How to survive an Irish Christmas

Ask Audrey, the Irish Examiner’s resident agony aunt, reflects on the Irish Christmas with Colm Tobin, author of Surviving Ireland. From festive TV to the Christmas swim, here’s your how-to guide to the season    
How to survive an Irish Christmas

I wouldn’t read Colm Tobin’s book, Surviving Ireland, on the train.

You’ll end up giggling away to yourself and the other passengers will think you’re some kind of fool. Or maybe from Tipperary.

The book is a sweep across Irish life, with hilarious side-swipes at a list that includes Reiki healers, culchies, hipsters, the Leaving Cert and Limerick.

I loved his observation that the train from Dublin to Sligo takes 2.5 days, if you know the right people. (And after all that you end up in Sligo. Imagine!)

Anyway, his insights are so good, I decided Colm is just the man to guide me through the most traumatic time in an Irish person’s life.

Closing time, says you, calling seven pints of Murphys at half eleven.

No, we’re talking Christmas here and how it might drive you to despair...

I had to call Colm on the phone, because the poor unfortunate lives above in Dublin.

I was lucky to get any time with him, because like most people from West Cork, he has about seven jobs. (They love the bit of money).

Originally from Ardfield outside Clonakilty, Colm wrote the RTÉ animated satire, Langerland.

He produces the children’s show, Brainfreeze, for CBBC and RTÉ Jnr, which has also been sold all over the world.

Colm also writes for the Irish edition of The London Times (posh weather), Irish Pictorial Weekly and has the attention of over 50,000 followers on Twitter.

Oh and he also has a young son, so he hasn’t slept in a month.

I’m amazed he answered the phone at all.

Anyway, Christmas.

I started off by asking Colm the question on everybody’s mind (along with “when is it OK to open your first tin of Roses?”) That question is how much should we spend on a present now that the Celtic Tiger is back in town?

“You could go all bling, over €250,” says he, “which is the easiest way to shop, but not great once January comes around and you’re eating baked beans out of the tin with a plastic spoon.

“The alternative is to spend just enough, €80 to €120. Bear in mind you’ll have walked all over town looking for bargains, which means you could end up spending another €20 just to satisfy the chuggers.

“I recommend you go down the Hipster Small Craft route and make something really personal and thrifty (€3.99 or less).

“So you might fashion a unicycle out of coat hangers or engrave a vintage choker with a super-personal Haiku using your own teeth.

“It’ll be a crap present, of course, but the recipient will have to pretend to love it because of all the effort.

“And the money you save will allow you to swan around town hoovering up bargains during the January sales. What a result.”

So now you know. (If you live in Blackrock or on the Douglas Rd in Cork, please add a zero to the end of all those prices.

And try not to get caught walking around town looking for a bargain — people will just assume you are back in the mire with Nama.)

I went on to ask Colm if he does any special preparation for Christmas.

“I am doing Sober November this year because I want to look my best for Midnight Mass.”

He’s well ahead of the game there. You do need to look your best at Midnight Mass — people can be very judgmental with a few pints in them.

I asked him if he goes to Mass just to please the Mammy.

“Absolutely. As long as she lets me open two toys on Christmas Eve. Sure it’s nice to go to Mass once a year.

“I make sure not to sit up the top of the church, because I haven’t a clue when to kneel or sit.

“Would you stand at the front during the ‘Macarena’? You would not.

“So don’t sit in the front row of mass on Christmas Eve.”

On to the big day itself. I asked Colm if, like 99% of sensible people, he hates turkey.

“I do really. But I’ve got a very cunning way to get rid of it without offending the folks. Every now and again I’ll stuff my pockets full of turkey and head out the back door for ‘the breath of fresh air’.

“After checking to make sure nobody’s looking, I’ll slowly release the turkey through holes in my pockets all over the lawn, like Tim Robbins in Shawshank Redemption.

“Never fails and also works nicely for brussels sprouts.”

Isn’t it great the stuff you can learn from movies and TV? This got me wondering, so I asked Colm if he watches Corrie or EastEnders on Christmas Day and wishes that pubs were open here so he could get away from his family.

“People sometimes forget that men and women died on this island so that we might enjoy the freedom to sit around like beached whales, stuffed full of pudding on Christmas Day,” says he, getting in the mood for the 1916 centenary.

“We’ve earned the right to stay put, heads lolling and mouths drooling as we watch Roy Cropper make toasties and a Mitchell brother trying to murder someone. Never forget this and be proud of your country.”

The West Cork crowd still get very excited on issues related to the national questions. I asked Colm if he is the type to go for a Christmas swim.

I’d love to be able to tell you what he said in reply, but we’re not just not that kind of newspaper.

Let’s just say it’s the rude version of ‘I will yeah’. And the last word rhymes with goal.

It was time to let Colm get back to his seven jobs. I signed off our chat with a quickie — will he be glad when it’s all over?

“Are you serious? A fortnight of gluttony, bad television and family rows? I live for it every year.”

I have a tip of my own for surviving Christmas this year. Buy someone you love a copy of Colm’s book and you won’t hear from them until the New Year. It’s full of memorable lines that zip off the page.

My favourite is “the main messages that politicians seem to be getting on the doorsteps is ‘get off my doorstep’.”

There’s a useful one to bear in mind as we face into an election year. I’ve already had a poster of it made up, so I can stick it to the door.

The book has a section that runs through the most important cities in Ireland, as well as Waterford. In the page on Cork, Colm notes that the locals love themselves and are inclined to turn on each other.

He has a right go at the hipsters in Dublin, where it seems that every second person has some weird facial hair. (And that’s just the women, says you.)

Judging by what he says about Limerick, it’s fair to say that Colm mightn’t have enjoyed his time studying law there in the late 1990s.

I loved Colm’s recurring nightmare, where he dreams that the Celtic Tiger has returned and he wakes up drenched in champagne.

You’ll enjoy the bit on the Leaving Cert, which reminds him of a twisted game show on Japanese TV show.

After that he goes through the different types of recurrent dreams that people have about the Leaving Cert.

(Mine is that I’m still 18. Who’d want to be that age again, wondering if Donal from the Scouts is in love with you, or just wants to get in your knickers?)

I think I’ll pay Colm’s book the highest compliment you can award a book in Ireland — it deserves to end up in the jacks. Because it’s the perfect book to pick up and enjoy for five minutes at a time.

Or half an hour if you fancy some quality time away from your family.

Surviving Ireland is available in book-stores now. Colm would like to point out that he is not the other Irish writer, Colm Tóibín.

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