Category Archives: Celebrations in Ireland

An Irish Halloween

Hallowe’en: A witch riding a broomstick with a black cat. C 1908 Missouri History Museum (Image Wikimedia Commons).

It’s Halloween again, a traditional celebration that goes back into the mists of time.  This is a celebration that has evolved quite significantly even in the past century and more so, in Ireland at any rate, in the past two decades.

Halloween has its origins in Ireland’s ancient Celtic past. Samhain (Sow-an) was one of the 4 major Fire Festivals of the ancient Celts. Imbolg, Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain  fell on ‘cross quarter’ days – about half way between the solstices and equinoxes – and are celebrated on  February 1, May 1, July 1 and November 1.

Samhain (as with the other  Celtic pagan festivals) has been christianised and reinvented. The celebration has been de-paganized and has become Halloween – literally  meaning the eve of All Saints (Hallows) Day, which in turn is on the eve of All Souls Day (November 2nd.) . November 1 was designated the feast of All Saints by the catholic church as recently as the 9th century. Nevertheless, modern Halloween and the ancient Samhain Festival have common themes marking – then as now – the end of the growing season, the arrival of  dark days of winter and the returning of spirits from the other world.

50 years ago or so, in Donegal, in Ireland’s north-west, Halloweve, as we called it, was a fairly simple family affair, but one that was eagerly anticipated by youngsters, for it was an evening of fun and games and one when we enjoyed the fruits of autumn. It was indeed a magical evening of feasting that heralded a month of prayer and devotions for the Holy Souls (people who had died but were congregated in ‘Purgatory’ as they were not yet pure enough to enter heaven).

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An Irish homemade Hallowe’en mask  at Museum of Country Life  Castlebar, Co Mayo.

As for Halloweve itself, we would each have a ‘False Face’ – a paper mache mask, that in all honesty was more ugly than scary, and we delighted in wearing them all afternoon. Unfortunately very often the elastic designed to hold it on, would break at an early stage, and they would be discarded.

Tea time was a real treat with Colcannon piled high and rivers of melted butter flowing down the sides, followed by my mother’s Barmbrack – we called this simply ‘Brack’. Shop-bought Brack contained a ring, but for children a silver threepence or sixpence was a more appropriate ‘surprise’ to find and my mother put one in both the Colcannon and the Brack. (See Recipes below)

Colcannon

A pot of Colcannon, waiting to be plated up and crowned with a golden knob of butter. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

After tea we would have nuts –  hazelnuts from the hedgerows and monkey nuts (peanuts) from the shop and if we were lucky we would also  have a coconut. My father would drill through the ‘eyes’ and pour out the milk, giving each of us a small drink. He would then saw the coconut in half and we would be given a chunk of the chewy flesh – a real once a year treat!

peanutsPeanuts – an annual treat for Halloweve. (Image Wikimedia Commons) Every house had a nail driven into the door frame of which to hang an apple (I still have this nail on my kitchen door from my own children).

Fuji_appleApples – the key ingredient of our evening (Image Wikimedia Commons)

The apple was attached by its stalk to a long string and the trick was to get a bite from it without using hands to hold it. Apples were put into large bowls of flour,and several were floated in basins of water. In each case the apples had to be retrieved, or bitten,without using hands – the  kitchen often ended up in a wet mess, but it was great fun!  These were days before the unattractive practice of ‘trick or treat’ had crossed the Atlantic, and in days before television. Halloweve was indeed a highlight of our year and was the last great celebration before Christmas.

Hazelnuts_02Hazelnuts from the hedgerows. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

In Ireland, November 1 was a holy day, and so off we went to Church. Similarly on November 2, All Souls Day, we attended 3 masses, visited graveyards, and prayed earnestly for the release of souls from Purgatory. This continued throughout the month of November, designated the month of the Holy Souls, and we earnestly believed that our prayers helped release souls into heaven!

 Halloween Recipes.

Tea Brack.

This is not a cake, but is a bread, sliced thinly and buttered just like bread.

Brack

Buttered Brack. Image Wikimedia Commons

Ingredients

1 pound of fruit – Sultanas, Currants, Raisins.

1/2 pint of strong tea

12 ounces Self Raising Flour

1/2 teaspoon Mixed Spice

6 – 8 ounces of Brown Sugar

2 Eggs – beaten

A silver threepence or sixpence scalded in boiling water and then wrapped well in greaseproof paper.

