You really know Christmas is fast approaching in Ireland when Fairytale of New York begins playing on the radio. This quintessentially modern Irish Christmas carol encapsulates the loneliness of the emigrant experience, even though Ireland itself is never mentioned – it doesn’t have to be.
The song became a somewhat unlikely instant classic when it was first released in 1987 and its popularity has never waned since.
In essence, it captures the melancholy of lost youth, wasted opportunity and longing – not the usual wholesome themes people usually associate with yuletide tunes. It was first performed by the London-Irish band, The Pogues, with Kirsty McColl sharing the lead vocals alongside Shane McGowan, who co-wrote it with Jem Finer.
The scene for the ballad is 1940s New York – when Sinatra was singing; cars were big as bars; and there were rivers of gold – but it is shot-through with a uniquely Irish feel.
The singer, languishing in a cell – probably for being drunk and disorderly – reminisces about a romantic but strife-torn relationship that seems an awful lot greener from the perspective of his prison cell.
“It was Christmas Eve babe,
In the drunk tank,
An old man said to me: ‘won’t see another one’,
And then he sang a song,
The Rare Old Mountain Dew,
I turned my face away and dreamed about you”
The pathetic figure cast into a police cell on Christmas Eve elicits popular sympathy probably because so many Irish emigrants tend to feel the loss of home particularly badly at this time of year.
This is the most emotional of times when even the hardest-bitten are entitled to become dewy-eyed. Ireland also has so many returned emigrants who know what it is to miss Christmas at home (even if the reality can sometimes be very far from the idyll).
The song – like many true Irish ballads – never lets the truth get in the way of a good story. The chorus recalls “The boys of the NYPD choir still singing Galway Bay” when in fact the closest the force had to a choir was a pipe band. Incidentally, when that band was recruited to play on the video to accompany the song it transpired it did not know the air to Galway Bay and so famously mouthed a slowed-down version of the Mickey Mouse theme instead!
It goes without saying that the emigrant experience is far from universal and, mercifully, relatively few people find themselves in the kind of bleak situation which spawned Fairytale of New York.
However, over-indulgence was and still is for many people a time-honoured way of numbing the pain of separation. While the vast majority of Irish people have never spent Christmas Eve in a drunk tank but there is a sense of solidarity, sympathy and understanding for the poor wretch who finds himself in this situation. There is an element of: ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ about it.
Christmases past tend to evoke the most vivid of memories for emigrants. Ireland rarely enjoys picture-perfect white Christmases and society has undoubtedly changed beyond all recognition over the past few decades but in essence this season remains frozen in time.
It is a time for catching up with old friends, meeting long-lost relations, visiting graveyards, remembering those less fortunate than ourselves and sparing a thought for those who cannot be here with us.
This season is particularly exciting for those many emigrants who are now preparing to return home. The era of relatively cheap air travel makes this much more doable than it was for those who went before them – particularly the many who journeyed to the New World, never to see their homeland again.
Perhaps you are thinking of presenting the special gift of a Certificate of Irish Heritage to a family member, friend or loved one this Christmas? If so, why not ask them to share their Christmas stories – we would love to hear from them.