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Kavanagh’s Christmas Childhood was ours, too

Monday, 25 December, 2017

The world evoked in A Christmas Childhood by Patrick Kavanagh is both magical and real, and for those who grew up in the rural Ireland of the 20th century, this poem from a Christmas when he was six years old captures that mysterious childhood moment when the ordinary becomes extraordinary. “One side of the potato-pits was white with frost,” he notes factually in one line but in another three whin bushes on the horizon are transformed into the Three Wise Kings. The passing of time, says Kavanagh, erases the innocence of childhood but it does resurface, especially at Christmas. Then: “How wonderful that was, how wonderful!”

A Christmas Childhood is dedicated to Kit and Mick Fitzgerald, honourable people, who made our childhood Christmas wonderful.

A Christmas Childhood

I

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.

II

My father played the melodion
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.

Across the wild bogs his melodion called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.

Outside in 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,
Mass-going feet
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.

And old man passing said:
‘Can’t he make it talk –
The melodion.’ 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 melodion,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.

Patrick Kavanagh (1904 – 1967)


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