Method

Put the fruit in a saucepan with the tea. Bring to the boil, turn off heat and leave overnight.

Sieve the flour and spice, add sugar and then the soaked fruit.

Stir all ingredients together , add beaten egg, and mix well.

Put all mixture into a greased 2.5 pound loaf tin.

Push the well wrapped coin  into the mixture

Bake at 170C (325 F) for 80 – 90 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean from the centre.

Serve cold.

Colcannon

This recipe is taken from my mother’s old cookery book – Full and Plenty by Maura Laverty

The recipe in the book is preceded by this old song

”Did you ever eat Colcannon when ’twas made with yellow cream
and the kale and praties blended like the picture in a dream?
Did you ever take a forkful, and dip it in the lake
of the heather-flavoured butter that your mother used to make?

Oh, you did;  yes, you did. So did he and so did I

And the more I think about it, sure the more I want to cry

Ah, God be with the happy times, when troubles we had not

And our mothers made colcannon in the little three-legged pot”

The recipe is simplicity itself and as with many Irish recipes, there are no quantities given.

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Hot Colcannon with a lake of butter ….(Image thesilvervoice)

Cooked potatoes

Milk brought to the boil with a tablespoon of minced onion

Shredded or finely chooped cooked Curly Kale or Savoy Cabbage

Salt and Pepper

Mash the boiled potatoes or put through a sieve or ricer

Beat in a knob of butter and then add enough of the milk  and onion, a tablespoon at a time,  to make the mixture light and fluffy.

Add to the potato mixture one half its bulk of finely chopped cooked kale. Beat well and reheat thoroughly.

Add the well scalded and wrapped silver coin to the mixture.

Make each serving into a volcano shaped mound, put a hole in the centre and add a knob of butter  and allow it to melt. Yum!

Happy Halloween!

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Filed under Celebrations in Ireland, Ireland, Irish Cooking, Irish Traditions, My Oral History, Oral History

Women’s Christmas, January 6 -An Irish Christmas Tradition

 

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Having celebrated Christmas and the New Year, we in Ireland are not done yet! We are still counting the twelve days of Christmas at the end of which we will have the final celebration. This is of course the uniquely Irish tradition of  Women’s Little Christmas when Irish women celebrate the end of the Christmas Season.  Although celebrated mainly in counties Cork and Kerry, it is great to see this tradition being revived and celebrations happening all lover Ireland. This post from 2012 has been read over 12,000 times, and here it is again to wish all female readers a Happy Women’s Christmas! 

 

 

All over Ireland, January 6 marks the end of the Christmas season – it is the day  on which the fairy lights, the Christmas tree, the decorations and the Christmas cards are taken down and put away for another year. It is considered bad luck if decorations remain displayed after this date! January 6 has many titles – Epiphany, Little Christmas, 12th Night , Women’s Christmas, Women’s Little Christmas,and Nollaig na mBan. Such an important day to have 6 different names!

Epiphany: The 3 Kings arrive with gifts

In Ireland, ‘Little Christmas’  (‘Nollaig Bheag’ in Irish) is one of the traditional names for January 6, the feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany is a Christian celebration of the day on which the Magi arrived with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to honour the new-born baby Jesus, the day on which Jesus is revealed to the gentiles. Epiphany is one of the oldest Christian holy days that originated in the Eastern church and was adopted by the Western church in the 4th century. ‘Little Christmas’ is so-called because under the Julian Calendar, Christmas day celebrations were held in January,whereas under the Gregorian calendar, Christmas day falls on December 25.

Twelfth Night,which coincides with Epiphany has been celebrated as the end of the Christmas season for centuries. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, Twelfth Night was one of the most  important days in the Christian calendar. Twelfth Night parties were common where participants enjoyed food and drink and games. A special Twelfth cake, the forerunner of today’s Christmas cake, was the centrepiece of the party, with a slice offered to all members of the household, above and below stairs. In 1756, The Gentleman’s Magazine reported that: the king, and his entourage ” went to the Chapel Royal at St James’ and offered gold, myrrh and frankincense” on Twelfth Night.

