I NEVER EXPECTED to spend more than one Christmas in Ireland and my first December on Irish soil feels all the more remarkable because I overstayed the winter of 1994. Arriving with just a boot full of personal effects, I left a garage of stuff behind in Germany--expensive electronics kit--that I never recovered. Instead, I found myself in a two-story flat in Greystones, County Wicklow, Ireland. The adventure began a week before Christmas with my discovery of roundabouts while driving a left-handed grey market BMW. The car was a screamer beemer, cobbled together from wrecks during a 10-month training course by three lads on Germany's equivalent of a FAS course. When I pulled the car into an Irish dealership for repairs, the service staff refused to work on it because much of the electrics belonged to a 5-series car, the transmission was from an M-series and the engine was not the 1.9 litre displacement as stated on the registration. In fact, most of the car was recovered from the high-speed wreckage of a Polizei smash on the German autobahn. It had a special access decal on its front bumper that let me drive through the front gates of American installations all across Germany. When on a divided highway, the car wanted to catch people and it drank petrol while demanding loads of clutch pressure. Once I parked on crushed gravel outside my flat, I only used the car on weekends. And I didn't use the BMW during my first Christmas in Ireland, December 1994.
I never expected Ireland to be cold in the winter. And before bedding down in Greystones, I had never lived in a place that had no hot water, no central heating, and no cooker. Within one night, I discovered why the flat I arranged to occupy was costing me less than 100 Irish punts a month. I had clear views of the outside through single-glazed glass, two large Supersers to heat my living space and a well-used microwave oven that
cooked irradiated my food. I chatted with the optician who rented the space before I arrived and she told me that she washed her dishes in the bathtub, heating water in her kettle. After a week of slogging through a daily routine that started with me seeing my breath in bed and finished with me wearing my running gear in a sleeping bag, I was convinced Ireland would remain on my tick-off list only. Then came the Christmas season.
I saw some things in Ireland during Christmas 1994 that made me want to stay. First, the fashion show at The Burnaby. This quiet pub converted itself into a major social venue as college students from all over Ireland descended on the place at Christmas break. My American accent won me entire evenings of free drink and I felt I had to stay through the New Year just to return the hospitality. Then Christmas Day came and I followed the sound of church bells, ending up at the door of the Catholic church with no place to sit. The fashion show that started at the Burnaby processed into the church. I mingled with a crowd of men at the door, shuffling my feet with the rest of them until a helpful bloke suggested we all head down to the pub for a Christmas drink. Sorted.
We walked around the corner to North Beach, saw the crazies swimming in the Irish Sea, and encamped in a harbour pub until the recessional song at Mass. The families knew where to find their men after the church service so we finished a few rounds before breaking up that day. I converted a fistful of Irish coins into a long distance phone call to my parents in the States, wishing them a Happy Christmas. They didn't know I had reached Ireland, the country of my great grandparents, and they had me promise that I would find County Clare and the cousins the American family left behind. But not on Christmas Day.
My first Christmas Day in Ireland wrapped up with my cold hands in my pockets after I walked along the Irish Sea, from Greystones to Bray and back. A lot of that Cliff Walk has eroded into the sea by now but not the memory of me walking in a Guinness-fueled daze, wondering where in the world I was headed.
Photo of Greystones Harbour from an old Christmas card.
Bonus Link: Photos of my Christmases in Ireland.