================================================= The Information about Ireland Site Newsletter December 2007 The Newsletter for people interested in Ireland Now received by over 50,000 people worldwide http://www.ireland-information.com http://www.irishnation.com Copyright (C) 2007 ================================================= IN THIS ISSUE === Foreword === News Snaps from Ireland === New free resources at the site === Irish Christmas Traditions === Hillside by Jeremiah J. Shea === What a View by William Wasson === What a Lovely Country by Merle Dens-Griffin === BallyGlen's Gift by Bree T. Donovan === 1911 Census of Ireland now online === Gaelic Phrases of the Month === Monthly free competition result ================================================= FOREWORD ======== Hello again from Ireland where the Christmas shopping spree is in full swing. The Irish economy is supposed to be cooling but you would not think so judging by the packed shopping malls all around the country. Many thanks to all of our contributors this month and especially to Bree Donovan who has given us a Christmas story for you to enjoy - why not print it out and read it at your leisure! Don't forget you can send a free 'Dancing Irish Santa' Christmas Card by email here: http://www.ireland-information.com/heraldichall/postcard.htm Please DO send us in your stories, poems or articles about Ireland for the next edition - we love including reader contributions, until 2008! Michael Help keep this newsletter alive at www.irishnation.com WE NEED YOUR HELP! PLEASE - send this newsletter on to your friends or relatives who you think are interested in Ireland. By doing this you are helping to keep us 'free'. Got something to say? Don't keep it to yourself! Why don't you submit an article for inclusion in the next edition? Go here for more information: http://www.ireland-information.com/newsletter.htm Do you have access to a website? You can help to keep this newsletter alive by adding a link to any of our websites below: http://www.irishnation.com http://www.irishsurnames.com http://www.ireland-information.com http://www.allfamilycrests.com http://www.irishpenpals.com If you have an AOL or HOTMAIL account then you will get much better results by viewing this newsletter online here: http://www.ireland-information.com/dec07.htm The only way that you could have been subscribed to this newsletter is by filling out a subscription form at the site whereupon a confirmation notice would have been issued. If you wish to unsubscribe then go here: http://www.ireland-information.com/newsletter.htm ================================================= NEWS SNAPS FROM IRELAND ======================= IRISH PROPERTY PRICES CONTINUE TO FALL The trend of falling property prices that has hit the US and Britain has not left Ireland untouched. Prices have continued to fall since the middle of 2006 which many commentators are now citing as the peak of the Irish property miracle. Overall prices are down somewhere between 4 and 10% depending on which price gauge you use. Losses of 15% to 20% are expected in some housing categories though as an oversupply in suburban housing estates and some apartment buildings is keeping prices down. Dublin prices have fallen less than other locations. Builders have been quick to react. As many as 70 to 80 thousand housing units were completed annually over the last few years. This is expected to drop dramatically in 2007, possibly by as much as 50%! It is speculated that many builders are biding their time while the excess volume flushes through the system. With immigration into the country still high and unemployment at all-time lows their is still a need for an estimated 60,000+ housing units annually. There is no sign of a complete crash though, as prices have merely fallen back to 2005 levels, with early 2006 remembered as being a particularly exuberant time in the market. BUDGET 2007 ANNOUNCED The latest annual government budget has been announced by Finance Minister Brian Cowen. The main measures include: * Reform of stamp duty on property purchase * Modest increase in personal tax allowances * New tax on high-emission cars * Reduction in tax on ATM and credit cards IRELAND RANKED NINTH IN LIVING STANDARDS Conflicting reports of the high standard of living in Ireland during recent years have been highlighted by a new report from the OECD which lists Ireland in ninth place in the EU. Prices and economic output are taken into account by the OECD when arriving at their conclusions. FAMOUS WATERFORD CRYSTAL TO SHED JOBS The problems with the Waterford company that controls the famous Waterford Crystal factory continue. The high value of the Euro when compared to the US dollar has finally taken its toll on the ailing business which is set to shed early half its Irish workforce. 