25 July 2023

Five months to go,
and my Christmas list
has a good new book

‘Christmas and the Irish’ … the latest collection edited by Professor Salvador Ryan makes an ideal Christmas present

Patrick Comerford

There are still five more months to go to Christmas. Please don’t ask me how many shopping days that amounts to. But already retailers and publishers are preparing for the Christmas market.

My friend and colleague Professor Salvador Ryan of Maynooth has edited Christmas and the Irish, a new volume that is at the final stages of production and that promises to be in the bookshops in October, and in time for Christmas gift planning this year, and with a launch in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin in November.

This new volume, published by Wordwell in Dublin, follows the success of his three previous volumes in an educating and entertaining series published between 2016 and 2021, looking at Birth, Marriage and Death and the Irish.

This latest collection looks at the celebration of Christmas among the Irish, from the seventh century to the present day. In 75 chapters, ranging from the serious to the light-hearted, writers from a range of academic disciplines and professions – anthropology, Celtic studies, education, folklore, healthcare, history, journalism, literature, media, broadcasting, pastoral ministry, philosophy and theology – reflect on what Christmas has meant to Irish people through the ages, at home or abroad.

The topics covered in this latest Christmas volume include: the theme of light in early Irish texts; festive feasting and fighting in the Middle Ages; the Kilmore carols of Co Wexford; the history of Irish Christmas food through the centuries; crimes of Christmas past; Christmas on the Blasket Islands; the claim that ‘Santa’s Grave’ is in Co Kilkenny; why Irish missionaries in Zimbabwe regularly missed out on their Christmas dinner; the origins and early life of the Late Late Toy Show; a Christmas surprise among Irish peacekeepers in the Lebanon; Christmas customs among the Travelling Community; Christmas and the Irish Jewish community; the Wren Boys; ‘Women’s Christmas’; Irish links to popular Christmas carols; Christmas and James Joyce; the curious custom of reciting 4,000 Hail Marys in the lead up to Christmas; and why it became an established tradition for the Viceroy to send a woodcock to the British monarch every Christmas.

This anthology is bound to be a fascinating read for all who are interested in the social, cultural, and religious history of Ireland. But, more importantly, it will delight all who love Christmas itself.

Many of the contributors are my friends and colleague. In her essay, another Wexford historian Dr Ida Milne of Carlow College, recalls her mother being the organist at the Christmas carol services in Ferns Cathedral.

Other contributors include Ian d’Alton of TCD, Seamus Dooley of the NUJ, the Limerick historian Seán Gannon, Crawford Gribben and Laurence Kirkpatrick, both of QUB, the singer-songwriter Max McCoubrey, Miriam Moffitt, John-Paul Sheridan of Maynooth, Clodagh Tait of Limerick.

Salvador Ryan is Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth. This is the eigth book edited by him that includes contributions from me. Other volumes he has edited and to which he has invited me to contribute include: Birth and the Irish: a miscellany (Dublin: Wordwell Books, 2021); We Remember Maynooth: A College across Four Centuries, edited with John-Paul Sheridan (Dublin: Messenger Publishing, 2020); Marriage and the Irish: a miscellany (Dublin: Wordwell, 2019); The Cultural Reception of the Bible: explorations in theology, literature and the arts, edited with Liam Tracey (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2018); Death and the Irish: a miscellany, ed Salvador Ryan (Dublin: Wordwell, 2016); Treasures of Ireland, Vol III, To the Ends of the Earth (Dublin: Veritas, 2015); and Treasures of Irish Christianity, Vol II, A People of the Word, edited with Brendan Leahy (Dublin: Veritas, 2013).

Now, in his latest venture, he has invited me to contribute three papers to this new Christmas volume:

• The ‘Wexford Carol’ and the mystery surrounding some old and popular Christmas carols;

• ‘We Three Kings of Orient are’: an Epiphany carol with Irish links;

• Molly Bloom’s Christmas card: where Joycean fiction meets a real-life family.

Because of my three contributions, I have had a sneak preview of Christmas and the Irish last week. Do I think it’s worth adding to your Christmas present list? Of course I’d say yes, wouldn’t I?

Christmas and the Irish: a miscellany, ed Salvador Ryan (Dublin: Wordwell Books, 2023), ISBN: 978-1-913934-93-4, €25

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