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Dublin: 12 °C Tuesday 23 April, 2019
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12 pubs in Bangkok and a beach barbeque in Sydney: How the Irish celebrate Christmas around the world

We spoke to some Irish people who will be spending Christmas day across the miles this year.

Thailand GAA Xmas Dinner James Donnellan(yellow antlers) with members of Thailand GAA club.

THIS YEAR WILL mark James Donnellan’s fourth Christmas in Bangkok away from his family back in Athlone, Co Roscommon. 

James moved over to Thailand with his girlfriend Roisin, who is from the Westmeath side of Athlone, with the Athlone link being something he says can “cause confusion for some people and a lot of arguments with my girlfriend”. 

Despite their differences, the couple decided to take a year out and move to Thailand which James said seemed like an “obvious choice”. 

“After graduating from AIT I took up work as a mechanical designer in a local engineering firm in Athlone. Having worked there for a year my girlfriend and I decided we wanted to do something different so we did a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course and decided to take a year out and move to Asia to teach and travel.”

Four years later James is now teaching at a government school but says being away from home doesn’t get any easier, no matter how long it’s been.

Technology probably makes it more difficult because you are seeing all of your friends and family getting into the spirit of Christmas and it’s perhaps the one time of year that most of them wouldn’t trade a cold December night for a beach in Thailand, but then again you will always want what you don’t have.

James has only been back to Ireland once since he left and while a home-cooked Christmas dinner is what he will miss on Tuesday, catching up with family and friends tops his Christmas wish list.  

“Technology has made it far easier to keep in touch with people but nothing could ever replace going to a friend’s house for a cup of tea, some USA biscuits and chat, or going for a few pints at the weekend,” he said. 

Thailand GAA 12 Pubs (4) Thailand GAA celebrating their annual 12 pubs of Christmas.

In James’ current job he doesn’t get any Christmas holidays and endures temperatures over 35 degrees, so to him, Bangkok does not feel festive. 

“For me, Christmas is synonymous with cold, short evenings and pretty much everybody doing nothing for a few days,” he said. “But the majority of the population in Thailand are Buddhist, so the festive period is more so an imported idea from foreign cultures.”

Being a part of the local GAA club in Bangkok has been one of the main reasons James says he has stayed so long. 

I wasn’t involved with my local GAA club at home so, in the beginning, I didn’t think that it was something that I would get involved with here in Thailand. Until one day after about 2 months I met a man in a Cork jersey – I was wearing my Roscommon jersey – outside my apartment block and we got chatting. I went training the next Tuesday and never looked back.

“The sense of community in the GAA all over Asia is fantastic, in our relatively small club of 60, we have 14 different nationalities across our men and women’s teams,” he said. 

Just like home, every year the GAA club organises a ’12 pubs of Christmas’ as a gathering of all club members and friends to mark the end of the year.

But James said that 12 pubs in Thailand is better than at home, as this year they had close to 100 people from several different countries taking part. 

Due to the large number of expats and tourists in Bangkok, there are plenty of expat bars and restaurants serving a traditional Christmas dinner.

Our Thailand GAA local sponsor, Shenanigans Irish Bar, is very well known for its quality buffet Sunday roast and Christmas dinner.

James’ plan for this Christmas Day will be to swap secret Santa gifts with friends, have dinner at Shenanigans, Skype the family, “have a few too many beers and of course, we have to sing Fairytale of New York a few dozen times”.

IMG_4132 Aoibheann (l) during Christmas 2015 in Sydney

Sydney

In Sydney, Australia, Aoibheann Geaney will be spending her fourth Christmas away from home – one she says will be harder than the others as she is expecting her first baby. 

Originally from Nenagh, Co Tipperary, Aoibheann moved to Sydney in 2012 where she met her fiancée Paul, who’s from Dublin. 

“Although it is hard to be away, we have made so many amazing friends over here that are almost like family now and we all look out for each other so much.”

