As Patrick Kavanagh might have put it, I was ten Christmasses of age and living in a place called Clerhane, a townland some two miles south of Clonmacnoise.
We were farmers, and there were five of us residing on the farm, my maternal grandparents, my uncle Joe, my mother and I. My father for economic reasons worked in Dublin, and I would only see him three times a year, the Easter break perhaps three days, his summer holidays that took place during the first two weeks in August, and of course for Christmas break which generally lasted two or three days depending, on how Christmas fell. You can imagine the excitement that built up in me as a child with the prospect of the approaching Christmas.
The Christmas I am talking about was 1954, indeed as time would prove, my last Christmas residing in west Offaly, as the following summer my mother and I moved to Dublin to live with my father, who had just purchased a house.
1954 is best remembered for the floods, the river Shannon reaching the highest level since 1925. I remember soldiers from Athlone assisting the farmers that year with the harvest. Folk were really looking forward to the bit of Christmas cheer.
That year I had dispatched my letter to Santa Claus in good time. I went to Clonmacnoise National School, a two teacher school, our teachers being a Maurice Lyne and Mrs Mary Duffy. Sometime in early November, they had suggested that all the children in the school should write to Santa Claus, giving a list of our preferred gifts and the usual warranties as to our good behaviour. Mrs Duffy cautioned that we should be modest in our requests, there were millions of other children in the World, and Santa Claus might be hard pushed to find toys for them all. She explained that sometimes, Santa Claus might not be able to source the present we requested, and could well leave something else instead. She emphasised above all how vital it was for us to be of good conduct, be obedient to our parents, teachers and our elders. Any breach of this warning could easily leave Santa Claus with no option but to put us on his bold list, the consequences of which was the withholding of a gift, or at least a lesser toy than the one requested.
Foy’s shop in Athlone
I had asked in my letter for a hobby horse and as a backup a leather football. As a child I had been fascinated with a hobby horse which was in the window of Foy`s Shop, Church Street, Athlone. I had over a number of years made this request of Santa Claus but with no result. In retrospect this particular request looked like my last throw of the dice. This fascination I had with the hobby horse is strange, as I lived on the farm and often rode the donkey or one of the ponies. Never the less, anytime we went to Athlone I always insisted on going to see Foy`s window.
We children all believed in Santa Claus, or at least the more suspicious ones maintained that they did. It never occurred to us, that it was odd when we compared our presents after Christmas, that Delia Lyons in her shop in Shannonbridge sold the same toys as Santa had delivered. Anyway I was happy enough, Mrs Cook the Postmistress in Shannonbridge, had given a personal assurance that she had forwarded the letter on to Santa, so all I could do now was to behave and wait for Christmas morning.
As we lived on the farm, most of the produce required for the Christmas dinner was at hand. What we would need would be purchased from Killeens in Shannonbridge the local village.
As a slight aside I found out what my grandmother bought for X-Mass 1931. Extracted from the Day Book at Killeens for 19th December 1931:
Mrs. Mike Claffey (my grandmother)
3 lb Currants 1/6
2 lb Raisins 1/8
1.5 lb Margarine 1/5
0.25 lb Peel 3d.
2 doz eggs (no price given but were 3/- per score)
0.23 stone flour 5.5d
2.1 Castor Sugar 10d.
As we prepared for the Christmas, there were a number of essential matters to be attended to. The Christmas cards had to be sent, especially to my mother`s friend Eileen in America, the shopping had to be attended to, my grandmother`s perpetual worry ensuring we got my uncle to go to confession and communion, decorating or at least cleaning up of the house for the Yuletide season, the killing of either a goose or turkey, and a hundred on one other things that had to be dealt with.
After Halloween, we tended to orientate toward the Christmas business.
Mid November, the Christmas cake was baked. Notwithstanding the importance of this activity, my grandfather and I were trusted to do the shopping for it. I am not really sure we were trusted, or it was a method of getting us out of the way. The donkey and trap were yoked, we were given a list of items to buy, were well wrapped up against winter weather, and off we went. Before we set off there was a lot of talk about the price of items, the prices were always going up my grandmother complained, and there was some lad called Costelloe who seemed to be responsible. By the time we were on our way I really disliked this Costelloe guy.
