought it to, perhaps an acre of some of our uninhabitable neighbours in the Solar System (Mars and Venus are also up for sale ) could prove as sound an investment as an acre here on Earth.