Eugene Daly revisits the work of Sean O hAo, Glandore, and his recollections of Christmas traditions and customs of former years
In the 19th century, particularly after the Great Famine, the Irish language began to die out. People associated it with poverty and death and saw English as the language of the future, of progress and most useful for emigration to England or U.S.A.
Irish continued to be spoken, however, in most of the islands and in other rural areas along the west and south-west coast. For example, here in West Cork, Irish was used well into the 20th century, along the coastal townlands from Rosscarbery to Toe Head.
The Irish Folklore Commission recruited native speakers to collect folklore from Irish speakers from about 1930 on. A folklore collector named Seán Ó Croinín collected a wealth of folklore from a fisherman named Seán Ó hAo (John Hayes) who lived in Cregg near Glandore. This was collected in 1940 and was published in book form in 1985 entitled Seanchas Ó Chairbre (Folklore from Carbery).
It is full of stories about the weather, fishing, smuggling, customs, sayings and many stories, natural and supernatural. Seán Ó hAo was known as ‘Hamit’ after a famous seafarer it is said. Here is what he said about Christmas.
“The people who lived by the sea were fisherman and didn’t have cattle, a horse or a sheep. A few days before Christmas their neighbours and relatives brought milk, butter and other foods to their neighbours who lived from fishing. They also brought turf and potatoes. Richer people helped the poor so that they would have an enjoyable Christmas.
“People often had a keg of porter and the neighbours would visit the house and they used to drink together – porter and a drop of whiskey maybe. They used to invite each other so the men would go from house to house. But that time is gone. People became less cooperative. The same love and helpfulness isn’t there anymore.
People used to clean their dwellings and outhouses before Christmas, often whitewashing the walls. At Christmas they procured a big block of wood for the open fireplace. They also collected holly and ivy and placed sprigs on the small windows and in every nook and cranny in the kitchen. On Christmas Eve (Oíche Nollag) they used to put a couple of bowls of tea on the dresser for those who had passed on (died).
“Every house had two or three big candles lighting on Christmas Eve. Late in the evening of the 24th., the family had a dinner of potatoes and fish. This custom is still kept by some in West Cork – potatoes, ‘stock’ fish (salted ling) and white sauce. It was customary for somebody named Seán or Michael, Mary or Brigid, to light the candle at nightfall on Christmas Night (Oíche Nollag). In other parts of West Cork it was usually the youngest in the family.
“The big candle was placed in a hollowed out turnip (swede) which was cut to give it a flat bottom. Sometimes they placed the candle in a large jar, filled with sand. This was the best as any melting grease fell on the sand and wouldn’t catch fire. The candle was left lighting until Christmas morning.
“The families stayed up late on Christmas night, later than any other night. About ten o’clock they had the second tea – bread and tea and sweet cake with currants and raisins. The older people often had a glass of punch. When they were drinking they uttered the usual blessing: ‘May God keep us well a year from tonight, ourselves and our relations wherever they are’. Everybody washed themselves on Christmas Night and the men shaved.
“They woke early on Christmas morning to go to Mass. They put on their best clothes and shoes, although many didn’t have the best of clothes. Many of them worked for sixpence a day and had to pay rent of up to 30 pounds per annum (to the landlord).
“They walked to Mass, some having to walk up to five miles. They met their neighbours on the way so that a big crowd walked together. It was black dark as they had to be at the church by seven o’clock.
“Sometimes they brought lights – lanterns. They used to leave the lanterns somewhere outside the church; they didn’t need lights if there was a bright moon. The priest blessed the people and said three Masses in a row. The people always brought home a bottle of holy water on Christmas morning. When they returned home they sprinkled it in every room of the house, the outhouses and yard.
The men always played hurling on Christmas Day. They would cut a stump of furze that had a ‘bos’ (the flat part of a hurley stick) and a twist at the end. They made a ball of rags and old stockings tied together with cords. They then selected two teams and went into a field; they spent the evening playing, often stripped to the waist. There used to be middle-aged men as well as the young playing. By evening they would be very tired – as tired as a hunting hound.
