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Christmas in Ireland
Nothing beats an Irish Christmas — and there’s nothing
like being back home on December 25. MALCOLM ROGERS looks at the traditions
that make it so special — and gives you a few ideas on where to
go and how to travel this festive period.
Let’s be honest, there’s not too much chance of a white Christmas
in Ireland. But if you were a betting person you’d go as far east,
north and high as you can go — which would lead you to either the
Cooleys in Co. Louth or the Mountains of Mourne in Co. Down.
According to Met Eireann these areas have seen two white Christmases since
2000. And that’s genuine white-outs — snow falling and significant
accumulations of snow. (While you’re in Co. Louth, you can look
up Christmas in the phone book. According to a team of Oxford scientists,
the surname Christmas descend from a single male ancestor. The boffins
recently launched an appeal for volunteers to assist their DNA search.
The Irish branch is based in Louth, and has already traced its roots back
to an 18th century mayor of Waterford.)
For a good view of the Mournes topped by snow book into the Slieve Donard
Hotel, Newcastle. They’re running Christmas specials which include
dinners, lunches, receptions, activities and family games. A two-night
stay is £325 per person sharing, a three-night stay is £435
per person sharing.
Alternatively, have a White Christmas on the top of Carrauntoohil in Co.
Kerry. Again according to Met Eireann, there is a 10 per cent chance of
snow falling on Ireland’s highest mountain on any day in December.
For a spectacular mid-winter Special
December 21 is a good time to remember that Irish people have been celebrating
mid-winter for over 5,000 years, never mind since events in Bethlehem.
It certainly makes you feel your age.
The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year — in Dublin
the sun rises at 8.38am and sets at 4.06pm, giving just seven hours and
28 minutes of daylight.
On that day, to the north-west of the capital in Co. Meath, a moment of
magic will be played out for at least the 5,000th year in a row. At dawn,
a pencil of light from the Solstice sun will penetrate the Neolithic burial
chamber of Newgrange, lighting it up for 20 minutes.
Darkness will then fall for another year.
Now although Newgrange sounds like a town in Surrey, it is actually one
of the oldest man-made structures in the world and the Solstice has been
celebrated here since we know not when.
Solstice literally means ‘the sun standing still’. At the
winter solstice it stands directly above the tropic of Capricorn, the
southern-most limit of its range as it moves in majestic annual oscillation
across the skies.
It is possible to attend Newgrange and witness this very odd phenomenon
but to be honest your chances of getting in are low. There’s room
for 50 people in the chamber, the waiting list for the event is decades
long and the list has been closed for some time. Then you have to pray
for a cloudless morning, further diminishing your chances of seeing what
our ancestors have witnessed for millennia.
If you want to take part in 2007, you have to enter a lottery. Although
over 27,000 people entered for this year’s event so your chances
are slim. Give the people at Brú na Bóinne a call on 00353
(0) 41 988 0300, and they’ll tell you what to do. It could be you!
Christmas in Dublin
The National Museum of Ireland is presenting a varied programme of entertainment
over Christmas including a Special Children’s Tour called Icy Escapades,
a Christmas Art Workshop, a talk on the First Irish Christians and the
First Irish Christmases, a Medieval Fair and a family tour entitled What
did they do in the winter? explaining how our forebears chilled out (literally)
thousands of years ago.
Other workshops and concerts include Christmas packaging, mummers and
rhymers Irish Christmas folk drama, making mummers’ masks, carol
singing and Christmas storytelling.
Tel: 00353 (0) 1 677 7444 web: www.museum.ie
While in Dublin you might also consider attending Midnight Mass in the
Visit the grave of Santa Claus
A persistent legend exists that Ireland guards the remains of Santa Claus.
It seems that the earthly remains of Father Christmas can be found in
the ruined church of an abandoned medieval town just west of Jerpoint
Abbey (Cnoc Sheireapúin), hard by Thomastown.
All that remains of the village of Newtown Jerpoint is the Church of St.
Nicholas, dedicated in 1170 AD. However the tombstone in question appears
to be of 14th century design. It shows the effigy of a cleric —
probably a bishop — overlooked by two stone heads. Locally, the
effigy is reputed to be that of St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (aka Santa
Claus), with the heads depicting the two crusaders who brought him to
No one knows when the legend arose but the, ahem, bones of the story are
that a band of Irish-Norman knights from the locality of Jerpoint journeyed
to the Holy Lands during the Crusades.