Some years ago I found myself in County Kerry on January 6. I was astonished to see hotels crowded with women – and no men to be seen! On enquiring, I was informed that they were celebrating ‘Women’s Christmas’ or ‘Nollaig na mBan’ in Irish. This has been a long-standing tradition in Counties Kerry and Cork, when women celebrate the end of the Christmas season, the decorations are down, the long season of preparation and cooking is over  and the women folk have a celebratory meal. It is also celebrated in Newfoundland which has a strong affinity with Ireland and in some  states of the United States of America where the tradition was kept alive  by Irish immigrants.

The fascinating thing about this tradition is that, rather than dying out like so many other traditions, its popularity has begun to grow and it is now being celebrated across the country. Women in Dublin organize lunches for their women friends, Limerick women are meeting in their own homes for lovely dinners, Sligo women are coming together to enjoy female company – women only ‘get-togethers’ are being organized all over the place! Long may it continue!

If you know of other areas where this tradition is celebrated, I would be delighted to hear about it.

Happy Nollaig na mBan (pronounced null-ag na man) to all readers!

References

Internet Archive :Gentleman’s Magazine 

bbc.co.uk

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Filed under Celebrations in Ireland, Ireland, Irish Culture, Irish Heritage, Irish Traditions, Living in Ireland

New Year Customs in Ireland

It’s almost the New Year! The Irish word for New Year’s Day is ‘Lá Caille’ which sounds slightly different in various parts of the country – Connaught, Munster and Ulster each have their own pronunciations.  These can be heard here.

I was never aware of any particular New Year traditions when growing up in Ireland 60 years ago. A quick search on the Duchas Schools Collection* however found several references to customs that have now sadly died out. (In the Irish transcriptions the day is given as ”Lá Coille”)

 

ny5.jpgOne scholar in Kilcurry School in Dundalk tells us that church bells and fog horns of boats and ships would ring the old year out and the New Year in at 12 o’clock, whereas in another there was a practice of tolling a slow bell in the last minute of the old year before the joyful ringing in of the New.

ny1New Year memories of  Peadar Ó Cadhla  of  Ballytrisane Co. Waterford, as recorded by Maighread Ní Cadhla  (Duchas Schools Collection)

Here we learn from Peadar that the first person up that morning  makes three circuits of the house. On the first two rounds he stops at the door and says ”The Blessings of God in here”. On the final circuit he enters the house dispensing blessings to all inside who respond appropriately.

There are several references to the first visitor to the house on New Year’s Day from many parts of the country. They consistently say that if the visitor is male and dark haired there will be good luck in the house for the entire year. If the first visitor is female however there will be no luck during the year.

ny2Séan Ó Maolchaoine from Kilfenora Co Clare tells us that and if a red-haired woman is first to enter there will be no luck whatsoever in that house for the entire year. It seems that red-haired women are really bad news at this important time! The similar tradition of ‘First Footing’ (or the first foot in the house after midnight) is still common across Scotland, where the  ‘first foot ‘should be that of a dark-haired male, to bring good luck for the year.

A ‘folk belief’ or superstition is known as a ‘piseog’ or ‘pisreog’ in the Irish language. These are often associated with major events, such as May Day and many relate to farming and crops and are to do with adding to or bringing ‘luck’.  Many of these associated with New Year have now fallen out of use but they were in widespread use at the time of the Schools Collection in the 1930s.

In Kerry, Paddy Donoghue from Kilmurry school tells us that water must never be drawn from the well on New Year’s eve. It will turn to wine at 12 o’clock (which appears to be a bad thing?!) and anyone who stays up to watch the transformation will disappear! Water for the day after New Year’s Day was drawn from the well before midnight on January 1st, as anyone going to the well after this would be drowned.  It was also soin Donegal according to Hugh Cassidy of Drumbar,  who added that old people never threw anything out on New Year’s Day.  ‘All the leavings of tea’ were kept in a bucket by the dresser. Other accounts say that ashes from the fire or used dishwater must not be thrown away either as all your luck will be thrown away with them.  There was also a belief that you should never part with money on New Year’s day. These customs are associated with a wish to have a year of plenty and actions carried out on New Year’s Day would continue throughout the year.

Donegal cows and horses were given an extra sheaf of corn on the day to make them work harder and produce more milk in the coming year.

ny3There are many references to the belief that if you eat plenty on New Year’s Eve then you will have plenty to eat for the rest of the year.  In this extract, from West Waterford we learn that the doors were struck with a loaf of bread on New Year’s Eve in the belief that to do so would keep hunger away. Here too we see that the direction of the wind on the day itself was crucial..if it blows from the north Protestants will be favoured, from the south and Catholics will benefit. Also if you stay up til 12 o’clock you will see the man you will marry in the mirror. Imagine that!

