My Great Grandfather, Charles Hawkins, was born the year of the Famine. Sadly, despite the title of this blog, I never met him much less spent Christmas in his presence. I sat at my grandmother's knee and at my mother's, it was there that I heard about Christmas long ago.
Pappy, as he was known, ran away to sea at a young age. After rounding the Horn in horendous conditions under the command of a cruel Captain he and a fellow seaman jumped ship in Valparaiso. Now I must jump some years. Pappy was a brilliant man and a wonderful artist. He joined the Irish Lights and during his long career he was stationed, eventually as Principal Keeper, on some of Ireland's wildest and most remote Lights. He painted prolifically, magnificent oils and water-colours of the sea and it's ships.
Pappy was stationed at the end of his career at the little lighthouse on the East pier in Howth, a quiet fishing village accessed by tram and train in those long-ago days. He was a devout man and loved Christmas. Granny loved to tell me about the wonderful Christmas Eves when he would gather his wife and his children on Christmas Eve for prayers....then, by the rosy glow of oil lamp and roaring fire the Great man would pour a small glass of sherry or port for the adults and older children as a hush of expectancy filled the room.
Pappy would settle in his favourite chair with his family all around him and he would open his well-worn copy of Charles Dicken's 'A Christmas Carol'. As the family listened, enthralled, he read aloud the entire story. Granny told me it was a wonderful experience which stayed with her all her long life.
Pappy retired and the family, those still living at home, remained in Howth. Howth Castle was then the home of Lord Howth. The gardens and parklands of Howth Castle were planted out abundantly and the woodlands boasted massive Holly bushes. Lord Howth was fond of Pappy and told him to come and go as he pleased and to pick as much Holly and festive greenery as he wished. Granny married and went to live in Clontarf, 7 or so miles down the coast from Howth. At Christmas Pappy would go into the grounds of the Castle and, before gathering any for his own house, he would gather and tie a massive sheaf of ruby-berried Holly branches. Then, elderly though he was, he would hoist the festive bundle onto his shoulders and would walk, by choice, beside his beloved sea along the Clontarf road finally arriving at Castle Ave with the wherewithall for Granny to festoon the bungalow. I often drive along that road, it has changed of course but it still follows the sea between Howth and Clontarf. I never fail to imagine the old man with his full head of white hair and a sprightly step bearing his load of deep green, red-berried treasure to make his daughter's and his grandchildren's Christmas just that little bit more special.
How I wish I could have knelt at his knee in the warm glow of the fire, the lifesaving beam sweeping the rocks and waves outside, and to have heard his rich, deep voice begin....."Marley was dead to begin with...."