After much derring-do against the infidels, they seized the remains of
the much revered St. Nicholas, former Bishop of Myra (in what is now Turkey)
and brought them back home to Kilkenny.
It would be fair to point out — seeing as it’s coming up to
Christmas — that most other historical sources claim that the bones
of St. Nicholas in fact went to Bari in Italy, taken by Italian sailors
or merchants. However, anything to do with St. Nicholas is shrouded in
mystery — his very existence is not even attested or confirmed by
any historical document.
But there are some facts which support the Irish version of events. Kilkenny
was one of the first areas of Ireland to be settled by the Normans, who
were avid relic collectors — arguably more so than the Italians
who had plenty of icons of their own.
And there is hard factual evidence that Irish-based Norman knights ventured
to the Middle East during the series of military expeditions known as
Pay your respects to Ireland’s ecclesiastic centre
Today Armagh is probably the only city in the world with two cathedrals
of the same name but of different religions.
Both St. Patricks are well worth a visit. The Catholic Cathedral is a
few minutes walk north-west of the centre, situated on a hillrise overlooking
It is, according to notes in the guidebook, a Gothic revival church (like
many across Ireland) but it is nevertheless impressive in its proportions.
And as befits the seat of the Primate of All Ireland, the place is generously
and richly decorated — a far cry from when work had to be stopped
in the mid-nineteenth century because of the famine.
In the grounds are the graves of the former Primates of All Ireland —
Cardinal Ó Fiaich, Cardinal Conway et al.
Sample some real Christmas trees
For years Tollymore Forest Park, near Bryansford, Co. Down, has supplied
Belfast City Hall with its Christmas tree, usually a Norway Spruce, but
sometime a Noble fir.
(Coincidentally it was oak from this forest which equipped a large part
of the fittings on board the Titanic, including the main staircase into
But to see a proper array of Christmas trees you need to visit the forest
Here you’ll see the full gambit of Christmas trees — Douglas
fir, Sitka spruce, Scots pine — plus any number of exotic specimens
in the arboretum, including Himalayan dwarf spruce, Monterey pine, Serbian
spruce, Chinese juniper, Incense cedar and Japanese white pine.
The walk through the forest along the banks of the Shimna and Spinkwee
rivers is truly enchanting and just the place to head for on St. Stephen’s
Day to walk off those excess calories.
The golden colour of the European larch reflected on the river —
even if the snow doesn’t make an appearance — will be a festive
sight you won’t forget in a hurry.
Look out for Troglodytes in Ireland
No, not cave-dwellers — Troglodytes troglodytes is the Latin name
for the wren and no visit to Ireland at Christmas time would be complete
without mentioning the ancient custom of wren hunting.
This practice of antiquity predates St. Patrick. In ancient times a wren
was beaten out of the bushes and its body hung on a holly bush.
The poor blameless bird was blamed for betraying St. Stephen, the first
Stephen was honoured by having his feast day on December 26, immediately
after Christmas Day.
The killing of the wren has been discontinued thankfully but the associated
customs still continue in some areas.
People dress up, music is played,and door to door visits continue. The
song associated with the revelry goes:
“The wren, the wren, the king of all birds St. Stephen’s
Day was caught in the furze.”
Neighbours are encouraged to treat the Wren Boys to ‘porter and
The ritual is still practised in many rural areas, particularly Cork and
Kerry. One of the best known is the Carrigaline Wren Boys Street Carnival
Go to the panto in Belfast
The newly-refurbished Grand Opera House is a wonderful place to see a
pantomime (oh yes it is!).
Right in the city centre and just opposite one of the world’s greatest
pubs the Crown Liquor Saloon in Great Victoria Street, this year’s
offering is Peter Pan.
Stars include Peter Jenkins from Emmerdale, perennial Belfast comedienne
May McFetteridge, and Jack Ellis.
Ticket prices range from £5.50 to £22.50. Tel: 028 9024
Go to the theatre
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is having a Christmas run at The Gate, Dublin
right through to February 3. (Not Christmas night or Sundays, but there
is a matinee on St Stephen’s Day.)
Stars Parish Jefferson and Bryan Murray. For prices tel 00353 1-8744045.