One of my favourite customs was that of giving a ‘hansel’. This was a gift of money given to relations on the Monday after the New Year. It was usually a threepenny bit. The receivers of the hansel will have money throughout the year.

threepence

The old threepenny bit – Hansel of days gone by

As 2017 draws to a close, I would like to thank everyone who has visited these pages  – over 50,300 this year. I look forward to welcoming you in 2018 and reading your own fabulous blogs. May you have a year of plenty in 2018!

ny4

 

References

More information on the Schools Collection, which is part of  the National Folklore Collection can be found  here

The manuscripts are in Englsh and Irish and are easy to search and use.

 

 

 

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Last Christmas Cards

Christmas Cards are said to have originated in 19th Century England when Henry Cole, who later became the first director of  London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, and his friend John Horsley designed the first one in 1843.  It had two outer panels showing the better-off bestowing gifts on the poor,  and a large central panel portraying a family  partaking of Christmas fayre. (Even the children enjoy quaffing the mead by the look of it!)

The First Christmas Card

The world’s first commercially produced Christmas card, designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843

By the 1880s the practice of sending Christmas cards had risen in popularity. The introduction of cheaper postage and development of printing technology meant that cards and postage were within the financial reach of many.  In the USA Yale anthropologist Micaela di Leonardo shows that the practice thrived amid postwar industrialization and the demise of the family farm. ‘‘As people dispersed geographically, women assumed responsibility for “the work of kinship” and became caretakers of extended family connections. Christmas cards were a convenient way for them to nurture relationships among their husbands, children, and distant relatives.”

Meanwhile a German immigrant to the United States, Louis Prange produced affordable cards for the mass market and then in 1915, John C. Hall and two of his brothers created Hallmark Cards, who are still one of the biggest card makers today.

In recent years the Christmas tradition of sending greeting cards appears to be succumbing to the instant and free communication platforms of social media.  I can recall having a list of 120 or so to write and dispatch perhaps 5 years ago.  It was an ‘excuse’ to greet those who had touched our lives, yet who were no longer in our immediate circle.  It was lovely to hear from them and to know all was well. Now, however,  the cost of postage has become a major consideration, while at the same time the cost of cards continues to decrease with 3 for 2 offers.  We can now purchase Christmas cards for charitable causes dear to our hearts, such as for dogs for the disabled, cancer charities, the homeless and so on, yet in spite of the reduction in the cost of cards, the increased cost of postage has become an issue in continuing the tradition. Who doesn’t love to receive a handwritten envelope containing good wishes?  Christmas cards lined up on the mantel are as much a part of Christmas as the Christmas dinner, but more than that, they are a link with friends and family who and may be far away and may be treasure for family historians.

Two of my most valued possessions are ‘last’ Christmas cards from both of our grandfathers.

For as long as I could remember we each received an individually addressed Christmas card from our maternal grandfather, Gaga Clinton.  He had beautiful handwriting that we recognized so well and inside each card was an eagerly awaited fortune – a Postal Order for ten shillings.

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A ten shilling postal order like this was a ‘lotto win’ for us children

Our Gaga Clinton dropped dead in his kitchen on Saturday December 19, 1959. He had posted the Christmas cards that morning so their arrival at our house in the following week was particularly poignant.

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One of the cards sent by our grandfather on the day he died in 1959

This card was the one sent to our mother by her father  59 years ago and it has become a family treasure.

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Christmas wishes in the 1959 card

Unfortunately the wishes in the card went unrealized as the sorrow of our grandfather’s passing cast a huge cloud on our Christmas.

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Memorial card for our Gaga Clinton

Many years earlier 74 years ago, during the second World War our paternal grandfather posted a Christmas card from Ireland to his eldest daughter, our Aunt May, who was a nun in England.  The card, from Christmas 1943,  was particularly sombre.

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Front of the 1943 Christmas card

The message was particularly apt for the time.

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When our Aunt May died in May 2007, this card was found in her prayer book. Her much loved father died unexpectedly in November 1944, at the age of 59, having contracted Typhoid Fever, so this was the last Christmas card she ever received from him. She must have had the habit of saving Christmas cards for a year, which in this case paid off as she would never receive another.

