Memories of ‘Christmas Eve in Ballina’ one hundred years ago

On the hillside in Leigue Cemetery lies the grave of James Wallace Melvin, or Larry Doolan as he was known in Ballina. Doolan was one of the founding members of the Ballina Stephenites and he was the town's poet laureate in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The following poem was published in the Western People - where Doolan had worked in his youth - December 1904. It is an evocative and entertaining account of Ballina one hundred years ago.

Christmas Eve in Ballina
By Larry Doolin (December 20th 1904)
A lovely night, and Christmas Eve - of all nights in the year
All Ballina now inside doors preparing Christmas cheer,
A nice fresh breeze was blowing straight direct from the north pole
As I filled and lit my G.B.D. and started for a stroll
Not caring then which way I took when leaving my abode
So took the turning on my left and down Killala road
Leisurely I strolled along, when, at St Patrick’s Well
I heard the Ballina town clock the midnight hour tell.

Yet on I went quiet carelessly, although the hour was late,
Then turned in to light my pipe at Kilmore graveyard gate,
While here I thought of friends I loved who now were laid to rest,
And must be spending Christmas Eve among the good and blest,
Then all at once, while thinking thus, the lighted match in hand,
I felt a queer sensation, and my hair began to stand,
A kind of all-overness - I felt as cold as death -
And something creeping up my spine that took away my breath.

I felt so cold, so awful cold, as if my blood would freeze
And trembled like an aspen leaf, especially the knees.
“Lord, save my soul - was that a moan,” I turned round my head
And there I saw, before my eyes a man who had been dead
And buried twenty years ago, for well I know the year,

As I was at his funeral, and no one dropped a tear
Yet there he was as large as life in shadow almost hid,
He smoke a Derry pipe and sat upon his coffin lid
Dear reader, you may laugh, but I declare it was no joke,
So I made up my mind to run - when all at once he spoke,
“Is that you, Larry Doolan? Faith you’re looking up-to-date,
But what can have you prowling here, what keeps you out so late?
No matter, boy, take that big stone; sit down and rest your shoes,
And tell me all about the town, you must have piles of news,”
My courage was now coming back and not all in dread,
I looked him straight between the eyes, and this is what I said:

Don’t think that I’m inquisitive; no, no Tom, God forbid-
But why must you be here tonight, perched on the coffin lid?
How is it you are down here, Tom, and who could give you leave?
I thought that you were sleeping snug and warm in your grave,
Away from this wide world - its troubles and complaints,
And strolling round through Paradies with all the dacent saints;
Not here as an obstruction in defiance of the law
And moaning like a ‘collough’ with a tooth-ache in his jaw.

“Faith if the Royal Irish hear of how you’re getting on
You’ll get your fourteen days, my boy, or may be twenty-one,
For having all the dacent folk disturbed, in fact, annoyed,
If I were you I’d go and get a ticket from Johy Boyd
Then Billy Rape will let you in without a single word,
And don’t fret they’ll never bring you up before the board”
“No, Larry, boy I cannot leave, I’m here as it in gaol,
So if you pay attention I will tell you all my tale-

While living on the earth I led a mean and selfish life,
I quarrelled with my neighbours and delighted in the strife,
Hating almost everyone, especially the poor,
I never gave them charity, but ran them from my door,
Not one ‘May God Be Merciful’ for me was ever said;
One prayer, whilst living, Larry O, is worth twelve gross when dead.
I had town tenants, some have died, but brought with them their proofs,

And told St. Peter they could see the planets through their roofs.
They proved I had evicted them for less then half-a-crown,
And some had died from fever and rheumatics from rain down;
And now I’m feeling every pang, I made those creatures feel.
I’m famished, starved and racked with pain, my bones as cold as steel.
But sickness, cold or poverty I never did relieve.
So there I sit in punishment on every Christmas Eve.
And here I must remain, asthore - how long, O Lord, alas!
And suffering my punishment till those things come to pass-

Until the licensed publican sells nothing else but hops,
And tenant farmers tell you straight they all have splendid crops;
When the bogus agitator shakes his neighbour by the hand,
And will not split him with a spade for half a perch of land.
When maidens of a doubtful age admit they’re on the shelf
And lawyers take to preaching, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’,
When our glorious Irish Party from its apathy is roused,
To think of poor town tenants worse than dogs or cattle housed.

Until our Urban Council has got clearly out of debt,
And these cottages long promised are all finished and to let,
And when our grand big market house stands proudly in the sun,
Then Larry O, asthore machree, my penance her is done.”
The cocks then crew, he started up as if he’d got a fright,
He jumped into his coffin and then vanished from my sight,
I thought I heard a frightful noise above me in the air,
Then started up to find that I had slumbered in a chair.

Beside me stood a bottle just half-empty I could see,
The whole thing was a mystery and no one there but me
So, there I was and not below conversing with the dead
I took another bumper and quickly into bed

Courtesy of P.J. Clarke, Ballina and Western People
December 2004