I'm alone in the cottage on Sunday night. The Dutch Nation is on a night shift in her hospital in Ennis. The dogs and cats are sleeping.

It is blanched and white outside as the cold spell continues. The chilled land lies inert. The first of the Christmas decorations blink in a neighbor's garden, twined around small shrubs, green and red and white and yellow.

The highlights of a trans-Atlantic jet are arching away out of Shannon, so far away I cannot hear the engines. Swans and coots and mallards complain against the cold on the face of the lough behind Jimmy White's house across the road.

When the Dutch Nation is away from the cottage I always miss her a lot. One of the dogs twitches and whimpers in her sleep.

On the TV news a German lady has been killed in a shark attack on the Red Sea, and Graeme McDowell comes from behind to beat Tiger Woods in a U.S. golf tournament.

And Fianna Fail are in a meltdown despite the frostiness. Sometimes it is hard to play the clown any more.
But to hell with that!

There was this Clare farmer, and he went down to live in south Limerick with his wife after handing the farm in Labasheeda to the eldest son. The wife was a native of the place.

After a couple of years the Clare man got fed up with the constant boasting of his Limerick neighbors about the prime quality of their farms in the area known as the Golden Vale. Last week, according to the report I got, he silenced them totally in the pub.

"Listen," says he, " ye have no kind of good land at all. Back in Labasheeda in the summertime I could stick a six inch nail unto the ground at night before going to bed, and in the morning I was certain to have a mighty crowbar for myself!"

That's how he silenced them. And fair play to the man.

Which reminds me of the man from my own home territory who emigrated many years ago to Texas. He too got tired of the boasting of the Texans about having the biggest and best of everything.

He was in a Catholic town and they had built a fine new cathedral that was state of the art. They were boasting about it.

The man from Maguiresbridge then said that he came from an Irish parish where the chapel was so big that, if you were receiving Holy Communion at your Sunday Mass and were near the back of the chapel, you had to take one of the special bicycles lined up there and cycle for three minutes to get up to the altar rails in time!

Which reminds me also, since it is the Christmas season, about the mighty band of Mummers that would call to my birth home every Christmas without fail.

They would come on St. Stephens's Day, which we always called the Second Day, arriving at twilight. They were locals, but you could not recognize them because they wore all manner of strange bright garb, and their faces were concealed by conical straw hats.

They were led by Captain Mummer, a tall, commanding fellow, who would courteously ask permission to enter the house with his merry band. They had music with them, accordions and fiddles, and spoke only in rhyme as they serviced an ancient ritual.

It was great stuff because there was dancing and a mighty duel in the kitchen between two of them with wooden swords. In our house the duel was between St. George and St. Patrick.

St. Patrick would be slain in the end, but there was a doctor character with a magic bottle in his breeches, and he would revive him at once. The there was dancing and music, and my father would give them a pound in silver coins and away they went to the next house.

It was an old custom in our Ulster region, and their characters included the fearful devil Beelzebub and none other than Oliver Cromwell.

The Mummers visited every house in the parish, Catholic and Protestant alike, welcome in all. It was years later I discovered that some troops of them, being "canny," switched the characters in the duel when in a Protestant house.

Here the duel was between King William of Orange and King James of the Jacobites. King William always won!

I'm not so certain either that the doctor would apply his magic bottle to the fallen Jacobite! When in Rome you do as the Romans do, don't you? It was all good, wholesome craic one way or the other.

They have Straw Boys here in Clare at Christmas, but they are different altogether. It's all music, and none of the necessary theatrics that thrilled us when we were kids.

Santa Claus was invisible, but the Mummers were flesh and blood. Santa, no matter how generous, was only trotting after them as far as we were concerned.

Which reminds me of a very thrifty family at the other end of the parish.

Santa brought the finest of gifts to the six children every Christmas morning. The delighted kids played with them all day, stars in their eyes and joy in their small hearts.

But when they eventually went exhausted to bed the parents gathered up all the toys again, and the bright cardboard boxes, and the whole lot was packed away in the attic again until the following Christmas! In my view that was about as miserable an act as I've ever encountered.

Which in turn reminds me of a red-haired family in the Derrylin parish next to ours. Their Santa experience was as combative as our Ulster realities.

On the evening of Christmas Eve the mother and father would sit in the kitchen with the children and state they had all behaved so badly during the year that no way would Santa be stopping for them this Christmas.

Every misdeed would be accurately related by the parents. The kids would be crestfallen totally.

They were told that the gifts they might have got would all go to the well-behaved Protestant kids down the road in the next house. But then the mother would give a jigger of hot whiskey to the father and command him to go out on the road, ambush Santa on his way down to the Protestant house and knock at least a couple of presents out of him so the Protestants did not get them all.

The father would go out. Shortly the children would be terrified by the sounds of a mighty fight out on the road.

They could hear their father roaring phrases like, "Come back here Claus you whoreen you!" and even worse than that.

Eventually there would be a silence and then their father, all disheveled and battered, would stagger into the kitchen with a jute bag containing the presents he had beaten out of Santa Claus.

It might not have been peaceful on a holy night, but by heaven those children for sure had an exciting Christmas night. And Daddy was a hero who got another hot whiskey as a reward!

I feel a lot better now than I did up there above. I hope some of you feel a bit better too.