It was Christmas morning, some time in the mid-nineties. I was awake very early. I was in my teens at this stage, but I was not at all a precocious teen, and I certainly hadn't learned to be blasé or cynical about Christmas morning.
I was lying on the top bunk of the bunk-beds I shared with my younger brother. We were wildly excited when we first acquired bunk-beds. At first, the competition was for who would sleep on the top bunk, since this seemed more of a novelty. Soon, however, we realised that you could hang coverings from the top bunk to make a little canopy over the bottom bunk, so the competition was for the bottom bunk. Or perhaps at this stage the competition had dwindled away.
Me and my little brother (three years younger) had shared a bedroom for as long as I can remember. It was the scene of innumerable discussions and arguments and games and fights. It was a little bit like the divided Berlin of the Cold War; I suppose he would be the Soviet side and I would be the Western side, since he was always the radical and I was always the conservative. We argued about modern art, about music, about racism, about nationalism, about pretty much everything you could argue about. Sometimes this ideological Cold War would develop into a hot war of scuffling; which wasn't at all fair, since he was three years younger and could have at me with all his might, whereas I had to be more restrained. Most of the time we got on pretty well, though.
This was Christmas morning and I was wildly excited about Christmas presents, as ever. Perhaps I should be ashamed of this, but I'm not. I believe in Santa. I believe that Christmas should be a little bit materialistic, that Christmas gifts are a magical part of childhood and that this isn't entirely a matter of greed. I have no memories more enchanted and full of wonder than my memories of Christmas morning. If it had all been about greed, I don't think these memories would have remained with me the way they did.
We were both soccer mad at this time. It was the Jack Charlton era and the Irish soccer team were feared and respected all over the world. I could go so far as to say that, for me, recent history begins with Ireland's first World Cup finals in 1990. My memories before that (I don't mean just of soccer; I had no interest in soccer before that World Cup) are fragmentary and episodic. It seems to me that both contemporary Ireland and my own awareness of the world began with the 1990 World Cup.
Our walls were lined with soccer posters. What impulse drives teenage boys and girls to cover their bedroom walls with posters? I don't know, but I think it's very endearing. I remember, on this morning, looking at one large poster in particular, showing the Irish national team standing to attention for the national anthem, before some game or other. I think they may have been playing Denmark. How noble and heroic they looked, proud warriors, with their heads raised! I lingered over every face, analysed every posture.
In retrospect, I think soccer was something of a placeholder for me, something to absorb my attention in the wayward teenage years, which are so full of uncertainty and bewilderment. I was also discovering poetry, but poetry doesn't occupy much of your time, no matter how enthusiastic about it you may be. (Does anyone sit down and read a poetry book from cover to cover?) I lost interest in soccer in my early twenties, though I am still well-disposed towards the game and towards sport in general. I detest snobbery against sport. My brother maintains an interest in it, though less fervently.
I remember the dim blue light of dawn that filled the room that morning. We ventured out in quest of our presents, but my father-- who was already up, and sitting in the kitchen-- told us that it was too early to get up and sent us back to bed for another hour or so. For some reason, I am always filled with tenderness when I remember that instruction. It seems the kind of gentle firmness that parenting should be all about.
I couldn't sleep. I read a copy of Ireland's Own, the magazine that seems to me almost the perfect example of everything I admire about the Ireland of my childhood, or the Ireland that was already passing away in my childhood. (The magazine is still going; even then it was in something of a time warp.) I don't know how to describe Ireland's Own to readers from outside Ireland. I suppose if you imagine a Reader's Digest that leaned heavily towards nostalgia, rural life and religion, you might be pretty close. But it had a unique flavour of its own, especially in its odd preoccupation with stories of the uncanny. For such a gentle magazine, Ireland's Own gave me a few chilling moments in my childhood.
I always remember the correspondence sparked off in Ireland's Own when a reader with the wonderful pseudonym Hiawatha suggested it should include an astrology column. To its devout Catholic readership, this was tantamount to a Satanist's Corner. And, come to think of it, they were probably right to be so hostile, and I am probably wrong to smile at their quaintness. But it is at least a good illustration of the whole atmosphere of Ireland's Own.
For some reason, I can remember the story I read on this particular morning. It was called Hurler on the Ditch, and it was the tale of an old man who had been a devoted supporter of his local hurling club all his life, but had never had the smallest smidgin of talent and so could only help out with odd-jobs. (In case you don't know what hurling is, it's an extremely fast field game played with hockey-like sticks and a fist-sized leather ball. Perhaps the best description is one given in the film Blitz, starring Jason Statham: "A cross between hockey and murder". A "hurler on the ditch" is an Irish expression for an armchair critic.)
This was the perfect Ireland's Own story. The hurling club to which this old man is so attached reaches the county final for the first time in their history. With a few minutes left in the game-- would you believe it?-- their goalkeeper is injured and, for one reason or another, there is literally no other player to come on as a substitute. One way or another, the old man ends up taking the field, and in the last moments throws himself blindly at the ball and prevents a goal from being scored, winning the game and ensuring his place in the history of the club. Hurray!
It is easy to be cynical, but I found the story deeply satisfying at the time. In fact, I can remember it long after I've forgotten what Christmas presents I found when my father eventually decided we could come out.
As with all my abiding memories, I feel a part of me will always be in that room full of blue light, its walls lined with soccer posters, waiting to be allowed into the sitting room to see what gifts my parents had prepared for me, with my father sitting and waiting in the kitchen outside, as solid and as benevolent as Providence. When I think of my ideal of family life, that is one of the moments that always comes back to me. I am very grateful for such moments; very grateful too, that I got to experience the last years of what seems like a more innocent Ireland, one that I feel came to an end about the time of the 1990 World Cup. Though I certainly don't blame Jack Charlton for that. In his autobiography (which I read around this time), this gruff Yorkshireman revealed that he did pray occasionally and that, when he met Pope John Paul II with the Irish soccer squad, he was filled with love for him. Evidently he didn't realize that the Pope was a misognystic mystagogue responsible for spreading AIDS across Africa. Oh unenlightened days!