It was afternoon on a cold and windy New Year’s day when I crossed paths with the Christmas tree at the bus station Letterkenny, in County Donegal in the west of Ireland . Not snowing more than a few flakes, but seriously cold. The station itself was closed for the holiday — at Bus Aras, the main station in Dublin, they hadn’t even ben sure that a bus would be running between Letterkenny, all the way west across the country from Dublin, up to Derry, which is across the border in Northern Ireland. I decided to take my chances.
I was glad that waiting area of the station, with its small welcoming tree, was open as a refuge from the wind. The printed schedule on the wall agreed with my ideas that in about two hours, buses would arrive, one heading south toward Sligo and the other up north to Derry. The shops near the station were shuttered for the holiday and the parking lot at the shopping center across the way was empty, suggesting that it too was closed. I’d been often enough to Letterkenny at other times to think that I could walk the distance down to the main street and the main hotel and find the pub or restaurant there open, I decided I’d prefer a bit of quiet reflection. So the tree and I settled in by ourselves to wait, and watch the early dark fall across the roadway. I had good chance to make the tree’s acquaintance. With its haphazardly placed ornaments cheerily located along its branches, and a star on top that listed seriously to the left, it was clearly a product of love and laughter, and turned out to make a fine companion as I let a long day a night of travel and a long year of music, travel. listening, writing and change sink in.
That bus up to Derry did indeed arrive, and my conversation with the small tree proved to be a conversation which introduced me into a journey of Christmas trees. In Derry the Guildhall, scene of past violence and anger, was decorated with an extravagance (for Ireland anyway) of colored lights climbing the vines on the front of the building, and a quiet lace of white lights shone on the city walls facing it. In the place between the walls and the halls stood a tree with its own quiet light.
Two days later, as I traveled back across the island, the bus went around a different street in Letterkenny and I encountered a really large and rather lopsided tree — big brother or sister of the one in the bus station, perhaps — which was tied down against the Donegal winds by guy wires in front of the white facade of the courthouse, and which stood proudly in its own splendor of evergreen with few decorations. In the town centers in Strabane, in Omagh, in Monaghan, Carickmacross, Ardee, and Dundalk, as I journeyed eastward, there were trees of great individuality and presence. Not heavily decorated, and not at all neat and tidy, but all the more celebratory for that. None of them needed to be put in pot or stand during the rainy cold of Irish winter, either. Most were just nailed to wooden cross braces at their feet to stand up, and held with guy wires against the strength of winter winds.
Those winter winds, and fog, and rain, and sleet were in full abundance as I made my way along the road round the Cooley Peninsula from Dundalk to Carlingford, where I’d stay for the rest of this journey. That sort of weather is a typical Irish winter day in these parts, really, and the fog and the colors, and the unsettled weather are in some ways not so different at this season than the weather where I live among the southern forests of America at other times of the the year.
The holiday season is marked at least though 6th January in Ireland so Carlingford’s tree would still be up, I thought. The tree is usually set up in a part of town which looks quite medieval, and where many of the buildings do actually date from the twelfth century. This is a quiet time here, a time when summer tourists and hen and stag parties and wedding planners have all have gone home for the while, a time when family and friends gather in.
The town tree celebrates this quietly, decorated only with white lights. This January eve they were glowing through the rain and fog in welcome to me. Reaching toward it were a few of those to me essentially Irish holiday decorations, leaping stars — I don’t know what they are called really — electric decorations in the form of stars with trailing lights, trails which, practically speaking, attach them to buildings. These were glowing through the fog too, silence in exuberance through unsettled weather. Journey’s end
photographs by Kerry Dexter
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