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“Nellie Keane’s Boxed Doll” – Short Story By Poet & Author Tom Ryan.

In Thurles, in the 1920’s, there lived a little girl on ‘Pudding Lane and Jail Street’, (Today’s Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa Street). She would grow up to become a Thurles trader.

I remember, when I was a boy, my father John Joe; trading on the side-walks of Liberty Square on what was known as ‘The Bank Corner’, situated at the junction of Liberty Square and Slievenamon Road in the town. My father traded in cabbage plants, fish on Friday’s and vegetables shared from my uncle’s cart.

There, too, traded Nellie Keane, who later went on to have own a vegetable shop in West Gate, where her daughter, Phil Keane, would also carry on a business and a tradition. Phil, who lived in Derheen, had the heart of a poet.

Nellie was twelve years old, and showing early signs of her entrepreneurial skills by doing messages for her mother in Nan Noonan’s shop in Liberty Square, where Scanlon’s newsagents later existed until recently.

On Christmas Eve, down in Noonan’s News agency, Little Nellie Keane was, like all the children in town at Christmas, gazing at the large number of asses, ponies, jennets and carts in town, enabling people to bring home their Christmas goods, which, back then, would include a ‘Hansel’*

[* Hansel – From old Saxon word meaning “to deliver into the hand”, latter being a small gift given at the end or beginning of the year to bring good luck from traders; a practise long since discontinued.]

Everybody was alive with the spirit of Christmas and toasting the spirit of the grand and glorious season. And it was a good Christmas, for business was brisk and people were happy enough, after a war in Ireland and a war in Europe.

And so, that Christmas Eve, as little Nellie Keane looked into that little shop window in Liberty Square, she sighed, when she noted that all the dolls were sold. However, just before she went home, little Nellie spotted this bisque coloured doll; a doll in a box.
Nellie wondered why that particular doll on this particular day was not already sold. “What’s the matter with the doll?” she asked Nan Noonan, a kindly lady, indeed.
“Oh, but that poor doll’s eyes never open, and sure we could not sell it so,” said Nan Noonan.
But Nan observed the wonder of Christmas in the sympathetic child eyes of little Nellie Keane, and her generosity led her over to the box containing the doll with closed eyes. She then handed the boxed doll to little Nellie. She asked Nellie to look after the mysterious doll and to always have nice clothes on
it, to play with it and to keep it pretty, proper and clean.

And so, delight on her face; the boxed doll cuddled in her arms, little Nellie strolled up the side-walk of Liberty Square, in Thurles, not caring how cold and frosty it was; with the snow beginning to cast it’s magic mantle over the whole town. She turned right at the corner of Liberty Square, hugging her precious doll; keeping her warm from the blasts of icy air, absolutely and utterly convinced it was really truly a wonderful world this day in the Watery Mall and Thurles town.
As the jolly carollers sang their songs of Christmas, little Nellie Keane knew this would always be the most memorable Christmas of all for her.

But our little story does not end here. Our little Nellie went home and wondered how she might cure the sore eyes of the little boxed doll. Could there be a way of asking Santa to help the little doll? She prayed to God and Santa on that Christmas Eve, and like little children all over the world, she went to bed early that night, but without her doll. For she felt she should leave her doll downstairs in the kitchen, beside the cosy turf fire, so she would remain nice and warm in that lovely Keane home.
Little Nellie, after a long time kept watch, peering out her small bed-room window for Santa Claus, who per chance might come over the fields, from the Presentation and Ursuline Convents, finally fell asleep.

The next morning she woke up and there were sweets in her stocking. But she could not wait to open such as she rushed down the stairs to give a little hug to her little boxed doll by the fireplace.
She burst into the kitchen and the most amazing and wonderful thing met her gaze. The doll, was now sitting up on a chair by the fire, with the most beautiful blue eyes she had ever seen.
“Oh, she was cured,” shouted Nellie, as she danced around the kitchen floor in delight, having removed the doll from its box.

Nellie’s father, Johnny Keane, suspected perhaps the heat from the fire had cured the eyes, or was it the kindness and love of a little girl who now hugged and kissed her little doll, wishing her a Happy Christmas.

But our happy story is still not over, for Nellie Keane grew up to be a much-loved and very kind and popular businesswoman in the Market Town of Thurles. According to her daughter, Phil Keane, Nellie never lost her love of dolls, and always had a present of a doll for Phil herself, on returning to Thurles after trips in Ireland and abroad.
Little Nellie Keane’s daughter, Phil, an old neighbour and friend of mine since childhood, became a world famous craftworker, who designed all kinds of dolls; Indian dolls, Red Indian dolls, Chinese and Japanese dolls, designed in all shapes and sizes, colours and materials.

Phil annually presented dolls and toys to children in need, in various parts of Ireland and Britain.
“I feel it’s nice to give back something,” said Phil, who won over 7,000 awards for crafts and cookery worldwide; an interest fostered by her mother’s love of dolls and by her Aunty Jo’s interest in crafts.
“Nellie loved dolls and she bred that love in me,” Phil told me once.
Well, times have changed, and the Market House in the Square and the men and the
women with the carts of fish and vegetables, (God be good to them), have now disappeared; vanished and gone into Thurles folklore.
I am sure that in the town of Thurles there are many little children now writing to Santa Claus, reminding parents not to forget to post their letters. And, though times and customs have changed, I’m sure that the innocence of childhood has not vanished with the years.
In a way, it would be nice to think that even some of the parents are not buying dolls for the children alone – but secretly for themselves, and, maybe, they’ll find out, like Nellie Keane all those years ago, through the kindness of a shopkeeper in Liberty Square, that there is magic and joy in even the
most bruised and broken toy.

Happy Christmas to ye, all!

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2 comments to “Nellie Keane’s Boxed Doll” – Short Story By Poet & Author Tom Ryan.

  • Anne

    Beautiful story, Remember Nelly well. I adored dolls as a child and secretly still do, having 2 daughters and 5 grand daughters is the best excuse ever to indulge in a love of dressing up the dolls again. Maybe there was a doll fairy on the streets of Thurles that touched us all. Maybe her name was Nelly!

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