The Christmas ‘Gamble’

Sullivan’s was what was known as a ‘ceilì’ing house’ back in the day. There was one in just about every rural community, where neighbours rambled in at night to exchange bits of news – the good and the bad. Card playing was an integral part of all good ceilì houses – and so it was in the Sullivan household.

The game of ‘25’ is one of the oldest, and surely one of the cleverest card games ever devised. No game was taken more seriously and the player whose concentration lapsed to ‘let out’ somebody ‘and the five of trumps in his hand’ or greedily ‘went for his own trick’ instead of ‘holding the game in’, might take a long time to be forgiven!

Stephen ‘Sony’ Sullivan and his wife Mary were by now ‘getting on in years’. Sony had been in poor health for some time and it was a struggle to keep the small farm ticking over. Proud to a fault, the Sullivans would not look for help and flatly refused to apply for a medical card. Sony gave his occupation as ‘farmer’ to the nice young lady at the hospital – even though he was drawing the old age pension. The bills came and the Sullivans managed somehow to pay them. Sony and Mary did not have children of their own, but their house was like a second home to every youngster in the parish. No child ever left the house without some little treat or ‘a few coppers’.

Now the neighbours dropped the odd load of ash logs and turf in the yard; brushing off the objections with; ‘isn’t it only to keep our own backsides warm at the card-plays!’.

Coming up to Christmas the card-plays took on an added seriousness. From November they would start playing for ‘feathers’: Mary Sullivan would be paid for one of her fat geese or turkeys and this would be played for – usually over two nights. Then, come the second week in December and, with no little fanfare, the launch of the ‘Christmas Gamble!’.

‘A tanner’ (sixpence) would be the normal stakes all year, but ‘the gamble’ involved every player putting a half-crown into the kitty. In the old days, there were often two tables of nine. The game of ‘3x25s’ was played over three nights. The nine players were divided into three threes… and this took some play! You had to watch the play, keep the tricks in your head, not beat your own player… and ‘hold the game in’! Needless to say, there was many an argument over the 40 years that Sony and Mary had been hosting the ‘Christmas Gamble’.

But over the years, the numbers had fallen. ‘Sher, the young crowd have no interest in playing cards any more’, was often sadly remarked upon. The last few years only six old-timers were on hand for the gamble and they played ‘three doubles’. The same arguments went on as ever before. ‘Muldoon’, a farm labourer, earning £3 per week; ‘who could buy and sell us all’ was always annoying the ‘school’ by putting in his stake in pennies, ha’pennys, and thruppeny bits. Muldoon (never called by his Christian name of Tom) was tight with his money alright, but he knew he was annoying the others and this was his way of asserting his right! Of course they were all solid friends – but only after the ‘gamble’ got settled!

Every card-play would conclude with a large pot of tea on the table and a helping of Mary’s home-baked bread and blackcurrant jam. Sony would try and ‘fire up’ his pipe. He spent more time trying to light it these days than smoking it. Where once he would take a deep ‘drag’ on the shank, now it was more of a weak pull, followed by the inevitable cough. ‘I’m 50 years pulling on it and I’m not going to stop now,’ Sony told them.

The Sullivans couldn’t believe their eyes when 18 card players turned up this year. These included two widows of old friends and five sons of bygone players. Two tables of nine… ‘just like in the good old days’, beamed Sony.

Three magical nights of cards, story-telling – and even a few songs, concluded on the night before Christmas Eve. The last act would be, as it always had been, where the lads cut the holly bush into small pieces for Mary. Tomorrow she would adorn the windows and the mantle-piece with sprigs of holly – never forgetting to put the nicest piece with the most berries, on top of the sacred heart picture. This was all the decorations that would be used, apart from a big red candle, sitting on the dresser, which would be lit and put in the window in the morning.

Sony was lighting his pipe (again!), when Mary lifted the candle from the dresser. She thought she was seeing things. There, behind the candle, was a tightly folded bundle of £1 notes and a white handkerchief, tied at the four corners and containing a heavy ball of something or other. Mary and Sony counted the notes together… £17!

Proud Mary got on her bicycle. She didn’t want charity: none of the card players lived far away, so she did every house. Every ceilìer she asked convinced her they knew nothing about the money. She met Muldoon on the road. His steely blue eyes met hers as he told her he didn’t know what she was talking about and that ‘none of that crowd would give a penny to their own mother – much less leave money on your dresser’.

‘A miracle from God,’ the Sullivans whispered to each other. ‘See what’s in that handkerchief, Mary,’ suggested Sony. She opened the knots on the kitchen table. Out spilled a mix of pennies, ha’pennies, thruppenny bits, tanners, shillings and a few florins. When they finally managed to count it all, it came to exactly one pound…!

Nollaig Shona

Happy Christmas to one and all… with a special thought for our exiles.