I sometimes envy emigrants, if only for the fact that they get to come home at Christmas. Not that they always do, of course. Even when money allows, pandemics and other events sometimes intervene. But emigrants have a better chance of coming home than those of us already here, at least. And for many, it’s a magical thing.
Only once have I enjoyed that experience, fully. It was in 1989 and I had been away for more than a year: first on a 12-month working visa in Australia, then, after a brief return to Dublin in the autumn – that doesn’t count – in London, on the building sites.
Speaking of emigrant returns, alas, the building sites of London were probably among the places least likely to contribute then. Irishmen still dominated them at the time. But their savings accounts were often behind the counters of pubs.
Even when the men could afford to go home, they sometimes had no inclination.
The latter part of my London stay that year was notable for a period spent living, courtesy of a friend already lodged there, in an almost comically bad squat. There was no electricity or water downstairs, where our part of the abandoned house was located. And I never even acquired a door key.
But the bedroom had an old sash window you could open from the outside, so I just climbed in every night when it was time for sleep. The lack of light meant that I spent evenings, meanwhile, in the local pub, or café, or if opening hours allowed, in the nearest library.
That turned out to be the birthplace of my journalistic career, as I didn’t yet think of it at the time. I was still only dabbling. And among the dabblings were entries to the weekly Irish Times readers’ competition, for which the prize was a book token.
I won that once or twice, but I was also one of the published runners-up on other occasions, something less welcome. It wasn’t just the lack of a prize then that bothered me. It was the being publicised as a non-winner. Subconsciously, I must have felt a need to protect the “brand”. So like a pound-shop Brian O’Nolan, I took to using pseudonyms, and won under a couple of those too.
Anyway, those competitions often involved writing verse. And it was one November night, while reading the Irish papers and in the humour for doggerel, that I decided the (unrelentingly bad) news from home was worthy of a longer than usual poem.
I hit on the idea of writing this in modified tercet format, with three rhyming lines and a throwaway unrhyming fourth in each verse.
The result is all-but lost to memory now, mercifully, and the events it lampooned are forgotten too.
But perversely, I do recall one of the more obscure verses, about the president of the Irish Farmers Association having to resign after a series of controversies, one of which involved brandishing a shotgun in a legal dispute with a neighbour.
The verse went: “Poor Tom Clinton blown away/A shotgun incident ricochet/The army council of the IFA/Claimed responsibility.”
Anyway, I typed the poem up on an old portable. And after considering which publication might best appreciate my Swiftian satire on Irish life, I posted it to the Phoenix magazine, hoping they might run it in the funny pages of their Christmas annual.
A few weeks later, in classic emigrant style, I caught the train to Holyhead and the boat back to Dublin (there was no Ryanair yet). Where, putting nostalgia on hold for a moment, the first thing I did was visit a newsagent.
I flicked quickly through the Phoenix “Funnies”, but there was no sign of the poem. So I said “feck them anyway”, and put the magazine back on the shelf. Then I returned to my old flat to pick up post. And lo! Among the envelopes was a cheque from the same magazine, for 60 handsome pounds (two days’ pay in London).
The cheque was warming my inside pocket when I went back to the newsagents to have another look. This time I bought the magazine. But a more careful trawl of the funny pages again drew a bank. Then – OMG! – I realised the poem was stripped down Page 3: the inside front. And with a by-line: an extreme rarity in the Phoenix then or since.
If it hadn’t felt like Christmas before that, it did now. At least in my memory, frost suddenly glittered on the footpaths of Dublin. The seasonal lights seemed more delightful than ever. Smiling faces greeted me everywhere. I was home again, among my people. Never had I felt so welcome.