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Leinster Leader 6 December 2007
Candlelight and aromas permeate memories of Christmas in south Kildare
Nostalgia permeates the Christmas season in image and word. Movies, songs and books recreate the spirit of Christmas past and perpetuate the timeless traditions and customs of the festive season. On a personal basis we all have our memories of individual Christmas customs – perhaps the angel with the broken wing on the tree, or the neighbour who calls in slightly tipsy at the same time every Christmas morning!
We are indebted to the late Micheál O’Dubhshláine for a compilation of such seasonal memories included in his book Are you Going Home Now? – Memories of Old Kilkea, which recalls his growing up in among the big fields of south Kildare’s tillage landscape between Castledermot and Athy. His memoir gives a warm portrait of the progress of the seasons as viewed from his childhood home within sight of the Duke of Leinster’s ancient residence at Kilkea Castle.
Micheal O’Dubhshlaine grew up in Kilkea, went to teacher training college and moved south to Kerry where he became a national teacher on the Dingle peninsula where he fell under the spell of the Irish language and the rugged charms of the Kerry coastline. However he never forgot the personalities and places which had featured in his upbringing in the contrastingly flat landscape of  south Kildare’s tilled estates. He had completed the manuscript of his researches and recollections of Kilkea and Castledermot before his untimely death in May 2006. His wife Aine, family and friends ensured that his writing would achieve the posterity of print and his volume of recollections was published before the end of last year.
His affectionate recollection of the Christmas season is infused with the aromas, sights and sounds of rural Ireland in the late 1940s. He begins by recalling the first signs of Christmas preparations where his industrious and talented mother was in her element. The aroma of seasonal baking wafts from the written word as he describes how one early winter evening he came in from his favourite pastime of watching the ploughmen at work on Greene’s farm: ‘ The sun was sinking as I walked in the door to be greeted with rich spicy aroma. My mother seemed to be busier than usual with a basin and the packet of flour and several other ingredients gathered round.’ In those pre-electrification days the cake was baked in the kitchen hearth: ‘ The mixture was then transferred into a cake tin … before being placed in the hot three-legged baker over the fire of oak embers.’ The young Micheal marked the significance of this annual ritual: ‘ It was the first time I realised that Christmas was coming.’
Later in the season holly was  to prove a prickly subject in the Delaney household. He recalls how before the twelve days of Christmas were over he found bunches of a holly variegated in green and cream behind the church in Kilkea. Thinking he could stretch out the Christmas décor a little further and stave off the return to school he brought it home but received a parental rebuke that ‘ it was Protestant holly, that Christmas was over and to throw it into the fire.’
Seasonal foliage of a different kind is also recalled strikingly in his memoir. The first Christmas tree he saw was in Maher’s house in Kilkea. An aunt was home from England for Christmas with her Polish husband who brought a touch of eastern European tradition to the domestic decoration. Micheal recalls being invited with his family down to the Maher’s where ‘Yashig’ the Polish uncle was in charge of festivities. He records the spectacle as seen through  a child’s eyes of the tree at a time when candle light was not overtaken by the glare of electricity: ‘And there was the tree, right in the middle of the kitchen … and thirty-three little candles all lighting, representing the years of Our Lord’s life.’ 
This nostalgic descriptive flourish, reminiscent of the great Monaghan poet Patrick Kavanagh who similarly eulogised the simple Christmas traditions of a bygone Ireland, is but one of the many seasonal image left to us in Micheal O’Dubhshlaine’s word pictures of his native south Kildare.
* Are You Going Home Now? – Memories of Old Kilkea by Micheal O’Dubhshlaine, published by Tig Aíne, Báile an Fheirtearaigh, Co. Chiarraí.
Series No. 44

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