John Corbett recalls the lead up to Christmas in the East Galway of his childhood
W e loved December. The days seemed to fly by so quickly and there was so much to anticipate in the coming weeks that it seemed as if we were living in a dream world.
Adults celebrated Advent by abstaining from meat and other foods. The poet, Patrick Kavanagh mentions ‘Black sugarless tea’ as being part of Advent, but restrictions like those that were observed in Lent, were on the decline in mid-century in our part of the world. Cleaning was a big issue in Advent.
PREPARING FOR CHRISTMAS
House floors were washed, bed linen cleaned, bedspreads changed, windowsills dusted and touched up with paint. and the hob received a fresh coat of whitewash. On Christmas Eve my mother would take out the galvanize tub and Marie and myself were rubbed, scrubbed and polished until we shone.
This occurred a few times per week in the ordinary run of things, but it was more intense and took longer on Christmas Eve.
Our parents stressed the need for inner cleanliness as prescribed by the Church authorities, and like the other children from the neighbourhood, we took our places in the queue for Confession. We went to Confession once a month and it was sometimes difficult enough to produce a list of ‘offences’ for the confessor.
One local cleric used to speak jokingly of ‘the grocery list’ that he had to endure when people came to acknowledge their sins. Very few priests were as flippant as this about it, even though no doubt many of the penitents must have tested their patience, as they listened to the endless accounts of evil doing.
Mention of which inclines me to think that our transgressions would be considered pretty tame by modern standards.
Elders spoke about how nice it would be to attend Midnight Mass but few managed to do so. This was due to fact that the celebration of Midnight Mass only took place in towns and cities and the majority of rural dwellers didn’t have suitable transport.
At that time travel was limited. At present nobody raises an eyebrow if someone goes to England, or even further afield, to attend a party or social event, but back then travelling for pleasure by rustics was practically unknown.
ON THE LAND
Things were quieter on the farm, yet there was no scarcity of work. Feeding stock took up a great deal of time. There were few haysheds in our village. This meant that hay was stored in the haggard and was either pulled by hand or cut with a special bench knife. This was quite a challenge for young people or for those advanced in years. Numb fingers and thorn pricks were ‘extras’ that often accompanied the pulling of the hay.
We availed of a ladder when cutting the hay with a bench knife because haggard cocks were fairly high. Some farmers favoured ‘winds’ made in a kind of rectangular shape instead of the common round cocks. There were also sheep cocks and they were cleverly designed. They had wooden poles at the centre and, when the sheep had eaten most of the hay near the ground, the rest of it tended to slide down within reach of the grazing animals.
AN ECO FRIENDLY SOLUTION
The hay could be gathered manually and brought in a bundle to where the stock were, but more often than not it was tied in a rope and carried on one’s back. It was seldom put in a bag or on a cart.
Cattle were generally fed out of doors. We were fortunate enough because the places that we used for feeding cattle had good shelter. Furze bushes and blackthorn hedges came in very useful too.
We had an open shack in Coolock where the animals could wander in and out as they pleased. It was built by Johnnie Quinn from Ballinastack and I reckon it was one of the most
eco friendly structures in the district.
A ditch served as a back wall and the roof was made from rushes that grew in the same field. The sides and the roof timber came from some of the trees that had been growing nearby. My father helped with the construction.
Johnnie fulfilled the roles of architect, engineer and works manager. It was a cashless transaction but Johnnie’s efforts would be acknowledged via the use of a turf bank, or help with the harvesting.
Both my father and Johnnie were good conversationalists and occasionally other members of the family were liable to complain about lack of progress in the work arena due to the lengthy debates on World War II, the Suez Canal Crisis and other topical matters.
The duo weren’t unduly upset by the criticism and could point out that humans and animals under their care were well nourished at all times, as proof of success in the area of work and farm management!
The partnership continued for several years and both families formed a friendship that lasted a lifetime.
Cooperation of this kind was widespread among members of the rural community at the time, resulting in ploughs, harrows and various kinds of farm appliances being shared among neighbours.
A SPECIAL TIME
We didn’t realise how privileged we were to be living in such an environment. Break-ins, robberies or anti-social behaviour were practically unknown. The most frequent instances of law breaking in our parish related to unlit bicycles and unlicensed dogs and fines rarely exceeded three shillings.
The annoying thing was that dogs that normally remained silent when visitors arrived, were liable to announce their presence by barking loudly whenever a Garda approached!
Failure to have your name inscribed on your cart or trap, was another offence punishable by law.
I’m sure many of you have heard the yarn about the cart owner that was held up by a policeman on one occasion. The name had faded from the vehicle and the guard said, “I see your name is obliterated.”
“Indeed, then, ’tis not. My name is O’Flaherty,” replied the owner.
A WELCOME CALLER
There were several rituals linked with Christmas. Householders in our area liked to have holly to decorate kitchens and parlours. It was easy enough to find ordinary holly but the variety with berries on it was a different matter. Birds are likely to devour the berries and neighbours felt that there was something missing if they didn’t have the ‘red and green’ for their houses.