We set out, the donkey knowing the way, there was little steering required. My grandfather told a story, which I had heard him tell many times before, about how donkeys got used to going places and would be able to return without any steering. Many years earlier when he was a young lad in Bloomhill, they had gone to Ballinahown for Mass. There were a large number of donkey and traps lined up outside the Church, while folk were attending Mass. During the Mass service himself and another chap called Gaffey, slipped out of Mass, and then proceeded to change all the donkeys from their own trap to another. When Mass was over, this caused consternation, as of course the donkeys headed off home as usual, which was now wrong as they were with different owners. My grandfather said that were terrible to do this, though looking at the mischievous look on his face, I feel he was still quiet proud of his little prank all these years later.
We headed off, past Mannion’s, Egan’s, McGuinness, Daly’s, Shrahan’s and Captain Kelly’s, so called because he resembled some Army Captain and finally into Killeen’s, where we presented our list to Mrs. Killeen, exchanged pleasantries, said she would deal with it, offered a bottle of stout to my grandfather and a bottle of lemonade to myself.
Killeen’s bar and grocery
My grandfather struck up a conversation with an old codger at the bar, at least to me he seemed old, maybe ancient. They discussed the weather, dreadful, worst in living memory, then moved on to the floods, the highest that anyone could remember. ,`We`ll have a famine` the codger ventured, `oh we could` my grandfather replied. Not knowing what a famine was, I was kinda looking forward to this famine. They discussed your man Costello, who in their right mind would vote for him. They talked about Christmas and what a terrible waste of money it was. They went on to the clergy, the priest looking for the Christmas Dues and he in that fine house and having a big car. At this point in the conversation, my grandfather told a story about `Oats Money`. This was a contributions made by parishioners towards the upkeep of a horse for their Priest. My grandfather told how some years earlier, when the then Parish Priest Fr. Higgins, got a car, he came around the following autumn looking for his Oats money. My grandfather had queried the need for Oats money as the car did not eat oats. This story amused him.
They discussed some local lad who got bound over to the peace for getting into trouble while drunk. They agreed that drink was a terrible thing, though in fairness to my grandfather he was a light drinker. The conversation then moved on to football and hurling, though of course the lads today could not hold a candle to the players in their youth. They moved on to talk about a local young lady who had contacted T.B. They agreed it was a terrible scourge. From that they talked about holly and how it was a bad year for the berries. At which point my grandfather said as he always did, `a haw year a raw year`, meaning I understand that if the haws were plentiful on the trees the other crops would be poor that year.
At this point in time they were interrupted by Mrs Killeen.
Our groceries were ready, another drink maybe, no my grandfather insisted, I am not sure his `friend ` concurred. In the heel of the hunt, my grandfather extricated himself.
Mrs Killeen went through our list to ensure we had everything. This was important as the previous Christmas we had got into a spot of bother, Mrs. Killeen no doubt with the best intentions in the World, had asked us if we needed a number of items, being unsure we of course agreed to all her suggestions, only to find out when we got home that my mother had procured these items the previous Sunday. It was pointed out to us that we were right idiots, as my uncle Joe said, `what can you expect when you send an ould idiot and a young idiot on an errand?`. Anyway we did not repeat the mistake and headed home. We bid Mrs Killeen goodbye and headed off home. I checked that the most vital item was among our groceries, a large red candle, for I could not conceive of a Christmas without a massive red candle.
My mother and granny baked the Christmas cake later that week. The cake was baked on an open fire, they did not have an oven, when I look back on it today, when we have smart cookers, fridges, etc etc one really has to marvel at their ability to bake such top class cakes. Of course they baked all the bread we used. This was truly amazing.
With the cake out of the way, we did not do much else until December. Around the time of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception we got down to business.