490 jobs will be lost in the glass factory which is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the country. High labour costs are cited as another reason why much of the high-end crystal production is being moved abroad. OLDER TAXIS TO BE BANNED The winds of change continue to blow through the Irish taxi business. Still smarting from the deregulation of the industry (which opened up the business to just about anyone with 5000 Euro and a car!), new regulations are being introduced to force older vehicles off the streets. All taxis over 9 years of age will be banned from 2008 onwards. All taxis will also be forced to carry fire extinguishers, first aid kits and a torch. Further subsidies for wheelchair accessible taxis are likely to be made available being, up to 40% of the total purchase price. HUNGOVER DRIVERS TO BE BREATHALAYSED The continuing campaign against drink driving in this country is being taken to levels. Random breath-testing has already been introduced with Gardai being free to instruct any driver to give a breath sample, regardless of whether that driver is thought to be drunk. These random tests are now being extended to early morning drivers who may still be over the limit from the night before. GUINNESS FACTORY ROBBED A thief has made off with over 40,000 pints from the Guinness factory at St. James Gate in Dublin. The daring raid was not very hi-tech with the resolute thief simply driving a truck into the factory, hitching up a fully laden trailer to the back and driving out the gates with load containing 450 kegs of beer. The empty trailer was later discovered in County Meath. OFF-LICENCE SALES CONTINUE TO SOAR Sales of beer, wine and spirits for off-licences have overtaken the amount sold directly in pubs for the first time. In 2001 70% of all alcohol was sold directly over a bar. Figures just released show that that number has plummeted to 48% in 2007. The smoking ban in pubs was the catalyst for change, together with much more rigid enforcement of the drink driving laws and the high taxation of alcohol. Al of these factors have combined to make the Irish pub experience much less attractive than it once was. Wine accounts for 22% of the market, up from 8% a decade ago while the sale of beer has dropped from 70% to 50% of the overall market. IRISH SOCCER SEARCH CONTINUES The Irish international team is still managerless as the search for a successor to Steve Staunton continues. Paul Jewell was sounded out but took up a job in the English Premiership instead. Now the focus has turned to Terry Venables who is without a job after England failed to qualify for Euro 2008. A revamp of the old 'home internationals' looks likely in the form of a biennial 'Celtic Cup' competition between Ireland, Scotland, N. Ireland and Wales. England are unlikely to take part. Voice your opinion on these news issues here: http://www.ireland-information.com/newsletterboard/wwwboard.html ================================================= NEW FREE RESOURCES AT THE SITE ============================== NEW COATS OF ARMS ADDED TO THE GALLERY: The following 5 coats of arms images and family history details have been added to the Gallery: A: Alway, Ashe N: Nash, Nixon W: Walton View the Gallery here: http://www.irishsurnames.com/coatsofarms/gm.htm THE PERFECT WEDDING, ANNIVERSARY OR BIRTHDAY GIFT! We now have over 100,000 worldwide names available. Get the Coat of Arms Print, Claddagh Ring, Screensaver, Watch, T-Shirt Transfer or Clock for your name at: http://www.irishnation.com/familycrestgifts.htm ================================================= ================================================= IRISH CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS ========================== Ireland, like most countries, has a number of Christmas traditions that are all of its own. Many of these customs have their root in the time when the Gaelic culture and religion of the country were being suppressed and it is perhaps because of this they have survived into modern times. THE CANDLE IN THE WINDOW The placing of a lighted candle in the window of a house on Christmas eve is still practised today. It has a number of purposes but primarily it was a symbol of welcome to Mary and Joseph as they travelled looking for shelter. The candle also indicated a safe place for priests to perform mass as, during Penal Times this was not allowed. A further element of the tradition is that the candle should be lit by the youngest member of the household and only be extinguished by a girl bearing the name 'Mary'. THE LADEN TABLE After evening meal on Christmas eve the kitchen table was again set and on it were placed a loaf of bread filled with caraway seeds and raisins, a pitcher of milk and a large lit candle. The door to the house was left unlatched so that Mary and Joseph, or any wandering traveller, could avail of the welcome. THE WREN BOY PROCESSION During Penal Times there was once a plot in a village against the local soldiers. They were surrounded and were about to be ambushed when a group of wrens pecked on their drums and awakened the soldiers. The plot failed and the wren became known as 'The Devil's bird'. On St. Stephens day a procession takes place where a pole with a holly bush is carried from house to house and families dress up in old clothes and with blackened faces.In olden times an actual wren would be killed and placed on top of the pole. This custom has to a large degree disappeared but the tradition of visiting from house to house on St. Stephens Day has survived and is very much part of