J.P. Gilmore from Mounthazel knew where the best berried holly was to be found. He used to supply neighbours with large quantities of it in the days leading up to Christmas. He was heartily welcomed by villagers and he took time off to discuss the latest news over a cup of tea or ‘a glass’ by the fire.
He had spent a number of years in Britain before returning home to farm his parents’ holding with his brother, Frank. He was a great conversationalist and we loved to listen to accounts of his experiences overseas.
J.P passed on some years ago and there have been no deliveries of berried holly in the district since his departure.
Other forms of decoration have taken over and those who seek the traditional type have to go to garden centres, or the local market, for their supplies.
The Yule Log was kindled in some areas, but it wasn’t part of the preparations in our house. We were happy with good fires fuelled from the turf of Coolock Bog, augmented by chunks of ash branches that we had chopped in the preceding days. Large red candles were considered essential.
If you passed on Christmas Eve, you were almost certain to see one glowing in each small window. I was usually given the task of lighting the candles because the accepted practice locally was that the youngest male member of the family would do so and I fitted into that category.
The weeks leading up to Christmas were spent getting presents ready and posting them to distant relatives. Like other families, we used to send fowl to friends over-seas. They were fine when they left Ireland, but I often wonder what condition they were in when they arrived at their destinations in Britain or elsewhere.
Our postman, Mick Ryan, had a really busy time. On most occasions he relied on his trusty bike to deliver letters and parcels, but he usually treated himself to the luxury of hiring a car on his last round before Christmas.
Like his successor, Seamus Dilleen, he had a pleasant greeting for all of his customers. Both men steered clear of gossip, but had ready audiences for their deliberations on Gaelic games and sporting matters.
Mick was an outstanding goalie who played a vital part in the success of the local team when they won the County Hurling Championship in the early part of the century.
Weather lore was one of his favourite topics and he could quote a wide selection of soothsayers and predictors.
WHEN THE GOOSE WAS COOKED
We relied mainly on the sale of turkeys for spending money at Christmas, therefore markets were closely watched in mid-December. Neighbours discussed the latest prices and the best venues at which to sell them.
Horse and carts were brought into action to bring them to the market. This was one of the few occasions when creels were attached and the top of the cart was covered so that the turkeys didn’t escape en route.
Geese were also sold at this time. However some were kept for Christmas and New Year’s Day and were the main ingredients on our dinner-table during the festive season.
My father liked goose meat, claiming that the flesh of the turkey was too dry. The rest of the family had mixed feelings on the matter. For Marie and myself, the dessert, rather than the main course, was the focus of our attention.
My mother and Aunt Emmy were able to come up with some of the most mouth-watering ‘afters’ imaginable and we never left the table until we had done full justice to the fare on offer.
Our friend, Bill Smith, was an avid fan of goose meat but his family didn’t share his preference. Once we gave the Smiths a present of a goose and Bill, in the company of his son-in-law, Michael, were faced with the challenge of devouring the whole bird by themselves. According to Bill, they managed to do so at one sitting.
Plucking fowl was another common ritual prior to Christmas. Next door neighbour, Tom Mannion, was one of the fastest people that I came across at this job. Tom was an all-rounder on the agricultural scene and his strength and generosity meant that he was the first villager to be called upon when a cow was calving or when an animal had to be rescued from a drain.
“Did you tell Tom about the cow?” was an oft repeated question that my father would ask when we had a cow that was due to calve and I think it was the same in many other households.
Money didn’t change hands on such occasions but, of course, that didn’t mean that Tom, or people like him, were not appreciated. Generally those that had received assistance offered payment-in-kind to the helper. In Tom’s case he might be given cigarettes or perhaps farm produce that he needed.
SPECIAL DAYS IN DECEMBER
The Feast of St. Barbara was on the 1st., although some authors claim that the 4th. is the correct date. Miners and soldiers prayed to her for protection against injury and explosions. Like our own local saint, Kerrill, she is said to have the power of saving people from lightening.
Many of our parishioners collect water from Kerrill’s Well and they believe that this will safeguard them from thunderstorms. They claim that water from the well also helps to cure eye ailments and various other problems.
It always came as something of a surprise to me to learn that St. Nicholas has his feast day on December 6th. seeing that the great feast day linked to him is on December 25th.
The 8th marks the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. It is a church holiday. In earlier times it was the day when rustics visited town and cities and was used as an opportunity to acquire items that weren’t available locally.
Brian Day tells us that it is also the day that St. Budoc is honoured. He was a 6th Century holy man associated with Devon and Cornwall, although Day suggests that he was born in Waterford.
The 10th. is dedicated to St. Obert of Perth. He is the patron saint of bakers and in far back times those engaged in bread making used to perform a pageant in his honour.
St. Lucy is honoured on the 13th. She was often invoked by those suffering from visual impairment.
She was renowned for her charitable work and it’s claimed that she gave all her worldly possessions to the poor.
The winter solstice, which gives us the shortest day in this part of the world, takes place close to Christmas, but by the time the end of the month came, people were already talking about growing hours of daylight and were beginning to make plans for the coming year.