Christmas cards have a special place in our family history and I have the last cards written to me by my mother and by my father as well as those from aunts. They give a unique insight into the times that were in it, and they are greatly treasured. I for one regret the demise of the personal Christmas card, a card chosen, written, addressed and posted by those who cared about us.  A loss to family history for sure.

References

https://daily.jstor.org/history-christmas-card-holiday-card/

The Female World of Cards and Holidays: Women, Families, and the Work of Kinship.  Micaela Di Leonardo University of Chicago Press
Prang’s Christmas Cards

 

 

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Easter Monday in Dublin …A stroll in Stephen’s Green

There is a song that goes :

For Dublin can be heaven
With coffee at eleven
And a stroll in Stephen’s Green.

Such was the case for us on Easter Monday 2016, as we ambled about ‘The Green’ as it is known. We were in Dublin, Ireland’s Capital City, for events commemorating the Rising against British rule in Ireland, which took place on Easter Monday April 24 1916. St Stephen’s Green, a beautiful Victorian park in the centre of Dublin was one of the pivotal sites seized by the Irish Citizen’s Army on that fateful day. Under the command of Michael Mallin, the Green was seized, trenches were dug and barricades were erected.

Shelbourne Hotel as seen from inside Stephens Green

Shelbourne Hotel as seen from inside Stephens Green- Image Library of Congress.

On that evening the British Army moved troops into The Shelbourne Hotel and the nearby Hibernian Club, and on the next day from these vantage points, they fired down on the rebels in the Green. It is said that fire was temporarily halted to allow the Green’s groundsman feed the local ducks! The Irish Rebels eventually had to retreat to the nearby Royal College of Surgeons which had been occupied by Irish Citizen Army forces, led by Commandant Mallin and Countess Markievicz.  After surrendering on 29 April,both were tried and sentenced to death. Mallin was executed while Markievicz’s sentence was commuted.

The \fusiliers Arch at Stephens Green with bullet damage from British trioops who were firing on insurgents in the Green

The Fusiliers Arch at Stephens Green with bullet damage from British troops who were firing on insurgents at the Royal College of Surgeons.

All was quiet on Monday as we commemorated those events from almost a century ago.

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Events in the Green included concerts and a vintage circus, all of which took place in beautiful springtime sunshine, with families and individuals lapping up the atmosphere.

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Outside the buildings were draped for the occasion

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The Royal College of Surgeons, where insurgents were based in 1916

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The lovely Unitarian Church on Stephens Green

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Damian Shiels, historian,outside the Royal College of Surgeons where he was scheduled to deliver a talk in the Reflecting the Rising series to commemorate the events of 1916.

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Postboxes were painted red for the commemoration, reverting to the British mailbox colour. Irish post boxes are green nowadays.

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People wandered about having a good time. The Irish flag is green, white and orange, although we often see green, white and gold flags, which are incorrect. The green white and orange is an all inclusive flag that symbolises peace between the green, Catholic Irish and Protestant Irish, represented by the orange.

Back in The Green,these two memorial busts epitomize for me the discourse that is Ireland, the contentious issues that to this day divide. To me they are powerful in that these memorials stand as equals in one of Ireland’s most prestigious sites, one that was pivotal on that Easter Monday in 1916.

On the left is Tom Kettle, who having joined the Irish Volunteers went on to enlist in the British Army (Ireland was at that time part of Britian and tens of thousands went to war in British uniforms). He was killed at Ginchy, during the Battle of the Somme in September 1916. On the right is the revolutionary nationalist Constance Markievicz a suffragette and a socialist, who was on active service at Stephens Green on Easter Monday 1916. I love that they are both of equal stature in this very special place. It was a good day to be strolling in Stephen’s Green.

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Wren Boys An Irish Christmas Tradition

A Troupe of Wren Boys in Ireland (Image Creative Commons)

A Troupe of Wren Boys in Ireland (Image Creative Commons)

