To Hear the

by Joe Beine

illustrations by Susan Ebertowski

Dublin City was frozen.

That was the first thing Mally noticed as she walked out of the St. Stephen's Green Shopping Center and into the waning Christmas Eve bustle at the end of Grafton Street. It was much colder than she expected, especially after having spent most of the day playing carols with her string quartet inside the warmth of the shopping center. And the contrast between that inner warmth and the outer cold tugged at her with an immediacy she hadn't quite expected. Mally was glad her mother had insisted that she borrow an old scarf of hers, and wear extra winter clothes today.

She went up past St. Stephen's Green, holding her viola case close to her chest, as if this would help fend off the cold. The fading day fell over the dusty grass and trees of the Green like soot or snow, although Dublin was free of snow this day. Mally was headed for the Pearse Street Dart station for the train ride home, and she was thinking about going a bit out of her way on purpose so she could see this part of Dublin in its winter clothing. Everything around her was crinkly and bright, the pubs especially seeming toasty and boisterous, but Dublin City was still frozen.

Mally tossed one end of her mother's scarf back over her shoulder, then pulled it down just below her chin. Her face, slowly growing more ruddy in the cold, was splattered with ingenuous freckles. Her pale eyes carried a glimmer of agitation, giving her a gaze that seemed all at once curious and disinterested. Strands of thick russet hair fought with the scarf as if unsure whether they wanted to hide behind it or fall exposed over the outside. Mally decided she liked the scarf, and wondered if her mother would let her keep it.

Somewhere up on Merrion Row a face, creased with smudges and wrinkles, pushed itself into Mally's view. The thin lipped mouth tossed out quick words that startled her. Angel Illustration by Susan Ebertowski

"I'll sings yeh a carol fer a pound," the mouth said.

The creased face belonged to a woman of indeterminate age—she could have been thirty or fifty or even older—Mally couldn't tell. She was dressed in the worn and dirty clothes of one of Dublin's homeless population. She smelled like she had just bathed in the Liffey, and aside from the voice—a deep haunted Dublin growl—this river odor was the first thing Mally had noticed. But, like everything else, it was a frozen smell, stale yet sharply pungent, like aged cheddar cheese gone bad.

"I don't have a pound to give ya," Mally replied, not really sure how much money she had with her, although she knew it wasn't much. The shopping mall had paid each of the musicians with a check, and Moira, the cellist and Mally's best friend, had insisted that all the tip money be donated to the War Child charity.

"It's Christmas Eve," the dirty face said, peering at Mally through eyes that matched the dull gray color of the twilight sky. But Mally thought she could make out just a hint of a sparkle hidden somewhere in those twilight eyes.

"I know that," Mally said. By now she had stopped walking and stood next to the woman, who appeared magically oblivious to the evening's cold air. Mally moved her viola case to one hand, pulled a glove off the other and dug into a pocket, searching through her change. She found what was probably her only pound coin and pulled it out. The tiny spark in the woman's eyes glowed brighter at the sight of the tarnished coin, and she quickly reached out to snatch it from Mally's grasp.

"Oh no," Mally said, pulling her hand away. "You'll haveta sing the carol first."

"Don't trust me, eh?"

"Why should I?" Mally shot back.

"Can't say that I blames yeh," the woman said. "What song would you like to hear, then?"

"You pick one," Mally replied.

"Ok." The woman took a step back, cleared the city noise from her throat, and began singing:

It came upon a midnight clear
that glorious song of old...

Mally was surprised by the softness and clarity of the woman's singing voice. She had expected the same low growl of her speaking voice, but was greeted with nearly the opposite instead.

From angels bending near the earth
to touch their harps of gold.

It was a song Mally had performed more than once today with the string quartet, and it was one of her favorites. But it sounded very different to her now, being sung a cappella on this frozen Christmas Eve by this stranger in smelly drab clothes.

Peace on the earth
Good will to men...

While she sang, the woman nearly came alight, transcending her haggard appearance. Her plaintive voice took command over the splash of Merrion Row traffic that trudged by. Mally knew the song by heart, knew every note, every fingering on the viola. She could play it without looking at the printed music sheet. And she often heard the words sung in her head as she played.

After singing two verses, the woman stopped, and the bit of traffic noise took hold of the street again, but Mally barely noticed. She handed the woman the pound coin in her hand, realizing that she had probably just given away her Dart fare home. The woman took the coin from Mally with a dash of hunger in her eyes. And Mally decided that having to walk a few miles to her Sandymount home in the cold was a small sacrifice compared to this woman's hunger. But what would a pound buy her? A cup of tea and toast?

The woman said, "Thankee, young thing," and a new found lust appeared in her voice, replacing the streetworn growl.

"That was a nice song," Mally returned. "Thanks."

"Are you a musician, then?" the woman asked, eyeing Mally's viola case.

"Yes. I play in a string quartet."

Angel Friends Illustration by Susan Ebertowski "Buskin'?"

"Mostly. Yes."

"We're similar then, you and me," she said.

Mally stared at her a moment. A tattered scarf clung to her neck surrounded by grungy strands of hair. Where did this woman sleep? Mally wondered.

"How old are yeh, child?" the woman asked.


"Too young to be out buskin' on a cold night like this."

"I was playin' inside the shopping mall," Mally said.

"Ah. Warm in there?"


"Maybe I'll sneak in for a bit, then."

"They may throw you out. They're closin' up early."

"I'll takes me chances." She gazed at Mally a moment. A hint of a smile danced across the creased face. "Happy Christmas, child," she said and then wandered down toward the Green, perhaps to sing herself up some Christmas Eve dinner.

Mally watched her amble noisily down the street, the twilight closing around her, then Mally headed the opposite way toward her home. On Upper Baggot Street she saw a candle glowing in a window, and she knew she would be late to light the traditional candle in her own window. And late for dinner too. And she knew her mother would certainly scold her when she found out why: "How many times ‘ave I told yeh ta stay away from beggars, Malvina?" she heard her mother's voice say in her head. But Mally didn't care. And she wasn't much bothered by the long chilly walk home either. Because the homeless woman's song had made Dublin City seem less frozen on this frozen Christmas Eve.

"To Hear the Angels Sing" is from the book
Paper Angels, a Collection of Christmas Stories by Joe Beine

The story is also available for the Amazon Kindle book reader:
"To Hear the Angels Sing" Kindle Edition

text © 1998, 2001 Joe Beine; illustrations © 1998 Susan Ebertowski | Contact Us

Please do not reprint, copy or distribute the story without permission. You may freely link to this webpage:

To Hear the Angels Sing, a Dublin City Christmas story

If you are a member of the clergy, feel free to use this story as part of a spoken sermon at your church or place of worship. But I would like to hear from you. So if you do use the story, please click on the contact link above and let me know, or perhaps send me a copy of your sermon. Any other use of the story requires permission. Thank you.

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