Christmas always brings with it surprises. Pleasant or otherwise they are an almost essential part of the festive season as people renew contact with family, friends and acquaintances. My surprise, and it was surely that, while admittedly a pleasant one, was to partake of Scotland's national dish a few days after the last of the turkey had gone. Haggis is, we are told, a fine example of the Scots woman's ability to create a gourmet dish from the humblest of ingredients. A gourmet dish might seem a somewhat inflated description for the stomach lining of a sheep which is stuffed with the inners of the same animal, seasoned with oatmeal, onions, peppers and a myriad of undeclared seasonings. Boiled, for how long I don't know, before it took pride of place in the centre of the kitchen table where the native Scottish woman plunged a knife into what Robbie Burns called the “Great Chieftan 'o the puddin-race”. At the same time she recites the first verse of Burn's “Address to the Haggis”.
“Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face
Great chieftan o the puddin'-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang's my arm.”
We Irish never quite made such a praiseworthy item out of our national dish, the potato, but if we had, it's doubtful if we could have mustered the same disciplined approach to the festivities surrounding a potatoes meal as have our Celtic neighbours, the Scots, while they partake of their Haggis dinner. It was my first Haggis and presumably the first time that Coneyboro paid host to the time honoured Scottish dinner of Haggis, bashed neaps and chappit tatties. All in all it was a wonderful experience.
On St. Stephen's Day the Wren Boys made a reappearance on the streets of Athy for the first time since Johnny Lynch and his friends from Shrewleen gave up playing the wren almost forty years ago. It was great to see the musicians, singers and dancers all dressed down for the day, recreating a Christmas tradition with which those of my generation and earlier were familiar as we grew up in Athy in the 1950's. What was missing however was the Wren Boys song, “The Wren, The Wren, the King of All Birds”. Maybe the absence on the day of a caged wren (real or otherwise) was the reason. In these politically correct days it would be unacceptable for a wren to be caught and brought around in a cage as was done in the old days as an incentive to the householder to hand over some coins to ensure the wren's eventual release. I am told that in one part of Connemara the Wren Boys always had a live wren in a jam jar as they went from house to house and they must have timed their arrival at Fermoyle Lodge as the last call of the day for they knew that John Spellman as he had done for the previous forty years or so would demand the release of the birds before the Wren Boys left his house. Where a wren could not be caught to fulfill the needs of the Wren Boys a potato sufficed and when suitably adorned with feathers more than adequately filled the bird's cage or the jam jar to create the caged bird illusion as the Wren Boys travelled from door to door. The Athy Wren boys and girls were organised by Aidan McHugh from amongst the gym club's Gaisce Group. The youngsters and the not so young involved on the day did a wonderful job, recreating something we were familiar with nearly half a century ago.
Book launches in the last days of the year are to say the least very unusual but such was the time in which it fell for the late Michael Delaney's book “Are you coming home now? - Memoirs of Old Kilkea” to be launched. His friend John Clynch of the High Cross Inn provided the venue for Michael's family and friends to gather together for what was the second launch of the book which Michael completed just days before he died on 27th May last. Michael's sisters Jean and Pauline travelled from England and Dublin to attend the launch and Jean mentioned to me Michael's fascination with the traditional customs and ceremonies associated with some of the English towns. It was an interest which saw him visit in the company of his sister Jean many of the towns in the South West of England to see at first hand cultures and traditions which if examined closely are not too far removed from many of our own.
Michael's book which should be bought and read by everyone in South Kildare is a lovely re-telling of the folk history of Kilkea as collected or remembered by him over the years. The book is a wonderful mixture of text and pictures, of fact and fiction but everywhere can be seen the native son's love for his own place. He may not have been a native son by birth, having spent the first three years of his life across the River Barrow in County Laois, but Kilkea was embedded in his heart of hearts, despite Michael having spent the last thirty five years of his life in County Kerry. Michael Delaney had walked the fields and the boreens around Kilkea, he knew the faces as he passed but more importantly he listened to the older people of the area and encouraged them to talk of the decades now gone when work was hard and living in the Irish countryside was tough.
Danny Sheehy, a friend of Michaels whom I met in the High Cross Inn, had launched the book in “Tig Kruger” in Dun Chaoin a week before Christmas. He e-mailed me a copy of the address he gave on that night and I was particularly moved by his description of Michael's last visit to his beloved Kilkea. The occasion was the funeral of an old neighbour, Ann O'Brien, and Danny accompanied Michael on the long journey which was made on the last day of January. After the funeral Michael called to a few neighbours, visited the Moone High Cross and the village of Ballitore before setting off on the long journey back to Dun Chaoin. He talked as he drove of the history of South Kildare, the Fitzgerald's of Kilkea Castle and of the labouring tradition of South Kildare. When he left the Silvermines behind him and was out of sight of the Midlands he stopped talking. Michael Delaney did not speak for the last eighty miles of the journey on what was his last visit to his native Kilkea. He knew that his life was slipping away, and yet he found the energy and the will to complete the work with which his name will always be associated – his memoirs of Kilkea.
Michael Delaney's death was a great loss for his family and friends but also for historical research without which the people and events of the past cannot be properly or adequately documented. With his all too premature passing we have been deprived of many more works of historical interest but still he has left his friends and neighbours in Kilkea this final offering. “Are you going home now? - Memories of Old Kilkea” which is a fitting tribute to a scholarly local historian.