When I first came to live in Limerick some 30 years ago, I was totally astonished to have dozens of musicians and dancers arriving into my house throughout  St Stephen’s Day, 26 December. From about 10 am onwards, they arrived. The earliest were  small groups of local children with their musical instruments, often as young as 5 or 6 years of age. The great cultural network of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, active across much of Ireland, ensures that there are musicians in abundance of all ages to take part in events. In parts of Ireland, St Stephen’s Day,or Lá Fhéile Stiofán in Irish, is known as ‘Lá an Dreoilín’, meaning the Day of the Wren or Wren’s Day. Announcing their arrival by loudly playing the bodhran (an Irish drum) as they make their way towards the door, and with barely enough time to shut the startled dogs away, the door is opened wide and the musicians stream in. Dressed in old clothing, mostly in white, with assorted bits of tinsel, straw and holly attached to hats of all descriptions, they file in and proceed to entertain us with a few songs, some traditional airs expertly played on fiddles, bodhrans, accordions, tin whistles and flutes, and of course,Irish dancing. The entire performance lasts less than 10 minutes, and they play themselves out again, back into the(often very wet or sometimes snowing!) night! The last person to leave carries a bough of holly to which is attached some red and white streamers and an effigy of a dead bird, plus a bag or box for donations, singing as he goes

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
although he was little his honour was great,
Jump up me lads and give him a treat (pronounced ‘trait’)

Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
And give us a penny to bury the wren (pronounced ‘wran’)

The Wren, (An Dreoilín) King of All Birds, depicted on Irish postage stamp.

The tiny wren has been prominent in legend and folklore for centuries. The story of the election of the wren as of King of the Birds is to be found all over Europe, first mentioned by Aristotle in the 4th century B.C as being one of Aesop’s Fables from the 6th Century B.C. The story goes that the title King was earned in a contest between all birds to see who could fly the highest. The eagle managed to soar highest of all, but then the wren, having concealed itself in the Eagle’s feathers and ‘hitched a ride’ flew out and soared even higher. And so the wren became king. Irish versions of the tale go on to say that because of the deceitful manner in which the title was earned, the wren was placed under a ‘geis’ or taboo and this is why it is hunted.

In the 1940s the Irish Folklore Commission carried out a survey of the rituals of St Stephen’s Day across Ireland from which it is shown that the wren was usually hunted on Christmas Day. The dead bird was tied to a bush, usually holly, and on the following day was paraded by the Wren Boys (usually bachelors) from house to house as they sang the wren song. Money and food collected was then used to put on a wren dance some days later at which it was hoped that young unmarried people might meet and find a spouse.

Other stories of the killing of the wren are to do with its role in betrayal –  whether betraying the Christian martyr, Stephen, or betraying Irish soldiers by alerting the enemy  in the Viking invasions of the 8th century or by warning the Cromwellian army of the approaching Irish in the 17th century. Whatever the origins, the Wren Boy tradition has changed down the ages – the wren is no longer killed, and the custom of visiting each home has died out in many areas, musicians now go from pub to pub to entertain larger crowds, and money is often collected for charity.

The St Stephen’s Day procession is alive and well in parts of Ireland, most notably in Counties Kerry, Clare and Limerick as well as in some other areas.

Dingle Wren Boys

Dingle Wren Boys. Dingle in County Kerry hosts a world famous Lá an Dreoilín’

Men, women and children of all ages now go on ‘The Wran’. In recent years the tradition was revived in the city of Dublin where troupes of musicians singers and dancers take to the streets to give traditional entertainment for the feast of Stephen. While  it is no longer a ritual  to ensure fertility and prosperity in the community for the year ahead, it adds a colourful and enjoyable diversion in the Christmas season.

This is an edited version of a post from 2011.

References

An Cumann Le Béaloideas Éireann/The Folklore of Ireland Society

The Irish Wren Tales and Ritual. To Pay or Not to Pay the Debt of Nature, Sylvie Muller, Béaloideas  pp131-169 1996/1997.

Comhaltas

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An Irish Christmas from 60 years ago

‘There’s something about Christmas. There’s something about it that creeps inside and finds the child in you.’ These are the opening words of the magical Barry’s Tea ‘Train’ radio commercial. It is back on the airwaves so Christmas must be near! You can listen to it here.

Christmas in our Donegal home almost 60 years ago is a world away from Christmas in the early 21st Century. My mother used  to begin the Christmas baking in late October when she made two rich fruit cakes. The whole process seemed to take days as she assembled sultanas, raisins and currants, chopped the mixed peel and the glace cherries, soaked whole almonds in boiling water so the skins would slip off, then chopped them finely. This scrumptious mixture was placed in a huge basin, doused in whiskey and covered with a clean cloth to soak overnight. During the evening the cloth was lifted when there was no adult in sight, so we could inhale the beautiful aroma of liquor and fruit. Tins were lined first with buttered greaseproof and then buttered brown paper – an art in itself, akin to Origami as it took a lot of expertise to line a round tin!