Christmas. DECORATIONS: The placing of a ring of Holly on doors originated in Ireland as Holly was one of the main plants that flourished at Christmas time and which gave the poor ample means with which to decorate their dwellings. All decorations are traditionally taken down on Little Christmas (January 6th.) and it is considered to be bad luck to take them down beforehand. TRADITIONAL GAELIC SALUTATION The Gaelic greeting for 'Merry Christmas' is: 'Nollaig Shona Duit' ......which is pronounced as 'null-ig hun-a dwit'. HAPPY CHRISTMAS! ================================================= YOU CAN HELP TO KEEP THIS FREE NEWSLETTER ALIVE! Visit: http://www.irishnation.com where you can get great Irish gifts, prints, claddagh jewellery, engraved glassware and much more. Anne MacDonald ordered a family crest plaque: Hello, Michael, Received my plaque, carefully wrapped, in good order. It is splendid! I am thrilled, and I know that my dad, for whose 81st birthday this was ordered, will love it. I would like to order another one! Everyone who has seen the plaque has been really impressed, even those who, as my daughter says are 'not into ancestor worship!' Again, my hearty thanks for this first-class product. Best wishes for happy holiday season. Sincerely, Anne MacDonald THE PERFECT WEDDING OR ANNIVERSARY GIFT! View family crest plaques here: http://www.irishnation.com/familycrestplaques.htm ================================================= HILLSIDE by Jeremiah J. Shea ======== There's a hillside back in Erin, Stretching high above the bay, Where the sunset turns the heather Into gold at close of day. Peace is there when twilight lingers And the valley down below Seems a far off faerie playland With the cottage lamps aglow. Comes the moon through heaven's curtain Sailing high and clear and bright, With a host of stars aglitter, Bringing beauty to the night , And the ancient ivied castle Seems as full of life as yore With the moon exchanging shadows For her partners on the floor. There the cares of life are little On the hillside o'er the bay, There the soul of man is grateful, At the closing of a day For the peace that comes too seldom. It is there that I would be, And if I should fly tomorrow I would take you all with me! Jeremiah J. Shea ================================================= WHAT A VIEW by William Wasson =========== Everyplace is Ireland when it lives in your heart, though I have only seen it through my Mom`s eyes. *But what a view it was and still is* It makes my soul both laugh and cry. ~ If I haven't set foot on Irish sod by the time I lie on my death bed, my last request will be to fly me to County Kerry and bury me on the hill overlooking Kerry Bay, where as a child my Mom used to play. ~ There I can rest like the mystic fog that covers everything in sight and be a part of the fairy tales folklore and fantasies of the night. ~ I shall sleep with the angels with one eye open and one eye closed. My life and death will be complete and I shall not worry about eternity while Heaven itself, lies at my feet. William Wasson ================================================= KEEP THIS NEWSLETTER ALIVE! Visit: http://www.irishnation.com ================================================= WHAT A LOVELY COUNTRY by Merle Dens-Griffin ===================== No one told me about the Midgies. Ouch!! I drove up to a B and B about 10 miles out of Killarney and was attacked. Their poor dogs eyes were bitten to pieces. Poor dog. Anyway, other than that we so enjoyed our 2 week visit to Ireland. We toured for 2 weeks, vising Killarney, while all the motorcycles in Europe were there. The Dingle peninsula was so nice, we stayed on a farm one night, and the people were wonderful. The breakfasts were amazing. The history is so interesting going back a thousand years. The stone buildings were architectural wonders, as a builder, I cant imagine building one, and have it not leaking. On to the cliffs of Moher, and then on to Galway. What a wonderful town, and of course so enjoyed the Griffen Bakery, who makes bread for offshore islands. Would love to live in Ireland for a while, but the Euro and driving on the wrong side of the road make it tough. Would need a local chauffeur. My granddaughters loved the National Stud. Watching the glass cutters in Waterford was a great experience. How they can do that freehand is beyond my comprehension. Then on to Dublin town to the Tower Pub and Trinity College. All dreams come true. We drove the back roads of Ireland and visited off the path Pubs and restaurants just to get out of the tourist mode. We walked some ancient battlefields and visited old Abbeys. Will try to make it back again someday - what a lovely country. Merle Dens-Griffin ================================================= YOU CAN HELP TO KEEP THIS FREE NEWSLETTER ALIVE! Visit http://www.irishnation.com where you can get great Irish gifts, prints, claddagh jewellery, engraved glassware and much more. Wendy Walker of Columbia, Missouri got a family crest signet ring with the Donnelly family crest engraved on it for her son Michael, I received by registered mail today the ring I ordered for my son with the Donnelly family crest. I am very impressed and thrilled with the ring. It is beautiful and the service I received throughout the whole process of ordering and receiving this unique gift has been superb. Thank you for all your assistance and prompt responses to my questions. I will most certainly order other items from you and will highly recommend you. Thank you Wendy Walker THE PERFECT WEDDING, ANNIVERSARY OR BIRTHDAY GIFT! See here for family crest gifts: Visit: http://www.irishnation.com/familycrestgifts.htm ================================================= BALLYGLEN'S GIFT by Bree T. Donovan ================ Bree Donovan is an author, poet and storyteller. She welcomes any feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org BallyGlen's Gift For J.S. and S.P. friends forever. 