Simon Cocking reflects on some of the great traditions of Christmas on Cape Clear
Once upon a time a man came to Cape Clear for a few weeks, to collect stories about how the local people lived their lives.
He looked forward to hearing everything they had to say, writing it all down, and possibly making a name for himself in the UCD Folklore archive and further afield, too, if he was lucky.
A little while later, however, after no one had spoken to him, or shared any stories with him, he left the island, story-less. No one on the island had wanted to be part of any one else’s anthropological study.
This is the challenge if you want to live on an island, is to then ensure that you are not pressing too hard to find everything out instantly.
That said, after a little while it becomes clear that there are some favourite stories, that many residents take joy in telling.
I’ve been lucky enough to have some of the more Christmassy ones told to me in recent times.
In last year’s school nativity play, Mary and Joseph’s biblical journey included a passage on the ferry to cross the sea to reach the mainland – complete with sick bags!
Of course each year, for many, the arrival of Santa is also from the sea, North Harbour specifically, rather than down their chimney. Inconspicuously, the boat slinks out of the harbour, with no Santa apparent.
Then, out of view, that year’s lucky volunteer pulls on the red coat, beard, and boots out of a discrete sack and prepares for the triumphant return into the harbour to greet the excited, and slightly mystified (at least the younger) children awaiting Santa’s watery arrival back at North Harbour. Pulling on Santa’s robes is in itself a Cape tradition that is alternated and is still continued to this day. One wonders how he copes with this change of costume mid-ocean on a particularly windy day!
Another Christmas story that many residents will happily tell you, is the one about the time the crossing was so rough no one was sure if they were going to make it home or not.
Fortunately, with this story I have heard so many versions, all slightly different, that it can be told with no fear of anyone feeling that their own particular confidence has been betrayed.
Firstly it happened before any of the current skippers, which helps to ensure the tale is one of Christmasses the past. As anyone who has travelled to Cape will know, it is the way out that is invariably far, far rougher than the return leg to the mainland.
There are good nautical reasons for this, as you are sailing out into the oncoming ocean. No matter which way you take shelter around Sherkin and Heir island, eventually you have to bite the bullet and head full on into rising and plunging waves.
On this particular, ill-fated day, the weather was so bad the passengers were all confined to what was ‘below deck’ of a much earlier version of the ferry. A normal crossing should take about 45 minutes, a rough one might take another 15 minutes, a bad one perhaps another 15 after that. Reports from some of those onboard said it was almost two hours before the boat finally landed.
By this time almost everyone on the island itself had come down to watch, empathise, and worry about the fate of those on board.
Meanwhile, down below decks some passengers had found hidden supplies of whiskey and were drinking – to ‘calm the nerves’ of course.
Needless to say, there were a few extra ‘jelly legs’ disembarking when it arrived at the pier.
On Cape there is the lovely tradition of the Christmas Wren, celebrated on Stephen’s Day.
Musicians gather and walk from house to house, playing music and receiving food and/or a drink at each house they visit.
Sometimes the drink is non-alcoholic, sometimes it is not. Naturally, this has affected the length and impact of the Wren, on the participants at least.
With names withheld to protect the innocent, or rather guilty, this is a well loved event, and also one during which several well-respected members of the community have, on occasion, failed to make their way home, and had to be rescued unexpectedly from ditches.
Christmas this year on Cape will hopefully continue to be an enjoyable collection of fun, long-held traditions, and hopefully a not-too-dangerous evening for the Wren!