The following day the serious business of baking took place; flour and raising agent were sieved; the exotic mixed spice, nutmegs, cinnamon, ginger and mace were measured out; eggs were beaten, butter was softened and black treacle was measured out of the tin. An argument would then ensue as to who  would get to lick the sticky black syrup from the spoon. This entire process took some hours as there was nothing mechanical in my mother’s kitchen — only a wooden spoon and an egg whisk with a wheel on the side. After all the beating, folding and mixing the tins were filled. We got to clean out every last bit of the mixture that still clung to the sides of the big cream coloured baking bowl, then we were banished  from the kitchen and had to whisper for the rest of the day. Any loud noise or banging door might result in the cakes ‘sinking’! A good cook’s worst nightmare!

The next day the cooled cakes were stripped of the paper, pricked all over with a knitting needle,’fed’ with whiskey and placed in an airtight tin. Over the following weeks  we had a weekly ritual of ‘feeding the cakes’ and replacing the greaseproof paper!

Similar preparation of fruit took place some weeks later when the Christmas puddings were made. A stale loaf was laboriously made into breadcrumbs. A bottle of stout was added to the mixture which made mixing easier for smaller people and we all ‘had a go’. The well-stirred mixture was placed on double layers of  large  squares of cotton –  old sheets  made excellent pudding cloths the corners were gathered up and tied securely for boiling, resulting in a beautiful round pudding!   Christmas was forgotten about then until about a week before when the Yule Log was baked as were my mother’s speciality – ‘Snowballs’. These were rounded balls of cake mixture, baked, then covered in jam and  rolled in shredded coconut – they always looked wonderfully tempting!   The two rich fruit cakes  were iced (two cakes as my younger brother had a birthday on Christmas Day and he was the only member of the family to have a birthday cake)  and decorated.  Then there was the marzipan to make – we smaller ones could not help with this as it was a very stiff mixture of ground almonds and sugars, but it looked lovely when done! About three days before Christmas we had the Royal Icing  that was spread all over the marzipan-ed cakes  and we enjoyed placing lovely little silver balls and little snowmen and  tiny Christmas trees into the icing. The Birthday cake usually had  less seasonal characters stuck into the royal icing, but always had NOEL piped on the surface, for that is my brother’s name .

Some days before Christmas the turkey arrived – alive. It  had to be dispatched and hung for several days then ‘cleaned’. Our next door neighbour Katie Ward did the plucking and it was great to watch her do it as she expertly pulled out all the feathers and then singed the skin with a taper to get rid of the very last signs of a feather. On one occasion, when I was quite small I was given the job of carrying the turkey to her house. Carrying it  by the legs with the long neck and head trailing down, wings flapped open, I  was followed by a dog who wanted to eat it.  He got hold of the head as I went in the gate. I climbed onto the wall and tried to hold the turkey up high so the dog could not reach my precious cargo. I was rescued when my roars for help were heard!

The ‘Christmas Box’ was a lovely tradition of the time. Walsh’s owned the main grocery shop in the village, selling fresh bread, butter, loose flour, bacon, loose biscuits, sweets, apples, Irel liquid coffee, Dundee cake and loose tea from the big foil lined tea chests, that had been packed into half pound packages. In the week before Christmas they gave a gift of a half pound of tea, a bag of sugar and possibly a bag of biscuits or a small cake to many of their customers. The ‘Christmas Box’ was greatly appreciated and well received by the recipients who were often of very limited means. It was a lovely tradition that epitomised the spirit of Christmas.

Excitement was now really building and we knew it was close when a strangely costumed man with face covered would burst into our kitchen (front doors were always open) and frighten the lives out of us. He was closely followed by a troupe of Mummers all well disguised, who rhymed their way through a performance  in which there was a narrator, two bragging men who  took part in a fight and various other characters.  One of the protagonists dies as a result of having a sword plunged into him, but is revived by a Doctor who demands money. Most of the characters are long forgotten , but I do recall a few. There was  Belzebub) and there was Jack Straw – ‘Here come I, Jack Straw, Such a man you never saw! and my favourite ‘Here comes I, Wee Divil Doubt, The biggest wee divil that ever came out’

Also in the days just before Christmas Carol Singers would arrive. They stopped outside the door, sang a few carols and hoped they might get a few pence in appreciation..they usually did!