'Running spikes,' Dylan pronounced in his mysterious accent and nodding his blonde head. 'Pardon me, Mr. Byrne?' Sister Augusta clutched at the hefty silver crucifix suspended from her neck as if Dylan were a vampire she was trying to ward off. It was early November, and sister thought it necessary for us to decide upon a Christmas gift that was not merely a 'selfish desire of our mortal hearts, but one that would glorify Christ.' In other words, I gathered, she was asking the impossible. What could we expect to find under the tree that would be good for us and God? I hardly thought my burning desire for Scalextric cars would do much in the way of peace on earth, but I'd be infinitely happy. I turned to look at my best friend Dylan, or 'Lan' as he was known, and wondered if being half Russian was the reason for his strong will. He always spoke his mind, no matter who was on the other end of the conversation. I'm sure if the Pope himself had asked Dylan the same question, my friend's answer would not have changed. And his face would have still possessed that infernal, mischievous smile to boot! Dylan dialed up the volume a notch in case the ole gal was having trouble registering his response. 'I said running...' 'I heard you, Mr. Byrne. I'm simply astounded by your ignorance.' 'Oh no, Sister. I understand the question completely.' The smile remained. The rest of my fellow eleven-year-old classmates were too afraid to look up. Sister was about to impart her particular brand of wisdom, which usually involved a quivering, open palm and a wooden ruler, on Dylan. 'And you believe your request for…running shoes..' 'Spikes.' 'Would glorify our blessed saviour?' 'Yes, sister.' I stole a glance at Sister Augusta who had an itchy trigger finger like one of the gun slingers in the American Westerns we sometimes watched at the cinema on Saturday afternoons. 'Well, I'm pretty spot on with my running, Sister. And I love to do it. So, I figure, if it's what I do best, and what I love, that would make Christ happy, since I'd be making good use of my God given ability. Isn't that what you meant?' You could have heard a pin drop in that drafty November classroom. All eyes were now glued to Sister Augusta's face. Her eyes were like two pointy black darts aimed at Dylan who looked as innocent as a cherub. He was, after all, speaking the truth. Sister abruptly turned around and strode to the blackboard. 'You will all write an essay on the importance of keeping Christ in Christmas.' I looked again to Dylan. When our eyes met this time, neither one of us could stifle the giggles that so often betrayed our efforts to behave. 'Mr. O'Keeffe', Sister thrust her arm towards me, and then aimed her sights on Dylan, 'Mr. Byrne, to your corners, please.' With one last snigger we took to the east and west of the room respectively, standing and facing the dingy wall until lunch time. We were brothers that way. Now I knew what I must do. I had to find the means to get Dylan his treasured running spikes for Christmas. The year was 1962 in our small coastal village of BallyGlen, County Donegal, and I had my mission. ~~~ This story is continued in the online edition of this newsletter: http://www.ireland-information.com/dec07.htm#story A-O-L USERS GO HERE
We all knew how much Dylan loved to run. By 'we', I mean our entire village. We knew this because he ran no matter if rain was blowing in sideways from the great Atlantic, or if the sun was beaming through a cloudless July sky, or if the golden moon embedded in the starry heaven was the only source of light for the hilly terrain Dylan traversed.
Yes, oftentimes he would climb out of his bedroom window while his parents believed him to be asleep. It was as if some siren of the hills was beckoning to him, and he had to make his way as quickly as possible to answer her call. But Dylan was too strong a character to be held captive by any force other than his own free will. And it was by his own free will that he ran. At age eleven he wasn't one of the tall, lanky boys. Dylan was a slight lad really, but his spindly legs propelled his small frame much like a miniature locomotive. It was with that kind of force and power Dylan ran. Those who may have doubted his ability were soon true believers in 'the little boy that could run.' Because he did. Dylan could outrun any kid in Donegal. Both he and I were sure that someday he would outrun any man in the world.
