Words: Ronan Fitzgerald /Illustration Fuchsia Macaree
Even expatriated Irish are bombarded with stats about how many of us there are now, in London, Berlin, Sydney, Melbourne, or wherever else. Apparently we’re all part of some sort of emigration generation, regardless of who we are or why we left. It’s not much to have in common, the fact you left your homeland and so did someone else. So while you might wish that a packed flight to a buzzing Dublin airport would be full o’craic and sharing ham sandwiches with the peak-capped young lad beside you, the reality is very different.
You wish it was like a TV commercial where you’re drumming your fingers on the steering wheel, listening to Chris Rea, nostalgic thoughts of Christmases past floating into your head like balloons. You wish it was like this but it probably isn’t.
For most of us, the Christmas journey home is a reminder that flying is one of the worst ways to travel. And the hungover festive Ryanair flight would turn even the most joyful person in the world (Dalai Lama or ITV’s Julian) into a misanthrope. The best you can hope for is a journey unaffected by snow, which is quite likely since recent icy Christmases have led to airports investing in many more shovels, the result of a chain email at Dublin Airport which was started with the subject line “more shovels?”
Of course, there are alternatives to a journey spent boggled by the shape of your co-passenger’s heads as they horse into their third Bullseye Baggie. You may live so far away that your aeroplane has luxuries which the no-frills traveller can only dream of, like a two-inch TV showing terrible movies or episodes a’ plenty of *Mike And Mollie* or *King Of Queens*, two shows which nobody you know has ever watched. Or you may be travelling first class, in which case I suggest you stop reading this right now and go and buy a turkey for Bob Cratchit.
Then there’s the ferry. Since the year when snow and a lack of shovels led to flight chaos, “rail and sail” almost seems to have become trendy. The thinking seems to be that as well as getting wasted with your friends the night before you leave, you now can do so for a further few hours on a metal container floating across the Irish Sea, surrounded by fruit machines and men in brown leather jackets, with an increased likelihood of a mournful spew into the waters of our isle. You can then greet the people who brought you into the world, stinking of booze and sick and looking like that mugshot of Nick Nolte when he was arrested for drink driving: “Happy Christmas Mum.”
Christmas is a series of traditions and while it’s okay to make up a new one (sprouts only became part of my Christmas dinner around 2005 or so,) the old ones must be doggedly adhered to.
The pre-Christmas “shopping trip” as an excuse to go for a load of pints with friends is one of the more noble festive traditions. You’re pumping money back into the economy by buying your presents here, along with the €100 you spend at the pub. While you’re there, don’t forget to bore your Irish-resident friends with comparisons between the fatherland and your new home, or try a drinking game in which you down your beverage every time you see one of those old men in trilby hats on their annual trip into the city to buy a piece of expensive metal for the wife.
When you’re done, always, always, always arrive late home for a reheated dinner served with the gravy of parental scorn. Double scorn if you got the ferry the day before.
In the evening a trip to “the local” is essential for some elbow-to-elbow revelry. In between catching up with friends, you’re probably going to have to tell 20 people you went to school with what you’re doing now. This is done so that you can both deduce the relative quality of your lives based on an estimate of earnings, and the attractiveness or existence of significant others.
At this juncture, feel free to put a glitch in the matrix by telling Joe Schoolmate you take photographs of fish for a living and you started this job when your best friend (who died) told you on his deathbed that this was his dream. “Ah right, I’m working in the bank meself.”
Get a battered sausage on the way home.
Perhaps you’re from one of those families that doesn’t go to mass at Christmas, in which case enjoy going to hell, and your kale and quinoa Christmas pudding. The rest of us will be left pondering a grim and ridiculous 40 minutes of kneeling when a guy says so and eating a piece of aeroboard representing the flesh of a god.
At the service, pass the time by finding familiar faces in the congregation and wondering what they’re doing now. “He told me he was a fish photographer last night, yeah. Lovely wife too.” Or could this be the year you change the way you receive communion? If you are a ‘hands man’ (or woman, person didn’t rhyme), why not try sticking out your tongue for a risqué twist?
Once the ceremony is done, the presents/dinner combo will follow in whatever order your family has deemed canon. This is the part where you curse yourself for asking someone to get you a voucher. Just keep staring at your awesome envelope while your nephew plays with Star Wars figures.
If you can get through the day without even a minor argument then I assume you’re having Christmas alone. The washing up is always a good time for some kind of festive row, though stories of arguments about offensive remarks at the dinner table are so common that newspapers could reasonably recommend a Klan hood as a gift for elderly relatives.
Once evening comes and you nurse your bloated body on the couch, tweeting furtively, take a moment to savour the fact that you’re part of the last generation to be able to bitch about Christmas on social media. Then picture yourself in 2023, replying to your kid’s tweets with angry hashtags. #ungrateful #pup #basicmanners #norespect #LOL
First things first, refer to this day as “The Stephenses”. Since Roman times the Stephenses has been a day for going out in town to a club.
So once you’ve eaten your leftover turkey, (as is, or reconstituted into something suggested by Yotam Ottolenghi) prepare to board a bus or train into the city. Ex-pats will note there’s only about two buses a day now, and the Nitelink, once a melting pot for Dublin’s intellectual great and good, is now a shadow of its former self.
As a result the Christmas taxi home is almost a certainty. This scene of deep pathos is essentially the “What are you doing now?” chat with someone you’ve never met before. Your driver will give a state-of-the-nation address delivered very slowly and with long silences as you ponder Darndale or Fairview or wherever. It won’t be optimistic but may have a nice lyrical sadness to it. Times change, politicians cheat, and we all lost the run of ourselves.
You simply agree with everything he says because in a taxi your own opinions don’t exist. “Yeah, yeah,” you say, doing that weird strangled gasp that Joe Duffy is known for – “it’s a disgrace”, “that’s it, yeah, yeah”. Then you get home, if you choose to go home, to the greatest fridge raid of the year.
Coming back can be an unreal experience for the ex-pat. You’re a visitor in a place you know better than anywhere, popping into the lives of family and old friends, then popping out again a few days later.
At Christmas it’s even more of a fantasy world. It’s the most sentimental time of the year and if you’re lucky/unlucky you’re back in your childhood bedroom, being treated like a child for a few days. It’s hard *not* to become some stereotypically wistful Celt. Places you grew up in seem more alien every time you go back, people’s lives go on without you in them, and old memories bounce around inside your head, unchallenged by newer ones.
Personally, on the day I fly back, I find half of me wishes I could stay in Dublin for good and half of me wishes I could click my fingers and be in London. Once I turn the key in the lock it’s like the new life is all that exists, and the discombobulated feeling evaporates. Life, real life, resumes just where you left it.
And as you once again inhale the stench of a Bullseye Baggie (literally bags of drink) or stare into the Irish Sea, or watch *Mike And Mollie*, you can kill any sentimental thoughts that drift into your mind by reminding yourself of two vital truths: Mass and boiled potatoes are both optional until next year.