A Christmas Childhood – Patrick Kavanagh [1904-1967]
One side of the potato-pits was white with frost—
How wonderful that was, how wonderful!
And when we put our ears to the paling-post
The music that came out was magical.
The light between the ricks of hay and straw
Was a hole in Heaven’s gable. An apple tree
With its December-glinting fruit we saw—
O you, Eve, were the world that tempted me
To eat the knowledge that grew in clay
And death the germ within it! Now and then
I can remember something of the gay
Garden that was childhood’s. Again
The tracks of cattle to a drinking-place,
A green stone lying sideways in a ditch
Or any common sight the transfigured face
Of a beauty that the world did not touch.
My father played the melodeon
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.
Across the wild bogs his melodeon called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.
Outside the cow-house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of her stable-lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.
A water-hen screeched in the bog,
Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes,
Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.
My child poet picked out the letters
On the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.
Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon — The Three Wise Kings.
An old man passing said:
‘Can’t he make it talk’—
The melodeon. I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.
I nicked six nicks on the door-post
With my penknife’s big blade—
There was a little one for cutting tobacco,
And I was six Christmases of age.
My father played the melodeon,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.
Patrick Kavanagh was born on a farm in Co. Monaghan. His family farmhouse was located in hilly countryside, near a bog.
- He lived in a country area known as the townland of Mucker. He grew up as part of a community and knew his neighbours well. They included the Cassidys, Lennons and Callans referred to in this poem.
- The Kavanaghs were small farmers who milked cows, grew their own potatoes, saved their own hay and straw, had a little orchard and a yard with some outhouses for farm activities—as indicated in this poem.
- His family were Catholic. Sunday mass and Christmas were important events in his family life, as shown in this poem. In this poem, Kavanagh’s imagination pictured parts of his home area in terms of the Christmas story told in the bible.
- Kavanagh only had primary school education. After his childhood, he became an apprentice shoemaker to his father and worked on the family farm.
- Kavanagh started writing poetry in his teens while continuing his farm duties.
- As a teenager and adult, Kavanagh didn’t fit in with farm life. In his poetry, he sometimes looked back on childhood as a marvellous and happy period of his life. He had an active childhood imagination and that enriched his early years.
- In his adult life, Kavanagh left the farm and pursued a writing career as a journalist, novelist, lecturer and poet.
In the first section, Kavanagh recalls a series of random childhood experiences. He remembers, the white coat of frost on the potato pits in the yard, the humming sound of fence wire in the wind, the corridor between the ricks [mounds] of hay and straw, the red apples of the orchard that reminded him of Christmas ornaments, clay, hoof prints of cattle and scenes from the ditches. He compares the world to Eve, tempting him with knowledge to leave his childhood which was like the Garden of Eden.
In the second section, Kavanagh recalls his father playing the small accordion at his gate, probably on Christmas morning. Kavanagh recalls how he linked symbols of Christmas to the scene around the farmyard and farmhouse: the star in the east, the nativity stable, the three wise men and the Virgin Mary.
The poet remembers hastily putting on his trousers upon hearing his father playing music at the gate. It is a magical moment. He notices neighbours on the way to Mass, passing his farm gate and complimenting his father’s playing. He remembers someone using the bellows to light the open fire in the kitchen, creating a sad, longing sound. His mother milks the cows. Meanwhile the shy young Kavanagh, wearing his new coat, observes the scene from the doorway. He makes six notches on the doorpost with his Christmas present, the new penknife. This fact informs us that he had turned six when this childhood scene happened.
The author of this most quoted of Christmas poems from Ireland was born in County Monaghan (one of the three counties of Ulster now in the Irish Republic) in 1904 and lived there as a farmer, a cobbler and a poet until he moved to Dublin in 1939. He died in 1967.
His best-known books are The Ploughman (1936), The Green Fool (1938), The Great Hunger (1942) and a novel, Tarry Flynn (1948).
There is a splendidly lifelike statue of him seated on a bench on the bank of the Grand Canal in Dublin of which at least one visitor has unwittingly begged its pardon!
It is said that one day he and his fellow‑writer, Brendan Behan, went out for a drink in Dublin. Eventually they were forced to buy from an ‘off‑licence’ and go off to drink in a room somewhere because one or the other of the rollicking pair had been banned from every pub they tried!
The 12th century “Wexford Carol” is specifically known as “The Enniscorthy Carol.” Enniscorthites are fierce proud of this heritage and will frown at it being called the former.