'Hey Jimmy, hurry it up!' Dylan was yelling for me outside our home.
'Lan, dear, would ya like to come inside and have some tea while ya wait for James.'
My mam was at the door in an ill-fated attempt to lasso the wind.
'Oh no thanks, Mrs. O'Keefe. I've had my breakfast.'
I took a peak out the window just long enough to catch Dylan flashing my mam his sly grin.
'Ya could still give me a few seconds to have mine then!' I called down to him.
'James O'Keefe, close that window. I've got the fire stoked against the chill,' mam ordered. 'And stop screeching out of windows as if I taught ya no manners at all!'
I almost knocked over a lamp in my hurried attempt to gather my books. I hoped my mother wouldn't notice my wet hair. I'd gotten caught in the early morning rain. How had Dylan managed to have his dried and neatly combed? I knew full well he must have been out running no more than an hour before. I grabbed two slices of toast, juggled my books, and almost made it past my younger sisters without comment-almost.
'Jimmy, where were ya this morning?' Iona spoke loud enough so that my mam would hear.
I bit into the slightly burned bread to give myself a moment to create a defense if necessary. But the combination of the restless Dylan at the door, and my other sister feeding the dog from the table, rendered Iona's question insignificant to my preoccupied mother.
'Off with ya now.' She kissed me on my head, not even registering the damp hair - except to offer me a wool cap.
'Have a good day, boys.'
'You too, Mrs.O'Keefe.' Dylan waved with one arm, whilst pulling me outside with the other.
I continued to chew my rushed breakfast, wishing for some tea to wash it down.
'Have a look at these!' Dylan pulled a picture that was torn from a mail order catalogue.
He pointed at a pair of scarlet red running spikes. 'Aren't these smashing?'
I gulped one last piece of dry bread seeing the price of two whole pounds listed underneath the picture.
'What's the matter?' Dylan slowed his pace slightly.
His dark eyes probed mine suspiciously.
'What did Iona mean? Were you out this morning? What were ya doing?'
I wasn't about to blow my cover this early. I still had three more weeks left to earn the two pounds for the spikes. I had taken great pains in making sure to choose a lake to fish that wasn't on one of Dylan's morning running routes. So far I had earned 15 shillings selling the trout I'd caught. At this rate it didn't seem as if I could make the entire sum with my meager earnings at fish mongering. I'd need another plan.
'Well?' Dylan had come to a full stop and demanded an explanation.
My friend could be exasperating in that way. The very thing I admired about him - his total honesty - was also the one thing that was most perturbing. Dylan could also sniff out a lie like a bloodhound.
'Well, what?' I countered lamely. 'Ya gonna believe what dopey Iona has to say? Ya know she's always tryin' to tattle on me for stuff I didn't even do.'
Dylan shifted his stance.
'Come on! We'll be late, and I'll tell Sister Augusta it was your doing!' I resumed walking.
'O.K. then.' Dylan tucked the magazine page into his jacket pocket. 'But we'll have to run to make it!'
'Ya mean that little spitfire of a thing who comes chargin' through me field at all hours?'
Mr. Lahey sucked on his cherry pipe. The yellowish tint to his fading red beard betrayed his love of nicotine.
I took his incredulous response to mean my grand scheme would be a difficult sell.
'Yes sir. That would be Lan.'
'Ya know he scares the tar out of me sheep and cows. He even got the dogs chasin' after him one mornin'. Didn't stop 'im though. He was back the next day, runnin' even faster.'
'Other than that, he's a polite young lad I suppose...'
I waited for the large man to process his thoughts.
'Always waves to me, calls out a greetin'. Strange boy.' His sharp blue eyes rested on me. 'Yer his friend then, are ya?'
'Yes sir. He's me best mate. And I was really hoping ya might be able to help me.'
'So, he can get a pair of expensive clod hoppers to tear up me field?'
'Well, Mr. Lahey, maybe if Lan gets his spikes, he'll take up some new routes,' I offered.
'Ha!' The man's laugh was as large as himself. 'I wouldn't believe that lad could be persuaded to go anywhere other than where he set his mind to. I know that much about him.'
'So, you'll help me.' I said it more as a foregone conclusion rather than a desperate plea.