This year Aoibheann is cooking a traditional fry for her Irish friends who are not going back home for Christmas, something the group does every year, before heading to the beach in the afternoon for a barbecue and a few beers. 

It really makes it that bit easier over here having a great group of Irish friends. We all have the same sense of humour and values and get on really well together. We always look out for one another and we come together as one big family to celebrate many different occasions and this is especially the case at Christmas.

Christmas on the beach has been a tradition ever since the group ditched cooking the traditional turkey and ham dinner after the first Christmas Aoibheann spent in Sydney.

“The beaches are well equipped for this and they have free public barbecues and huge grass areas to set up for the day, it is a great way to celebrate and embrace the sunnier climate at Christmas time,” she said. 

IMG_7976 Aoibheann with her friends at Maroubra beach Christmas ‘16

But despite having a close group of friends, she still finds she misses her family most of all at this time of year, as “we always spent a lot of time together at Christmas, wrapped up watching Christmas movies and eating Roses and Quality Street in the lead up to the big day. I also really miss my mam’s Christmas dinners”. 

Aoibheann hopes to get her family to fly out next Christmas so that they can experience an Australian Christmas, as well as meet her new arrival. 

“I think it will be harder for me being out here once the little one arrives. As it makes you think more about the distance between us and all our immediate family. Our friends here are great but nothing compares to having your family around,” she said. 

The couple has made plans to move back to Ireland for good in 2020 but Aoibheann says that the weather and lifestyle really suit them “so that could easily change and we could decide to stay here for longer.” 

48383075_2069904113090637_2851245289631645696_n Declan Bonner and his wife Stigne with their children Brendan (5) and Lilly-Rose (3).

Amsterdam

In Amsterdam, Declan Bonner, originally from Co Donegal, starts off his Christmas season with the Dutch holiday, Sinterklaas.

In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas arrives in town on a steamboat or horse from Spain. On the night of 5 December, Dutch children put their shoes by the fireplace hoping that he will fill them with sweet rewards rather than a reprimand for poor behaviour. 

Sinterklaas or Saint Nicholas arrives mid-November which usually means Declan’s two little kids Brendan (5) and Lilly-Rose (3)  generally don’t sleep from the moment he arrives on his boat from Spain. 

They get to leave their shoes by the fireplace and maybe one of the nights leading up to 5 December, Sinterklaas and his helpers will come and put a present in it. The Dutch love having a gourmet dinner on Sinterklaas night or Christmas night, which is a grill plate where everybody grills their own dinner – so little portions of lots of different things.

Once Sinterklaas leaves Declan says they can finally get their Christmas tree up but with being married to a Dutch/Danish girl and trying to stay loyal to his Irish roots there are lots of Christmas traditions mixed together.

When we celebrate Christmas in Holland with my wife Stigne’s family we usually have dinner on the Christmas eve, which is in general a roast Duck with caramelised baby potatoes and vegetables and on Christmas morning the kids will get their presents, and we try to have a big Irish breakfast. 

Declan tries to get back to Donegal every second year but admits he does not get home as much as he likes, adding he misses the sing-songs in his local and how his mother is still nervous if anyone is lurking near the turkey in the small hours before Christmas day. 

48381829_374633699938981_5606362566864404480_n

In the 12 years since he’s lived in the Netherlands, Declan started off spending two weeks at home at Christmas but said as the years have passed “everyone moves on, lives in different parts of the world, gets married, has kids and learns new traditions”.

Declan arrived in the Netherlands in 2007, originally planning to spend six months there to earn some money but after joining a GAA team in Den Haag he stayed put. 

He later joined the Irish club of the Netherlands and in 2011 organised a St Patrick’s Day celebration in Den Haag on the club’s behalf which has now grown into a yearly event.  

I do miss Ireland but I like the efficiency and the cleanliness of the Netherlands and the quality of life is good. Holland has now become my home .

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Adam Daly

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