Micheál Martin: ‘What I love about Christmas is: it’s a suspension of time’

Christmas in My House: Taoiseach looks forward to resuming some family traditions

What does Christmas look like at the homes of some of the people who took part in the Parenting in My Shoes series in The Irish Times over the past year? Can you still enjoy a Christmas that looks very different to pre-pandemic festive seasons of old? And what might 2022 have in store?


Taoiseach Micheál Martin says he’s “very much” looking forward to Christmas and that vaccination is offering “additional protection that we didn’t have last year”.

“We have a framework for going into Christmas and beyond,” he says, adding that although we have the new variant, Omicron, to contend with, “the boosters will give us real protection over Christmas, for those who get the booster”.


“Overall, I think we’re in a much better position than we were last year. It’s a different Christmas but it’s a reminder how fragile everything is with Covid-19. It has cast a shadow over our lives for the last two years and it has this awful knack of, just when you think you’re on a slip stream out of this, it comes back with something like Omicron. But, that said, most of society is now open, most of the economy is open.”

As the big day draws closer, the Taoiseach says he's looking forward to some of his usual family Christmas traditions, including going for a walk around Cork city to soak up the atmosphere, going to the English Market, and doing some Christmas shopping.

On Christmas Eve the Taoiseach typically meets with some family, Covid allowing, for bacon sandwiches. He may have “a pint or two in the local” and attends Christmas Eve mass – a tradition since his children were young. He is hopeful this year that his brother and his brother’s wife can join them for Christmas Day. It’s something they couldn’t do last year due to Covid.

“Lazing around at Christmas time” is something the Taoiseach enjoys, though admits he didn’t manage to last year, because of the finalising of Brexit plans on Christmas Eve, and the preparation of new pandemic restrictions. “There was no break last year. There really wasn’t, bar Christmas Day. Those few days in between Christmas Day normally, prior to becoming Taoiseach, you would get three or four days before New Year’s Eve, and we tend to go down to West Cork for New Year’s and do a New Year’s Day swim. That didn’t happen last year, because of Covid.”

The Taoiseach hopes to start his Christmas break from the 22nd or 23rd December, but says he doesn’t get to switch off completely – “particularly with Covid”.

Being Taoiseach, however, doesn’t completely excuse him from Christmas shopping duties. “I go with Mary some nights . . . to pick up some gifts for people. Mary looks after the bigger presents and Mary has it all organised, but I get bits and pieces.”

Each year the Taoiseach’s wife, Mary, arranges a family calendar, which includes pictures of their children Leana and Ruairí, who tragically died at aged seven years and aged five weeks. The calendar is sent to all the Martins’ in-laws and “it includes photographs of [the in-laws’] kids as well, with Leana in particular, and they’re lovely,” the Taoiseach explains. “Every year, she’ll have a different set of photographs.” The family also light candles and visit the children’s grave at Christmas.

With regards to other traditions, “they’re too old for The Night before Christmas”, Micheál laughs, remembering an edition gifted to him by an intern who worked in Dáil Éireann when he was a young TD. He read to it his children every year when they were younger. “It’d settle them down before Santy came.”

Watching films is also a big part of Christmas for the Taoiseach, though he says, rather controversially perhaps, Die Hard is not a Christmas movie. Doctor Zhivago is his favourite film to watch at Christmas time.

When it comes to Christmas gifts, the Taoiseach says he’s easily pleased. “I don’t look for much at Christmas. Invariably a jumper or two will arrive in. Some books, I’m always interested in a book or two. Good bottle of wine. Good quality green tea.

“What I really enjoy about Christmas is the company. Just having people around and there’s time to talk and just hanging around. That’s what I enjoy about it. What I love about Christmas is, I think, it’s a suspension of time. The freneticism moves out of things for a while and you can just relax.”

Looking to 2022, the Taoiseach says his hopes for the year, on a personal level, are “that I keep my good health. That I get a lot of exercise and I look forward to the springtime. I always feel once Christmas day comes, the days begin to lengthen. Hope comes from the early part of every year, I think.”

Micheál explains that his personal hopes are also work hopes and that he’s looking to make progress on “housing, climate, health, [and] that we come out of Covid. I’m in a position of Taoiseach in Government. That brings its own sort of certain situations to the year, so you want to do a good job, do the best we can.

“I think we are in a far better position this Christmas than we were last Christmas, but not at the Holy Grail so to speak; that we’re out of Covid and Covid is over. What I would really like to see in 2022 is a real consolidation of the progress that we’ve made,” he says, pointing to the ability to adjust vaccines as necessary for variants in a relatively short amount of time, and the antiviral drugs coming on stream. “I think 2022 will be a better year again from the perspective of Covid.

“If you think about it, construction is fully back, retail is fully back. Education has had a rocky time, because interestingly that cohort that’s not vaccinated, 5-11 year olds, has really gone way up with the Delta variant. The final piece of that jigsaw would be Omicron or any new variants, if they’re more infectious but less harmful, that could be our exit from Covid.”

The Taoiseach acknowledges that it has been a very difficult two years for children. “Children have had a tough time and then there’s mask wearing and all of this and also I think, psychologically, they’re conscious of this. What we have to try for children is to get them back to carefree, happy, relaxed periods.

I think young people have been denied on all the rites of passage

“I also would be concerned about some children born into Covid, where of necessity they haven’t had the same socialisation that children normally do.”

Micheál isn’t anticipating a disruption to the school year, “unlike last year”.

“A child’s development does involve socialising with your peers in school. I think we have to consistently then try and provide additional supports to schools around the mental health piece, around just coping, building resilience and coming to terms with this. This is something that hasn’t happened in any generation of children for a hundred years.

“I think young people have been denied on all the rites of passage. I know from my own kids, the youngest in particular, college life has not been there. It’s all been rushed. And then we have the nightclubs closed, so outlets aren’t what they were. It’s been very restrictive for young people.

“Sport has been a bit more natural this year. Indoor sports have not been as good, but we opened them up in September, because lots of kids who don’t do field sports need to do basketball, or boxing or indoor dancing. I think it’s been particularly difficult for the children who perform in drama and things like that.”

Micheál says “children are happiest when playing with their friends”, acknowledging the difficulty for children created by the current advice around playdates, celebrations and social interactions. “I think it’s important that we give greater supports to children to enable them to enjoy life, to get back to the carefree days. That’s what I’d wish for children.”

When it comes to vaccinating younger children against Covid, the Taoiseach says: “I think we have to have a conversation about it that’s respectful, that’s understanding of the sensitivities and the fears that parents understandably have.

"I trust the vaccination advisers. They've been quite conservative in Ireland. There have been times when people have been impatient with the advice. In the overall scheme of things, it's important that we defer to the advice of Niac [the National Immunisation Advisory Committee], because politicians shouldn't be dictating those decisions. The clinicians with expertise in the area of vaccinations should be doing that, and that's what's happening in Ireland. And they've now advised for children and I trust their advice."

The Taoiseach says he hopes 2022 will be a more normal year for children and thinks the early part of the year, “into the summer will be much better. I think children can look forward to hopefully, a happier summer and springtime. He hopes by next winter “we’ll be more advanced on the therapeutics”, though admits “there are no certainties. We can’t wish it away.

“I like to think around positives, that it builds up some resilience in us as a people as well and that it also gives us the opportunity to appreciate the finer things of life, the simpler things of life that are all around us. And I think children are best placed to actually avail of that.”