The man who stood taller than me own da returned his pipe to the pocket of his tweed jacket and tugged on his cap.
'Since ya seem as unstoppable as yer best mate, I don't see as I have a choice.' He rested a calloused hand on my shoulder. 'It's a good thing yer doin', helpin' the lad like this. Just tell him to tread a little lighter if possible.'
Without either one of us saying so, we knew that would never happen. We laughed in our unspoken bond.
Mr. Lahey put me to work mending some fences, and since he was a widower I even had to darn a few pairs of well worn socks! I worked for about a fortnight every day after school doing my best to keep my family and Dylan in the dark about my odd jobs. It wasn't easy. After school Dylan would press me about kicking around the pitch with some of other lads from our class. I must admit, it was tough for me to say no as I enjoyed a good game of football as much as the next boy. Dylan and I paired up as one team were pretty intimidating as well.
I'd usually spend no more than a half hour with the gang, then I would offer some excuse as to why I had to get home.
'Mam needs help with the girls. Da wants me home studying,' etc.
I was fairly certain Dylan only half believed me, but much to my surprise and relief, he left my excuses go unchallenged. After all, I had done odd jobs in the past so that I could raise the funds to buy new cars, or additional pieces of track. It was always a source of great delight to lay down my newest offering to our steadily expanding raceway. Neither of our families was well off, so we had to work for our little treasures.
This was an entirely different experience for me. If I didn't come up with the money, I felt it wouldn't be me who would be disappointed, but Dylan. No one worked harder for his treasure than he. With one week until Christmas, I was still 10 shillings short of two pounds.
'I don't know what I'm gonna do. I'm so close.'
I displayed my half-filled jar to Mr. Lahey as we sat at his table sharing afternoon tea. 'I have an idea, James.'
'I've been considerin' it for the last two days.'
He set aside his cup, and traced a pattern with his long finger onto the wood table.
'Ya see, like me, most people in the hills out here,' he identified the other farms on his imaginary map, 'have seen Lan many a day runnin' his heart out. He may give some people reason to scratch their heads, but I'll wager no-one doubts his passion for his sport.'
I nodded my agreement.
'Ya go to them, lad. Knock on their doors and tell them what you mean to do. We take care of our own here, James. And Lan, he's turnin' out to be someone special among us now, isn't he?'
'Ya really think they will contribute?'
'Well, ya convinced me, and I was all but ready to run him off me fields with a pitch fork!'
I rose from the table with new found hope. Tomorrow, right after super, I would begin to make my rounds.
'Thanks for your help, Mr. Lahey.'
'Tis' nothin', James. Ya helped me get a lot accomplished. And I've enjoyed yer company. You be sure to bring Lan by in his new running shoes.'
'Ya won't come after us with that pitch fork, will ya?'
'If I did, I'd have to catch ya, and I've not the energy for that anymore. Ya just see to it yer friend doesn't do too much damage.'
'Yes sir!' I promised.
* * *
'No supper with us tonight, James?' Mrs. Byrne inquired in her thick, Russian accent. Whenever I heard her speak I pictured frozen tundra and sleigh rides with folks bundled up in layers of warm blankets. Bells jingled as the horse-drawn sleigh glided under a darkening sky, cutting two perfect lines into the fresh, soft snow. Being only eleven, and Donegal the only place I'd ever known, I'd never even gone much past my own county. Dylan's mother was very exotic to me.
'No thank you, Mrs. Byrne. I should be gettin' home now.'
'What's your parents got ya doing tonight?'
Dylan placed his car, a highly coveted, 1955 silver Porsche Spyder Avus, back on the plastic track and eyed me with definite suspicion. He looked like an Indian chief with his powerful legs folded underneath him. His serious stare was quite intimidating.
'Oh, I dunno. I think da wanted me to help Iona with her mathematics.'
'Uh-huh.' Dylan crossed his arms in front of his chest.
'Yeah, you know, I gotta make a good impression for Christmas.' I reasoned.
'You're up to something, James O'Keefe. You wouldn't be trading cars with Brian McCloud would ya?'
Brian McCloud was a year ahead of Dylan and me in school. He was also a member of the wealthiest family in our village. They relocated to Donegal from Scotland, and Brian was always trying to make others feel inferior. Dylan had given Brian a good dressing down when he tried to flaunt his station. No one liked the way Brian made it a well known fact that his parents could buy him anything he wanted, but only Dylan had the guts to say so to Brian's face.
