Memories of a Punch-Drunk Christmas Past

By John-Francis Bourke 12/23/15

With a Christmas song playing on the radio, it’s hard not to think of the men of my family swinging punches at each other on that Christmas Day over forty years ago. 

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Merry Christmas! via author

It was 1974 and I was 12. “Up North” as we called it, in Northern Ireland, the IRA had announced their annual Christmas ceasefire.

“How thoughtful, to stop bombing to exchange gifts and enjoy a few pints before they get back to business killing each other,” my mother said. Down south in the Irish Republic, in the town of Navan, where I grew up, it was Jesus as usual.

Inside the walls of the pubs at Christmas were the wild and unrepentant; wading across a mosh pit of primitives, unfettered from priests and penance.

Sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, returned from overseas to make the pilgrimage home. For grownups it was less about kneeling penitent in cold churches, more about a delirious excitable thirst, satiated amidst a cigarette fog while strutting up and down bars in the company of fools.

“Bars are no place for children” my father declared. Instead, you were likely to find my twin brother and me, sitting in our father’s car in a bar parking lot, marking time waiting for his return. Usually Martin, our father’s drinking companion, tapped on our car window halfway through the evening with bottles of soda and chips. This would keep us from killing each other, at least until he slid back into the driver’s seat.

Inside the walls of the pubs at Christmas were the wild and unrepentant; wading across a mosh pit of primitives, unfettered from priests and penance. “Get that feckin’ drink in’ya!”, the cry heard above fistfuls of drinking glasses. Thousands of midwinter beer swallows, down the throat before being cast out into the night by the only person that truly understands them, the local barkeep. Patrons had then to run the gauntlet of the gardaí (police), eager to catch those mechanically propelled Irish weaving their way home.

Unlike my home today in Brooklyn, where the bars are filled with the forlorn on Christmas Day, the pubs are shut in Ireland. For Jesus’s birthday, the Irish are locked out of their sanctuary, that safe harbor from reality. This meant that the drinking Irish, which included my father, attempted to get as much alcohol in themselves on Christmas Eve to hold them over until St Stephen’s Day, which is what we call the day after. Christmas Day left these drinkers dehydrated and irritable. Adding to my father’s traditional holiday illness was the unavoidable presence of my older brother. Peter, as a child, had the job of fetching my father from the local bar. As a teenager, he had grown too big for my father to continue to beat with a stick. Now closer to adulthood Peter had grown tired of our father’s acerbic criticism.

“Are you stupid or what?” my father asked him.

“How do you expect to ever get a job? Who in their right mind would hire you?”

Usually Peter managed to stay clear of our father with his friends, but Christmas Day, time spent in close proximity to family was unavoidable.

It was outside the back door, where the rest of us ran to our mother’s distressed call,  “Come quick!”

We were almost all there, two sisters, two brothers and I— a living archive to record the latest manifestation of our father’s brutal nature. A playful swipe from our father at Peter was suddenly transformed to a flailing of fists on this holiest of days. My brother had an inch or two in height advantage, but our father had earned extra money as a bare-knuckle fighter in his youth. The Queensberry rules go out the window; my father and brother are really going at it.

Jesus H., another wholesome family Christmas. Meanwhile the back door to our home is still ajar. In the background our Johnny Mathis vinyl is playing on our turntable, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” My father was furious, clearly not making much headway apart from a fistful of my brother’s hair in his hand, forcefully jerking my brother’s head down to waist level.

“You’re cheating, you can’t even fight fair,” my brother cried out, his face held in my father’s grip facing the ground.

“If you didn’t have long hair like a girl, I wouldn’t pull it,” my father grunts.

Our uncle, a congenial Catholic priest, visiting from New Jersey for Christmas, appeared at the back door and attempted to pull my father and Peter apart. His spectacles were knocked comically askew in the midst of his attempt to break up the fight.

“Stop, stop… enough. Gus, he’s only a lad.”

“You had enough?” my father shouts. Suddenly, he let go, not waiting for an answer. He turned his back on my brother and addressed my mother.

“See what you’ve done? You have ruined him. Either he goes or I go.”

Alas our sole provider Gus, a country veterinarian well liked among the farmers, was not the one to be cast out. Walking back into the house to get his car keys, he left his ultimatum hanging over our Christmas. Peter has been banished from family life to a series of damp flats he shared with other teenage outcasts of Navan. Our father disappeared drinking for a few days. By the time he returned the fight has added one more dark cloud to join the others; accumulated damp clouds, layer over layer on Christmas past.

With a Christmas song playing on the radio, it’s hard not to think of the men of my family swinging punches at each other on that Christmas Day over forty years ago. Partial as I am to sinners and pagans, I stay out of bars myself. I don’t mind sitting in cars waiting to go home.

My mother has given up waiting for us to come home. She is long dead now, the rest of us are scattered—from New York to London to Paris. The fattened calf was never slaughtered for Peter, the prodigal son never got to go home to a welcome. He will expect my phone call this weekend as he sits alone, a fragile man in his damp London flat reading the Irish Times dreaming of a return home.

As I write a holiday card to my father, I think of his voice still strong over the telephone, so happy to hear from me always. Instantly it returns me to the boy I was, accompanying him on farm visits as he administered to the sick on four legs.

I will fly home this spring and sit for hours with him chatting over tea and biscuits. Now eighty-three years old he has never been happier. He spends his days in doctors' waiting rooms or walking behind the coffins of friends. Today he lives high on a hill in the country, with his companion and his beloved horses, all of his sins either forgotten or forgiven.

John Francis Bourke is a longtime Brooklyn-based photographer.

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John Francis Bourke is a longtime Brooklyn-based writer and photographer. You can find John on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.

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