Coming home for Christmas

Posted on: 31st December, 2013

Category: Features

Contributor: Mary O'Brien

“It was all black turkeys back then or ‘American Bronze’ as they were called. People used to travel from as far as Cork to get their turkey in Dunmanway market.”

John O’Brien, a native of Dunmanway, was born in 1941. A member of Dunmanway Historical Society and a great storyteller having partaken in many scríocts over the years, he believes it’s of great importance that the old Irish traditions and customs are not forgotten. John takes Mary O’Brien on a journey with him back to Christmas in Dunmanway in the 1950s.

“When I was young, there was such an air of anticipation in the run up to Christmas,” reflects John. “Inside and out, the house was cleaned and painted. People took a fierce pride in their yard and every Christmas they used red lead and white wash to brighten it up.”

According to John, the first sign of Christmas in Dunmanway was always the American letter or parcel that arrived around December 8. “It kickstarted Christmas,” he says. John’s mother’s first cousins have lived in the States since a relative emigrated there in the late 1800s.”My mother had great penmanship,” says John “and she always sent a long letter over to them…sure they knew every stone in the place from those letters.”

The turkey market in Dunmanway Square was the next big event in the run-up to Christmas. “It was all black turkeys back then or ‘American Bronze’ as they were called,” explains John. “People used to travel from as far as Cork to get their turkey in Dunmanway market.”

“Mrs Donovan Hennessey of Ballineen and TP O’Sullivan’s, Dunmanway used to export turkeys to the UK,” says John. “There’s a story that a local girl from Dunmanway travelled out to Liverpool and was so homesick that every Sunday she’d go down to the docks to see TP O’Sullivan’s crates.”

Before the late forties and fifties most Irish people couldn’t afford turkeys. John remembers a goose being cooked in the bastible over the open fire. “We didn’t have electricity until the sixties,” he says. “The brown cake used to be beautiful out of the bastible,” he recalls nostalgically. “I can still see it rising.”

Cutting the holly was always a great day out. “A group of lads would head up into the hills in an old Ford jeep and find a wood where the birds hadn’t stripped the berries. Sometimes we’d take the leftovers to Cork and sell the holly in small bundles door to door or at the Coal Quay. There was always great fun with the characters at the Coal Quay. There was no greed in it…sure we did it just for the craic. And, the journey to Cork was like going to America. There was no guarantee you’d ever get there in the old jeep.”

Another great outing that John remembers fondly was going to the bus stop in Dunmanway to see and meet the emigrants coming home for Christmas. This was usually on Christmas Eve. “There was great excitement watching them all getting off the bus in their glamourous outfits and suits and fancy hair-dos,” he says. Most of the lads would spend the year paying off the suit in Burton’s of London so they could wear it going home. And they always had big colourful parcels with them, usually clothes for their mam and dad.”

Once the final clean-up of the house was done, it was time to put up the decorations. “The holly was put behind every holy picture in the house and bunting and streamers were hung across the celing. There weren’t too many that had Christmas trees in those times, that was more a city thing,” explains John.

Christmas shopping was always done the week before with the final few items collected on Christmas Eve. Tea and sugar and big raisins were on every shopping list. “Bananas and oranges were scarce since the war but you’d always get apples and pears,” reminisces John. “Every second house in Dunmanway was a grocery shop in those days.” Customers received a big round brack and a candle as a Christmas gift from the local shopkeeper. “If you were a really good customer,” says John “you got a big Christmas cake in the shape of a log.” In a pub with a grocery store attached, the customers might get a bottle or half pint of whiskey. “And the woman was always stood a drop of wine or whiskey,” says John.

John’s family grew barley and wheat, as well as rearing goats and cows on their land. “If you had land, it was compulsory to grow wheat during wartime,” says John. “It was black wheat and very tasty, nothing like what you get now.”

Another outing was going to get the bottle of poteen to have in the house over Christmas. “Going to get the bottle of the ‘white stuff’ was always a great day out,” recalls John. “When you were older you might get a few drops of it.”

Christmas Eve used to be a day of abstinence in Ireland. Everyone went to Confession on Christmas Eve and every household boiled salted hake fish for dinner. “It was always served with white sauce and onions and potatoes,” remembers John.

The children helped to light the Christmas candles in every house and these were placed in half a cut turnip and put in every window. “Santa was very kind but not as extravagant in those days,” says John smiling, “but we were delighted with whatever we got. I remember getting a Superintendent’s outfit one time — mind you it could have been a bus conductors outfit! I got great wear and fun out of it.”

It was an early start on Christmas morning. “We went to 6am mass,” says John. “It was a long day and there was no rest allowed on Christmas Day back then.”

On the way home from mass on Christmas morning, people called in to their elderly neighbours to see if they needed anything or to invite them for dinner. The woman of the house was always busy with dinner preparations so the children usually went to visit a neighbour to keep out of her way.

“There was no home complete with the ‘The Holly Bough’ and the ‘Cork Examiner’ in those days,” recalls John. “After dinner, we’d spend the day reading, or listening to music on the radio or playing games. We went to bed early, especially when we got a bit older in preparation for St Stephen’s Day.”

“All the boys and girls were up and out before 9am for the hunting of the wrens on St Stephen’s Day,” says John sentimentally. The tradition consists of ‘hunting’ a fake wren, and putting it on top of a decorated pole. Then the groups celebrate the Wren by dressing up in masks, straw suits and colourful motley clothing.

“We’d go door to door making a fair few bob along the way and even cycling as far as Dringah. We often made seven or eight pounds, which was a lot of money in those days,” says John. “We’d have money for the Pictures for a long whole after. When we got older, there were dances to attend on St. Stephen’s night.”

Perhaps John’s most poignant memory is everyone wishing each other a Happy Christmas “and really meaning it” after mass on Christmas morning. “There was a great air of goodwill around the place in those days and no one old or alone was ever forgotten,” says John.

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