'Get away!' I snapped. 'You're just sore because Father Quinn gave you the task of carrying the baby Jesus to the manger at Midnight Mass!'
'It's an honor!' Dylan countered looking deeply insulted.
'Yeah, but he picked you, because Sister Augusta told him it would be good for yer 'black-hearted soul!'' Dylan cracked a smile. No matter what slight offense might pass between us, we could never stay miffed for too long. We were too much alike.
'I think Sister Augusta is taking a shine to me.'
'Good Night, Lan. I think you need to rest your fevered mind!'
'I'll be conducting inventory on your cars next time. Better not be any Scottish models among them!'
* * *
By the time I reached the fourth house, the Murphy's, the coins in my collection jar were beginning to jingle like the sleigh bells I associated with Mrs. Byrne. I knocked with conviction.
It took a few moments for someone to answer. I could hear the excited voices of children and a baby crying. 'What's yer business?'
A woman with curly red hair twisted into a long braid which hung over one shoulder greeted me with a harried look. 'Evenin' Mrs. Murphy. I'm James O'Keefe from the village, and I attend St. Bro'nach's school with me mate, Dylan Byrne. You might have noticed him running through the hills here.' I motioned to the open space of land behind me. The baby continued to cry from a back room of the cottage, and Mr. Murphy was invoking his wife's assistance. She appeared about to dismiss me when a look of recognition swept across her pale face.
'Ya mean the blonde fellow who comes out here most mornings before the sun even has a chance to rise.' She was smiling now.
'Yes, that's him.'
'Regina!' her husband called.
'Hush a moment, Christopher!'
She waved a hand behind her back.
'Now what about the lad?'
Two red-headed children joined her at the door. I smiled at them and continued my rehearsed plea.
'I'm takin' up a collection...'
'Collection? Is he ill?'
She clutched at her children in a protective gesture. Given her grave presumption, I felt a little silly asking for her money.
'No, mam. He...He uh...well, he needs a pair of racing spikes.'
'Racing...glory be to God!' she laughed. 'I should say he does at that!'
'Whatever you can give, Mrs. Murphy. It doesn't have to be too dear.'
'Wait here, son.'
She shuttled her children back inside and closed the door. The baby had taken a respite from crying, and just as I was about to turn and go, thinking she had been intercepted by an angry Mr. Murphy, he opened the door. Standing next to his wife, the man who was much shorter than I imagined extended his hand to me.
'I hear you're trying to get some spikes for that runner.'
'Yes, Mr. Murphy.'
'My wife told me how he helped her one afternoon. Our three- year-old, Nora, took off on a walk about, and the boy offered to find her. He did just that too.'
I could imagine the panicked Mrs. Murphy pleading with an already sweaty Dylan to run the parameters of her land to find her daughter. Of course he would have done it.
'Here ya go then.' Mr. Murphy dropped four shillings into my jar.
'Are ya sure, sir?' I knew they didn't have that much to spare.
'Not too many boys your age give a toss about helping out. The world, Ireland, is a scary place these days. You and your friend don't change any now.'
'Thank you, Mr. Murphy, Mrs. Murphy.'
I took my leave, comprehending in a way I never had before, that Dylan and I were truly lucky to have each other.
'Wha.... Where did you get these?' Dylan held the pair of spikes in between us as if they were bars of gold. 'Ya like em?'
I couldn't wait any longer to make my grand presentation. I had purchased the spikes through Doyle's shop. This would hardly be considered a department store by today's standards, but, it was the largest variety store in our town. Mr. Doyle had to order the shoes from Donegal proper, and they took a few days to arrive. By the time Christmas Eve came round, and school let out for the holiday, the shoes had becomes like hot coals in my hand. I had to give them to Dylan, or risk ruining my surprise. I slipped unnoticed from my house while my boisterous family prepared for Midnight Mass. Once at the Byrne's, I offered my greetings to Dylan's parents and his little sister, Lorena who repeatedly asked her mother why they had to go to church instead of staying home to await St. Nickolas's arrival.
My heart pounded as I took the steps to Dylan's loft-room two at a time. I found him wrapping a colorful tie around his neck. I never saw him so decked out before. His dark blue suit coat fit perfectly over a crisp white shirt. His grey trousers were neatly pressed, and his usually fly-away hair was combed down neatly to one side. He stood before me now dumbfounded.
