“I remember everyone arriving for Christmas mass on the pony and carts, dressed in their best,”
Mary O’Brien goes to Drimoleague to hear two very special ladies — best friends for longer than they can remember — share some of their fondest memories of Christmas’ past. Although stalwart characters of Drimoleague, they don’t normally court the media, so for the purpose of this Christmas tale let them be known as Holly and Ivy!
“It all began with the cleaning of the chimney by the man of the house,” recalls Holly. “A rough branch of a tree called a ‘bissom’ brush was used for this job. If the ‘bissom’ failed to clear the soot, then a live goose was put down the chimney. In those days, chimneys were a lot wider and the wings of the goose, flapping wildly in panic, never failed to clear the soot.”
After the chimney was cleaned, it was time to wash and paint the kitchen walls. “There was no Dulux colour cards in those days,” says Holly laughing. “It was all whitewash.”
Ivy remembers collecting holly and ivy and winding it through the back of the settle seat in the kitchen. “We also put it over every holy picture in the house,” she says. “And every window had a candle in it. The candle was stood in a jam jar or in a turnip.”
Both women nostalgically recall the light from the candles in the windows of every house on the hills in Drimoleague. “You could see the light flickering from miles around.”
“Mind you, it was highly dangerous too with all those lace curtains,” says Holly. “T’was many a curtain caught light at Christmas time.”
The currant cake was baked in the bastible, a flat-bottomed cast iron pot, over the open fire. There were two seats called hobs at either side of the fire. “In those days, you could only get the dried fruit, such as raisins and sultanas, for the cake at Christmas time,” says Holly. “Oranges and bananas were scarce too and always a treat in the Christmas stockings.”
“And the lump sugar…we always had cubes of sugar at Christmas time,” say both women longingly.
“And of course every house had a drop of poteen…made outside on the hills of Drimoleague.”
“Any groceries that hadn’t been bought the week before were collected on Christmas Eve,” recalls Holly. “People would go to the pub while waiting on their grocery order and every customer got a candle and brack or some kind of gift from the shopkeeper.”
“Christmas Eve was about fasting and abstinence in those days,” says Ivy. “It was indeed,” says Holly. “Do you remember the hake, Ivy? It was called ‘battle board’ because of it being as hard as timber with the height of salt. The fish was packed in sawdust to keep the salt in and everyone just wanted the middle part of the fish, as the tail and head were full of bones. It used to drive the shopkeepers mad.
“And the Champion potatoes, the yellow ones…they were beautiful. They used to be cooked on the three-legged pot, the skillet, over the fire.”
“And the minerals and raspberry wine in all the houses for the children,” says Ivy. “T’was 99 per cent water, that raspberry wine,” says Holly laughing.
“I remember everyone arriving for Christmas mass on the pony and carts, dressed in their best,” says Ivy. “Of course there was no such thing as buying new clothes for Christmas back then, everything was mended and home made.”
“There used to be big crowds coming home to Drimoleague every Christmas,” says Holly. “And of course the turkeys were posted over to anyone who was away at Christmas.”
“Do you remember the turkey with the whiskey bottle story, Ivy?”
“One Christmas a local man arrived home to Drimoleague with his family for Christmas,” recounts Holly. “His father asked him how the turkey was that he sent over to England the year before. ‘Perfect’ replies the son. ‘And it didn’t break?’ says the father. ‘No, twas perfect’, says the son, thinking to himself ‘how does a turkey break?’ ‘Oh that’s good,’ says the father ‘I was afraid the bottle of whiskey would get broken enroute.’”
“The father had placed a bottle of whiskey inside the turkey to keep it safe on the journey over the Irish Sea. However, as was the case with many turkeys sent abroad in those days, the bird was rotten by the time it reached its destination and the postman had advised the son that he should bury it in the garden.
“When the family returned to England, the son went into the garden and unearthed what remained of the turkey. Sure enough, the bottle of whiskey was still there, in perfect condition!”
Both women fondly recall the Wren boys on St Stephen’s morning. “They’d arrive all in disguise and pulling a big bush of holly with streamers flying from it.
The money collected by the Wrens always went towards organising a big dance and party at the end of January.
“It was held in the kitchen of a farmhouse and you’d have to be invited,” says Holly.
One of the most anticipated events of Christmas in Drimoleague was the horse races on St. Stephen’s Day. “They brought a big crowd,” says Ivy. “They did,” says Holly, “and always a few fights too. There were 14 pubs, imagine, in Drimoleague in the old days…and we had our own courthouse, which a fair few ended up in after Stephen’s Day!”
“The best thing about those days was that everyone’s door was always open,” says Ivy. “There wasn’t a door without a key in it.”
“That’s true,” says Holly “and there wasn’t a house without some form of a shop in it. They were different times.”
They surely were.