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A Child’s Christmas In Ireland.

A Child’s Christmas In Ireland in late 1950s.

Courtesy of Thurles Author & Poet, Tom Ryan ©

Christmas, in my short-trousered, tousle-haired, cowboy-strutting, Flash Gordon mimicking days in that street of wild abandon that was virtually our entire world; began a week before the birthday of Jesus Christ in those days through which we of innocence lived.

We had, of course, seen movies about Christmas in the New Cinema which was for some inexplicable reason, called ‘The Wan Below’ and in the Capitol Cinema which was known as ‘The Wan Above’. We had seen Christmas scenes from ‘A Christmas Carol’ and bemoaned the frustrating fact that the ice was not as thick in the glassy, white-frosty, frozen ponds just outside the town as it was in faraway England.

The ice on the road was a slide stretching for maybe one hundred yards on which the bigger boys with great shouts of ‘Wheyeee’ skated on their good leather winter boots to keep the ‘cowld’ out, skated faster than the few motor cars then in town, utterly regardless of whatever calamity a high speed fall might bring. They were the fellas who did not wilt, when the leather straps of the teachers and brothers reddened their wrists and hands.

We didn’t actually write letters to Santy in those days like now, and even today I wonder why bother writing to Santy at all; after all he is omniscient and knows what is good for every little boy of desire and girl of great expectations.

I remember how I always longed for a great huge tractor you could actually pedal like the real thing and how my heart burst with the thrill of Santy bringing me my heart’s desire. I never did get the tractor that for three years figured in all my dreams and boyhood ambitions. But it did not ever matter when the bells of the Cathedral of the Assumption pealed with a clear, airy sound on a Christmas morning.

The shops were great wonderlands stacked, shelf upon magic shelf, with the wonders of the world. It was all enough to make you loiter and be late for school, where the teachers in Irish and English told us to write essays on ‘An Geimhreadh’ (Irish -Winter) and ‘Christmas’ and when the Irish word for presents, ‘Feirini,’ had, indeed, a fairytale ring about it.

In those days especially on the nights around Christmas, as on many a Sunday night throughout the year, I marvelled at the Caruso sounding voice of an uncle who sang ‘I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts’.
He’d been in the British army during the war and he was so happy I thought it must have been great to have been a soldier. That was until one night I saw ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ in ‘The Wan Below’.

There in the uncle’s kitchen a cousin played an unusual type of music, whang, whang, on a hair comb, encased in silver paper, while another uncle jumped over a chair and “tut, tut, tut”, said my aunt, “but keep the porter, black and potent, out of his grasp”.
I also had an uncle who was “well in with the fairies and the leprechauns”. Often, he would take me aside, when I would visit him after school and urge me with a whispering caution to go out among the cabbages to see if the fairies had left me any gifts. Upon minute examination, I would find Cadbury’s chocolates, bon-bons, gobstoppers, licquorice sticks, bulls-eyes which we could also buy with our Sunday pennies, in a little shop on a corner of Fianna Road close to the Watery Mall in Thurles.

We talked about nothing else but Christmas in the week before the feast day, in our little hobby house underneath a great palm tree where we boys held Councils of War, General Staff meetings of the 7th U.S Cavalry (Which everyone pronounced ‘Calvary’) and debated, in the icy-cold evenings in the mystical darkness, the types of soldiers or cops or indeed, robbers, we would be, depending on what picture we had seen in the cinema the Sunday before. We talked about Santy mostly and some of the lads swore that they had actually seen the great man. Others tried to persuade us that Santy did not exist at all. Which of course, as we all know today was a lie. One of our company was so enraged by this dismissal of the existence of Santa that he tried to bring a boat (well, actually an airplane petrol tank) up the river in an attempt to discover the North Pole.