'I love them.' His brown eyes lit up like the lights on our tree. 'But how could you afford them?'
Not only had I collected the sum necessary to purchase the spikes, but over a pound to spare. Mr. Lahey was right about the folks of the hills. They did indeed take care of their own. And Dylan was special to them. 'Let's just say ya have friends that ya don't even know about.'
I took the extra money from my pocket.
'What do ya think we should do with this?'
Dylan reluctantly took his eyes from the prized footwear to look at the offering in my hand. His marked silence reflected he was giving my question considerable thought.
'Why don't we give it to these friends that you seem to know about?'
'Yeah,' I smiled thinking of Mr. Lahey, the Murphys and the families who had given so generously. 'We'll do somethin' smashing for them.'
'Shut up. We gotta get to Mass.'
Dylan was never one to hide his emotions. He placed the spikes on his bed and hugged me to him. 'Thank you.'
We quickly stepped away from one another.
'Yer welcome, ya sod!' I punched his arm. 'I'll see ya in church!'
Our small church was a numinous place with white candles set in the frosted windows. Hand-painted statues extended their lifeless open hands to the congregation. What exactly were these icons pleading for? The space smelled like pine. I closed my eyes and imagined we were like the ancient Celts gathered together in the forest to celebrate the winter solstice. The air was clean, the sky imbued with stars and the moon welcomed us to his kingdom. Instead we were packed into narrow pews like sardines. During the prolonged service, the singing of hymns, scripture readings and prayers, I longed to be outside in that forest. I squirmed in my seat. In unique moments such as this, I understood completely why running was so important to Dylan. He was one with nature out there, and the folks who lived among the tress and hills appreciated that more than anyone.
I glanced across the aisle to where the Byrne family sat. Lorena was asleep in her mother's lap, and Dylan was trying hard not to fidget, his furrowed brow a sign of his effort at concentration. Believing I had supernatural powers, I willed him to turn his head. In a few moments he was making goofy faces, rolling his large eyes and sticking out his tongue, just like in school. The laugh that issued from me bounced off the walls with the shadows cast by the candle light. My mother gripped my hand with surprising strength while admonishing me through pursed lips. Mrs. Byrne had Dylan in a similar fashion.
Some people stared at us in disapproval, but some good souls smiled, remembering what it was like to be eleven- years- old on Christmas Eve. Father Quinn paused during his extended holiday homily to cast the required look of priestly displeasure.
After the exasperated priest picked up the thread of his sermon, Dylan turned to wink at me, and then returned his attention to the front.
My mother bent down so that her lips touched my ear.
'I know mam, sorry.' I whispered smiling in satisfaction. I had completed my mission. The end of the service marked our parish's Christmas tradition. A child from the school was given the task of carrying the baby Jesus-a porcelain likeness of the infant-to the nativity scene in front of the building. The people filed out singing, then waited in the crisp December air for Father Quinn to descend down the aisle and hand the small statue to Dylan who would carry it to the manger.
The priest made his way from the alter with layers of robes rustling behind him. His attitude was most somber as he deposited his offering into Dylan's outstretched arms. Father joined the assembly around the manger. All eyes were on Dylan as he stepped from his pew and into the aisle. His feet made contact with the plank floor like a step-dancer's. At first few noticed the curious clacking, but by the time he approached the open double doors everyone heard those brand new spikes making contact with the wood. The sound echoed off the bare church walls like the laughter of fey in the glen.
People quizzically turned to one another. My mother made the sign of the cross, and I met Dylan's wide-eyed grin as he proudly made his way to the manger, knelling down in reverence and placing the baby into the make-shift crib.
He stood and faced the congregation with a dignified air. Even Sister Augusta's mortified stare could not mar the magical moment.
I located the faces of most of the families who had given to the cause, and that of Mr. Lahey standing next to his sheep at the manger. They all were smiling at the little blonde boy who was brushing a sweep of renegade hair from his eyes. Father Quinn placed an arm around Dylan and before calling us to one last prayer, addressed the gathering.
'Dylan, I want to thank you for your assistance on this holiest of nights. I don't think your offering will be one any of us will soon forget!'
The people - relieved for the permission to release their amusement, did so in appreciative waves of laughter. 'I did what Sister Augusta told us to do, Father.' Dylan stared up at the man.
'I made my offering with what I love.'
Bree Donovan (C) 2007