My grandmother was as usual still bothered about saving my uncle`s soul, had he gone to confession, done his Easter duty (that is the obligation to get confession and communion between Ash Wednesday and Trinity Sunday), her queries were always met with mumbled responses, which she of course understood that he had not. The campaign to get my uncle spiritually in order always took the same course each year. On Christmas Eve each year my father would turn up in his Ford Anglia, and then we would be all parcelled up and sent into Athlone to cleanse our sins, of course the real object was to get Joe into a Confessional box. While this continually occupied my grandmother, `I`d hate for a son of mine not to see the face of God`, was her mantra, she was happy enough to leave it until the arrival of my father.
The next big decision was what to eat on Christmas Day. Would we have a goose this year, or maybe a turkey? This was pondered over for a few days, turkey was handy, goose can be very greasy, eventually it was decided that we would have turkey. Killing the turkey would be my grandfather`s job.
As a slight aside, we of course raised turkeys for sale, which provided some money. Some folk would often kill a turkey, with the intention of sending it off to a relation away from home, perhaps Dublin or some city. I recall this used to cause major havoc in the Post Office, where Mrs. Cook reigned supreme. When posting a turkey, one had to put sealing wax on the parcel, a simple enough task you would imagine. Wrong, I remember the rows in the Post Office, as no matter how hard the people tried with the sealing wax it was never up to Mrs. Cook`s requirements. I can recall occasions when these `exchanges` almost came to blows. Customers coming out muttering `that bloody bitch, who does she think she it?`. Watching Mrs. Cook spar with her customers, was one of my favourite pastimes in the run up to Christmas. In today`s World I would imagine Mrs. Cook would have featured on `Liveline`.
My grandfather would attend to the killing of the turkey. My mother would always take me away for stroll during this operation, clearly believing it would scare me. This would also occur every time Tom Reid came to kill a pig. However I was allowed to partake in the plucking the turkey, a chore supervised by my grandmother, who also attended to the cleaning out of the turkey, not a job that attracted itself to me. The wings were of course saved as auxiliary cleaning instruments.
Our decorations which consisted solely of holly were put in place, windows cleaned, everything that could shine was shining, and generally the house was made to look as good as possible. We did not have a Christmas tree and as I recall very few people did. I suppose not having electricity would have made it a rather pointless exercise.
We did not receive many Christmas cards as I recall, but those that we got were put up on the dresser. My mother used to have one eye out for Kieran Fallon the postman, in the hope that he would have a Christmas card from her friend Eileen Nobilio in America. It rarely arrived before Christmas, most years it would come in mid-January. My mother would always be happy to receive it, and would make some comment that Eileen was a bit dreamy and arty. Eileen, Duffy was her maiden name, had married an American G.I. during the war and emigrated to the U.S. My mother and Eileen were cousins and were very close friends.
I recall those dark days of Advent coming up to Christmas seemed to drag on and on. School closing for the holidays was a sign that we were almost there. My mother would be very busy getting things ready, while I was wishing the days away.
That year Christmas Eve fell on a Friday, and when it arrived I was bursting with expectation. On that day my father would work a half-day in the C.I.E garage where he was based, which as I recollect was Ringsend Garage. By now everything would be in order, and on the day in question I would be on red alert waiting for my father. I would go up the boreen umpteen times to see if he was coming. After an eternity he would arrive in his car. There was great excitement as we welcomed him, poor man was always met with the same question that all folk returning for Christmas get `when are you going back?`, `Sunday evening` he indicated. There was great conversation going on, exchanging pieces of news, your man Costelloe came up again, `who the hell put him in?`. I was not sure where they put him, but with the talk about him causing all our troubles I hoped it was not a nice place.
My father would of course bring in some gifts for the Christmas which always featured a lovely cake with a red robin mounted on it. He brought this cake every year so he must have sourced from the same shop. I used to love the little red robin.
There was a small ritual that happened every year. After my father had the mandatory cup of tea, he would go outside for a while, my grandmother would stay in her room, she would open the window in her room and exchange words with him, she would shut the window. I did not realise then that this was `Santa` moving in mysterious ways, passing my present to my grandmother, later to be put beside the fireplace in the parlour, where Santa usually left his gifts.
