Patrick Kavanagh's "A Christmas Childhood" is the most quoted of Christmas poems from Ireland - and it's no wonder why.
Patrick Kavanagh, born on October 21, 1904, in Co Monaghan, became known as one of Ireland's greatest because of his unique ability to provide insights about country life in Ireland at the start of the 20th century.
Some of Kavanagh's most famous works include "On Raglan Road," the long, once-banned poem "The Great Hunger," and the semi-autobiographical novel Tarry Flynn. He died on November 30, 1967, shortly after the first performance of a play adaptation of Tarry Flynn by the Abbey Theater.
In his Christmas favorite "A Christmas Childhood," Kavanagh harkens back to the winters of his childhood. This poem was born out of Kavanagh's loneliness and solitude and he penned it having spent a Christmas season alone in his flat in Dublin. The poem is filled with nostalgia for rural, farming, family life and his memories come to us through Christian imagery from the story of the birth of Jesus.
A Christmas Childhood by Patrick Kavanagh
One side of the potato-pits was white with frost –
How wonderful that was, how wonderful!
And when we put our ears to the paling-post
The music that came out was magical.
The light between the ricks of hay and straw
Was a hole in Heaven’s gable. An apple tree
With its December-glinting fruit we saw –
O you, Eve, were the world that tempted me.
To eat the knowledge that grew in clay
And death the germ within it! Now and then
I can remember something of the gay
Garden that was childhood’s. Again.
The tracks of cattle to a drinking-place,
A green stone lying sideways in a ditch,
Or any common sight, the transfigured face
Of a beauty that the world did not touch.
My father played the melodion
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.
Across the wild bogs his melodion called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.
Outside in the cow-house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of her stable-lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.
A water-hen screeched in the bog,
Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes,
Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.
My child poet picked out the letters
On the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.
Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon — the Three Wise Kings.
And old man passing said:
‘Can’t he make it talk –
The melodion.’ I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.
I nicked six nicks on the door-post
With my penknife’s big blade –
there was a little one for cutting tobacco.
And I was six Christmases of age.
My father played the melodion,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.
* Originally published in 2016. Updated in December 2022.
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