Christmas Eve was a busy day –  my father would bring home  a Christmas tree that would be put up in the upstairs sitting- room and decorated with tinsel strips and tinsel ornaments.   He also brought lots of  berried holly and sprigs would be pushed in behind hanging pictures in every room.  Paper chain decorations were hung from the ceiling in the kitchen.  Stuffing for the turkey(or goose)  would be made to be ready for Christmas morning – more grating of a stale loaf to make breadcrumbs! This delicious mix of breadcrumbs, onions, butter and parsley  would have to be put out of reach  so we would not eat it all up!

It was impossible to get to sleep with excitement and we were under constant threat if we did not go to sleep Santa wouldn’t come – this only added to the angst and ensured that we would not get to sleep for hours! But on Christmas morning we woke very early  to find that Santa had in fact called and there would be something either on the bed or on the floor by the bed. A doll, a meccano set, a toy train, a button accordion, a jig saw – usually one toy each plus an annual or a book and a red net stocking filled with Cadbury’s chocolate bars. Bliss!  The discovery was usually made in the early hours, and needless to say we had to run and wake the entire house to announce what Santa had brought!

Then it was up for 8 o clock morning mass. We walked the mile or so to the Church and one of the loveliest memories I have is of Mandy Gallagher’s house at the end of the village street with a tall candle burning in every window – a magical site on a dark morning! And so to the chapel to hear the choir accompanied by the big organ give an almighty rendition of Adeste Fideles and Silent Night! It was Christmas!

Lunch was served about 1 o’clock and consisted of a delicious clear turkey soup made from the neck and giblets of the turkey, that had bubbled away all morning on the Stanley No. 7  Range!

Our Christmas dinner was served much later at about 4.30 pm. On the menu was roast turkey (or goose)  delicious  parsley and onion bread stuffing, brussel sprouts (cooked in true Irish tradition for the best part of an hour, with a pinch of bread soda until they  fell apart- not to be recommended in these modern ‘al-dente’ times!) and mashed potato. In north Donegal our name for the rather genteel sounding ‘mashed potato’ was in fact the very descriptive ‘poundies’!  The entire meal was enveloped in my mother’s absolutely fabulously delicious white sauce, made with cornflour and milk and butter and parsley.  After our meal we tucked into the Christmas pudding that was always served with hot milk poured over.  Yummy!

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My 3 year old brother blows out the candles on his birthday cake,Christmas Day 1955

 A little while later it was time for cake – big triangles of beautifully moist cake topped with hard sweet icing were served – how we managed to eat it is a wonder in itself!

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Tucking into the huge box of chocolates. The Christmas tree in the background is decorated with tinsel

Later in the evening we had a huge box of Cadbury’s Milk Tray chocolates. The big box had a beautiful scene on its padded cover – a snowy mountain scape or a Santa scene. What luxury!

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The Christmas guests 1955, in front of the fire, with my father in the centre. I think that the man on the left may be O’Donnell, possibly John? and the man on the extreme right may be Ward from the south of the County.

On some Christmases  we had guests at our table – people who worked locally perhaps and who could not get home to their families for Christmas  for many reasons – they may have not had the transport and there was no public transport to speak of, and they may only have had one day off work, so would have had to make the round trip in one day.

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My father, just a few days after his 34th birthday, enjoying and sharing the poetry of Robert Service on 25 December 1955.

After dinner my father would sit in his chair and recite from The Collected Works of Robert Service  and transport us to the snow-covered wilderness of the Yukon. He laughed heartily  as he read his two favourite poems:  The Shooting of Dan McGrew  (featuring a lady  that’s known as Lou!)  and The Cremation of Sam McGee

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
      By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
      That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
      But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
      I cremated Sam McGee.
The only Christmas of my childhood for which we have pictures is this one in 1955. We have 5 photographs in all, and 4 of them are shown here. (the remaining one is of my 3 year old sibling trying to light up a cigarette in behind the sofa!)
This post was inspired by Pauleen at Family History Across the Seas who  in her blog invited her readers to join in with the Christmas Geneameme. It sent me off delving into my family traditions and I am delighted to have had the chance to record a typical Christmas for my family.
There is indeed something about Christmas…

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Filed under Celebrations in Ireland, Irish Traditions, Living in Ireland