“On St. Stephen’s Day (Lá ‘le Stiofáin) the youngsters used to be up at daybreak to ‘go round with the Wran’, They use to wake the people and it wasn’t a blessing they got when they came so early. Dressed in old clothes, and carrying a wren on a gaily decorated holly bush, they made a lot of noise, singing, playing instruments (sometimes) or making a din, blowing trumpets or banging on a pot.
“It used to be after nightfall before they returned home. Everybody gave them money – pennies and sixpences and shillings (now and again). Then they would go and spend the money on drink, so that there used to be noise and fun until the following morning.
“At that time grown men used to go out ‘with the wran’, some of them with a white cloak (bed sheet probably), others with their faces painted black.
“Some of them wouldn’t even have a wren but had hen feathers to pretend they had, tied to a holly bush festooned with ribbons. This is part of a song they used to sing; translated into English.
‘West and east I brought the wren
To Mrs. Sheahan’s we paid a visit
Where lived a tiny generous happy
And we’ll drink her health on New
“People had a holiday on St. Stephen’s Day. Neither I nor my fishing friends went fishing that day. We used to go to the pub and we made up a crew for the boat for the following year; that was the day they signed on. And everybody was back at work again the following day (Those large Luggers had a crew of 5 to 8 men).
“New Year’s Eve is known in Irish as Oíche Coille or Oíche Chinn Bhliana; it is also known as Oíche na Coda Móire (Night of the big Piece – when plenty is eaten). They used to have horns and bells on New Year’s Eve, playing music and making noise to say goodbye to the old year and to welcome in the new.
“They used to have saucepans and tin dishes; they used to strike them with sticks, anything to make noise. That is still the custom in this area. But death often put an end to the celebrations. If a person in the locality had died recently there would be no noise on that night.
“New Year’s Day is Lá Coille in Irish. The weather was closely observed on that day because people believed that the weather for the year would follow the pattern of that day. For example, if the day was very rainy, they believed that it would be a wet year. If the wind was from the south or west, they said that it would be a good year for food and for fishing.
“There was a rhyme: ‘An ghaoth aduaidh bionn sí fuar/Agus cuireann sí fuacht ar dhaoinibh; /An ghaoth anoir bíonn sí dubh/Agus baineann sí an rath de shíoltaibh; /An ghaoth aneas bíonn sí tais/Agus cuireann sí rath ar shíoltaibh;/An ghaoth aniar bíonn sí fial/Agus cuireann sí iasc i líontaibh.
(The north wind is cold and makes people shiver; the east wind is black and takes the good out of seeds; the south wind is mild and makes seeds grow; the west wind is generous and fills the nets with fish).
The Epiphany or Twelfth Night is known as ‘Nollaig na mBan’ in Irish. On that night it is said that watercress turns to silk and water to wine. Once a woman spent the night watching the well and she was found frozen to death in the morning. There is a saying about that night: ‘Nollaig na mBan, Nollaig gan mhaith’ (The Women’s Christmas – Christmas without much).”
Seán Ó hAo (Hamit) was born in 1861 and died in 1946. His wide range of folklore was recorded in 1940 when he was in his 80th year. After relating his memories of Christmas in his youth, he goes on to describe the changes that occurred during his lifetime.
He says: “Most of the old customs connected with Christmas are being lost now. People don’t have the same interest in them as they used to have. The people aren’t half as interested in Irish as they were and many think the old customs are nonsensical.
“The habit of cleaning and tidying the house and its surroundings still continues. People look forward to Christmas and are glad when relations – sons, daughters – return for a week or a fortnight, all together happy and friendly. Instead of having three big candles in the kitchen window, people changed to having one in each window of the house.
Children, of course, enjoy Christmas the most. They have plenty sweets and cakes; often they eat so much of them they get sick. They have more to eat and drink than we had when I was young. The games that we played on Christmas Day have stopped. Most people spend the day at home.”