By Paula Halpin
My abiding image of my beloved Uncle John was him emerging from his silver Mercedes outside our small row house one Christmas Eve, carrying the biggest wattled-necked turkey we seven siblings had ever seen. He was wearing jodhpurs, a red riding jacket, and a black riding helmet. Hitched to the back of the Merc was a horse box containing his horse, Blaze, so named for the white marking on his face.
A small crowd of neighbour kids, jaws dropped at this splendid, unexpected sight on our narrow Dublin street, gathered around the horse box to marvel at Blaze, who stared back, unperturbed. My brothers, sister and I preened at the attention our family was attracting.
I loved Uncle John because he was unconventional – a character. Some in the family considered him a dilletante. But in my eyes, he was a romantic risk-taker. No one else I knew rode horses for sport. No one else swam year-round in the freezing Irish Sea. No other uncle drank a dry martini (or two) before dinner every night – they were strictly Guinness men. And nobody in my circle could claim that their uncle had, in the late 1960s, opened a club in Dublin modeled on the legendary Cavern in Liverpool. Uncle John sent me an honorary membership to the GoGo when I was 17. I still have it somewhere. I saw Gerry and the Pacemakers and Cat Stevens play there.
John also kept a mistress or two over the years, surely the only one of my uncles likely to have chanced that type of unconventionality.
He was particularly fond of my mother Maura, his big sister. For many years, he provided the turkey for our Christmas dinner. Before he acquired wealth and luxury cars, he would deliver the bird by bike. He never let us down, but my mother never knew when precisely he would show up and didn’t like to be presumptuous and ask him. So, each year, we would wait with bated breath for him to show. Sometimes it would be a few days before the holiday; other times he left it to the last minute and would arrive late on Christmas Eve.
Usually, the turkey would come prepared for the oven. Occasionally, however, as was the case the year of the horse box, my mother would have to stay up into the wee hours on Christmas Eve, chopping off the head of the big bird (15-20 lbs), pulling out its innards, saving the giblets and the neck for gravy stock, using a pliers to pluck out remnants of feathers. She did all this with the skilled detachment of a surgeon. My more squeamish father would wait until this operation was complete and then emerge from hiding to help stuff the bird, wedge it into the oven, and prop the door closed with a metal chair while it cooked.
Each year, the first toast at our Christmas dinner table would be to our Uncle John, procurer of large family sized turkeys and all-around good fellow.