About this time each year, after my dad`s reception could be deemed complete, granny would get down to business. You`ll be going with Joe to confession, Paddy (my dad`s name)?` `Oh, yes, Mrs Claffey, sure we might head off into Athlone for Confession and maybe a haircut` was the ritual response. The rest of the family would have had their spiritual needs tended to in Shannonbridge church which attended each week.
Around five o`clock the three of us would get into the car and head off. We always went via the Connaught side, head into Shannonbridge, over the bridge and off through the townlands that lay west of the Shannon. Being very dark at that time of year, we could see a lighted candle in the window of most houses as we passed. My uncle and father chatted away, laughing and exchanging bit of news, even jokes, which I found hard to understand. It was as if they did not fully comprehend the gravity of the mission we are on, which was of course to get Joe to Confession. I remember feeling quite tense during this time each year, would he go, how would we tell granny if he did not? Eventually we reached the town of Athlone, parked our car and got out. I noticed the brightness, as the shop windows were lit up and decorated for Christmas. There were some Christmas lights along the streets, though nothing like one would see today. The lights in the shop windows were lit and folk could window shop, something one rarely sees nowadays.
`We should get our hair cut first`, my father would say. So we headed off to Connaught Street, where a Jimmy and Billy McCormack worked as barbers in number 40. Though I was still concerned about Joe`s Confession, I recall my uncle and dad chatting to the McCormacks, the usual stuff and of course your man Costelloe came up again. I recall them talking about the Evening Press which had just been launched. When we had our hair cut, dad paid and we wished them a Happy Christmas and headed off. While preparing this piece I made contact via Facebook with a niece of Jimmy McCormack, she told me he closed the business in the mid-sixties, as Jimmy put it ‘he closed the shop when long hair became the fashion’.
With our grooming over, we headed over to St. Peter and Paul`s Church for Confession, though not before I had made my usual visit to Foy`s Shop in Church Street, to look at the array of X-Mass fare on sale. The darn hobby horse was still there preening himself.
When we got inside the Church I recall there were huge queues, as folk waited to cleanse their souls. I was concerned that Joe would stay the course, and was much relieved when eventually I saw him enter the Confessional box. I would be able to report back success to granny. Now the next problem was to get him to communion in the morning. My father having been through this operation before, indicated that we would head off home, as we would have an early start tomorrow. My uncle suggested a drink, but dad demurred. So we headed home, this time on the Leinster side, Ballinahown, Clonfinlough, Clonmacnoise and home. The final piece of the jigsaw to save my uncle`s soul, was to ensure that he fasted from midnight until we got him to communion in the morning. This matter worried me. My granny was most vigilant in policing this part of the operation.
I was bundled off to bed, it was vital that I be asleep before Santa arrived. Excited to fever pitch, I would turn and twist over and over again until finally I would slip off to sleep. I recall getting up at cock crow on Christmas morning, rushing to the parlour and there in the fireplace I saw a parcel, I ripped it open and discovered a leather football and a book by a Charles Dickens called Oliver Twist. I noted there was no hobby horse, however I was pleased with the gifts, noting it was strange how Santa and my father seemed to agree that a book was a good gift. I began hopping the ball on the kitchen floor, which of course had the effect of getting everyone up out of their beds.
My mother headed off to first Mass in Clonfinlough which would free her up to do all the cooking. My uncle, my father, grandfather and I all headed off to Athlone to get Mass in the Franciscan Friary. I am not sure why we never went to Shannonbridge on Christmas morning which was only two miles away.
It was raining and I recall my grandfather being amazed when a man came into Mass wearing a plastic mac, which he took off, folded into a small bundle and put it in his pocket. My grandfather clearly had never see a plastic mac before and marvelled how a man could take off his top coat and put it in his pocket, this gave him a serious conversation topic for a good while. During Mass, I was still worried about my uncle`s spiritual welfare, had he fasted from midnight as prescribed, I had a knot in my stomach until at last I saw he go up and receive Communion, I could now report back to granny.