One of the most important tasks for youngsters was to decide on which ‘Annual’ they wanted from Santy. My butty always insisted on asking Santy for the ‘Lion’ and he would write for the ‘Tiger’ or ‘Film Fun’ and then we could go do swaps.
That was another nice thing about Christmas you could get brand new, fresh-from-the- shops, comics and ‘Annuals’ which had not been swapped from one end of the town to the other. Sixty- fours (War comics) and Dell and classics were all in demand and so Santy in his North Pole home was inundated with prayers from boys who’d even settle for a ‘Topper‘ or ‘Beano‘, should Santy be short of war comics or annuals this year.
All of us, of course, wanted Roy Rogers or Lone Ranger cowboy outfits with bang-bang silver-plated guns with ‘caps’ and lots of extra ‘ammo’ so we could launch a raid on the ‘Enemy’ at the other end of the town. The girls, with whom we never bothered about, really, were all worked up about dolls and roller-skates and spinning tops, latter you could beat along the road and ‘School Friend’ annuals.

I always, willingly, went to bed early on Christmas Eve, exhausted by the promise of the next day and the hectic shop-to-shop expeditions with my mother, who was always mad curious about what we wanted from Santy. We were only too happy to share our expectations with her as we called in to pick up the chicken or goose for the Christmas dinner or the ham for the St. Stephen’s Day celebration.

The older people always seemed happy on Christmas Eve. I remember a saw-dust-covered floor in a pub, where I used to be treated to bottles of lemonade and orange crush on a Christmas Eve. Men buying me iced buns and biscuits; all the better to put down time until after the day was spent. We cuddled up to Radio Eireann on a ‘Wireless’ hooked up to wet and dry batteries; to hear Christmas songs and stories from faraway Dublin.

We had been to Confession, to be soul-sparkling for the big day and we had made all sorts of promises to God, parents and teachers to be ‘good’ as we wanted to get our heart’s desire from Santy. I slept on Christmas Eve in a bed near a flickering fire of coal and timber and gazed for what seemed hours on end up the soot- covered chimney hoping the fire would quickly go out so that it would be safe for Santy to descend, red-coated, white-bearded, jolly and generous with all my presents. I never did manage to catch Santy in the act of delivery, and neither has any other boy or girl I’ve since discovered.

Of course it always seemed to snow around Christmas in those days. I used to gaze out the window as I lay in bed on a Christmas Eve watching the flaky snow crystals lightly falling from the heavens enshrouding our little street world with a great white blanket, pure and uncomplicated and as mysterious as the heavens from which it fell.

It was always the Cathedral bells chiming that awoke me on a Christmas morning, to the joy and fulfilment of a boyish fantasy that seemed so very real then. Yes, the ‘Annual’ was there and trains and tracks that actually went clickety-clack, like the real thing and sweets and a Christmas stocking with comics and oh! life was heaven on earth and I jumped out of bed, with the smell of bacon and sausages and fried eggs, deliciously wafting up my nostrils. Yet, I was too excited to eat and “couldn’t I go to last Mass instead of ten o’clock” and “I want to show my presents to my butty, and to see what he got” and . . .

All the morning through the snow streets I trudged seeking out best butties and even bad butties and what a great exciting commotion existed. We went to ten o’ clock Mass where priest always had a short sermon to enable us to get back to the presents in double quick time. I thought the high roofed cathedral had a magical quality like a castle of fairyland about it and we wished Baby Jesus a happy birthday in his crib of golden straw.
And after the steamy-hot dinner of roast potatoes, sea- green brussels sprouts, succulent ham and a black plum pudding, followed by custard and jelly and cream and tea and a slice of fruit cake, we would go to sleep for a while, with our comics, by the great black-red coloured range, in the holly and ivy covered kitchen, which I’d helped to decorate. Sometime before tea-time, we would go down to flip a penny or threepenny bit into the golden straw in the cardboard crib in the Cathedral and gaze at the lighted candles and light a few candles for those who had known Christmases on earth before us, though I didn’t understand that then. Then it was home to read the comics, play with the toys as the shades of night began to fall fast on the day. And maybe there would be a play or something on the radio to while away the night.

Older people thought and talked about older things and times and in their remembering, there was a certain sadness and oft-heard remark that Christmas was only for the children. It was a type of sadness I was not to understand until many more stars had lit up the skies over the quiet town and it’s quiet
streets, in a quiet world, that was the only world we’d known at that time.

Nollaig Shona daoibh go léir. (Translated “Merry Christmas to you all”).

Tom Ryan, “Iona”, Rahealty, Thurles, Co. Tipperary.

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