Mass over, we headed off home, we dropped in to say hello to a cousin Maggie Hynes who lived in the Old R.I.C. barracks in Doon. We exchanged greetings. I am sure she could have done without our visit, which no doubt interrupted her dinner preparations. We said our goodbyes and went home.
Granny was delighted when I reported on my uncle`s spiritual welfare. The dinner would be at three o`clock. Our cousin Joe Egan from Cloniff would be our only guest this year. Joe, a really nice man came every year. Oddly, we were all cautioned not to mention your man Costello when Joe was around. Grandfather said he was something called a Blueshirt. I promised not to talk about Costello.
Joe Egan arrived, exchanged greetings, chatted away about everything except your man Costello. The big red candle was lit, food was served up, my father said Grace and we ate our fill. The conversation went to and fro, and as always, my grandfather said there would be a stretch in the evenings now, telling us that by Little Christmas night the days would be longer by the amount of time a cock would stay still on a dung hill.
After the main meal we had custard and jelly, and then we would have tea and cake. I wanted the cake with the red robin, which my dad had brought, cut and eaten. `Ah no, we shall hold it until tomorrow` my mother would say, `we`ll have the cake I cooked today`. This always annoyed me as I coveted the cake with the red robin. Anyway what can`t be cured must be endured.
After the dinner we would have to attend to the livestock and ensure that everything was in order. My grandfather would be like a herring on a griddle every day, until he saw the donkey tumble. I often remember my uncle confirming he had seen the donkey tumble, clearly to calm down and reassure my grandfather.
Christmas night we would normally play cards and chat generally to put the day down, listen to the news on the wireless, be glad that the Pope had sent his blessing to us. As I recall we only listened to the wireless for news bulletins and football matches. I don`t recollect listening to music. Guess the bother of getting wet batteries charged made them spare them. Finally we would head off to bed.
The following day, being the feast day of St. Stephen I was up early and went out to try out my new football. Midmorning some wren boys would arrive. My grandfather would tease them, he would not give them a treat unless that had actually got a wren, he would tell them that in his youth, you would have to go out and catch a wren first, and unless you could show some blood you would not get a treat. Eventually he would relent and give them a few coppers.
After an early dinner we would always head off to the convent in Ferbane, to visit my aunt who was a member of the Order of St. Joseph of Cluny. My mother`s sister Annie who was called Sr. Monica in religion. As we prepared to visit my heart sank, as it did every year, `sure we can`t go in to see her with our hands empty, we can bring in the cake Paddy brought down as a gift,` which was of course the cake with the red robin on it. This was what happened, every year, my lovely red robin ended up in Gallen Priory, Ferbane. Many years later on the occasion of Sr. Monica`s 90th birthday, when I was asked to say a few words, I complained bitterly as to how she had cheated me of my red robin all those years earlier.
Apart from losing the cake, the visit always went well, I was fussed over, and we were all given nice treats. That year as we left, my mother appeared to be a bit more sad than usual. It appears that my aunt had broken the news to her that she was being sent on the missions to Sierra Leone in the then British West Africa for five years. I suppose as my grandparents were aging, there was the possibility they would not see my aunt again.
We went home and settled down for the night. During the evening of St. Stephen`s Day a number of groups of older wren boys would visit, take over the centre of the floor, dance and sing, and finally look for a contribution. My memory of those times is that I was scared of the wren boys. I reckon the way they were costumed frightened me. As the night came to a close I used to get quiet sad, as tomorrow my father would be heading back to Dublin to his work. I used to pray for a bad frost, if the roads were really poor he might not be able to drive and I would have him for one more night. This rarely happened.
It did not happen in 1954, so after dinner on the 27th he packed up his stuff and headed off. We would exchange big hugs, promised to write each week, and sure it would be no time until Easter when we would see each other again. I remember I used to be sad for a few days after he went back. Now as I Iook back at it, I wonder how he must have felt having to leave his wife and son behind.