The Troubled History of The Crooked Tree

fullsizerender-1

The Crooked Tree today – You can see the remnants of the old Limerick – Newcastle West road on the left of the photograph and the new road layout on the right.

The Crooked Tree is a very well known landmark on the main Limerick-Newcastle West road, about two kilometres out on the Limerick side of the town.  The tree is situated in the townland of Gortroe and is, in fact, situated in the parish of Knockaderry. The Crooked Tree also holds the unenviable distinction of being one of the few trees in Ireland to have moved from one side of the road to the other!  In 1965 the tree stood on the right-hand side as one approached the town from Limerick as can be seen in the photograph above.  Then, the County Council carried out extensive renovations and upgrading to the roadway, following which the Crooked Tree now stands sentinel on your left-hand side as you approach the town from Limerick!

Rightly or wrongly, the tree has been the subject of many gruesome stories down the years, the most common of these being that it was used to hang people in the dim and distant past.  According to Bill Flynn, then a student in St. Ita’s Secondary School, who wrote a very interesting article in the 1983 edition of the Knockaderry Clouncagh Community News:

The most persistent of these stories was that which claimed that the assassins that murdered the ‘agent’s son’ paid with their lives for the foul deed on this natural scaffold.  There were, too, stories of other hangings – sheep stealers and other minor criminals, according to local lore, breathed their last as they swung from the peculiarly shaped branch of this ugly black ash.

Another local resident, Michael Cregan, R.I.P., who lived for many years within a stone’s throw of The Crooked Tree seems to corroborate these stories, providing us with further detail.  Writing in the Knockaderry Clouncagh Journal in 1999-2000 he states:

The story goes that people were hanged from the tree up until the early 1900’s for committing the most minor of offences.  According to Liam Ó Danachair, the historian, Patrick Moylan and his son Seamus, who lived in Ballyallinan in 1732 were returning from Newcastle West after getting a spade made at the forge.  They were stopped by drunken English soldiers.  The soldiers began to jab the father with their bayonets and he defended himself with the spade and he killed one of the soldiers.  He shouted to his son to run home.  They killed the father and hanged his hacked and tattered body from The Crooked Tree where it was left as a warning.  Under the cover of darkness, some neighbours cut down the body and buried it in consecrated ground.

The Moylan homestead in Ballyallinan South corresponds today to the land farmed by James O’Connor and his wife Colette and family and was formerly owned by James’ parents, Colm and Nellie O’Connor.

The evidence above doesn’t point to a hanging taking place, rather that the body was hung from the tree as a warning, Patrick Moylan having been earlier killed by the drunken soldiers.  Michael Cregan also has a plausible explanation concerning the mystery surrounding the tree:

Many people were doubtful that hangings took place because when excavations took place no remains were found.  But the simple explanation is – the next of kin always removed the body.

Bill Flynn tries in his article to dispel the notion that the tree was ever used as a gallows by detailing the excavations which took place around 1965:

When the County Council excavated along by the west side of the tree, preparatory to the construction of a new section of road, deep interest was taken in the operation.  The excavators tore down to a depth of five feet into the tough yellow mud but no sign of soil disturbance was revealed and no remains were found.

He further states that a local man, Toss Enright, who lived out his eighty odd years virtually in the shade of the tree claimed that the present tree developed from a ‘sucker’ that grew out of the stump of the original tree which was felled in the early 1900’s.  He also told of a local woman who died in 1903 at the age of ninety years who claimed that nobody had ever, in her memory, been hanged from the tree.  However, she did say that her mother had told her of two men who had been hanged from a scaffold erected in the field beside The Crooked Tree and she had never heard of any other executions.  Bill Flynn ends his enthralling piece of research by concluding:

For lack of evidence to the contrary, we are forced to assume that the ‘history’ of the tree was born out of fanciful thought.

However, another plausible explanation as to why the legend persists may have something to do with the etymology of the name given to the tree.  We know from just a cursory examination that Irish place names give up a rich harvest of information concerning topography, battles, famous saints, etc., etc.  For example, Gortroe, the townland in which The Crooked Tree stands was originally called An Gort Rua in Irish, which means ‘the red garden’ (probably a place where potatoes were grown in the past) and another nearby townland Ballingowan,  was originally Baile na hAbainn, the town  (or townland) of the river – the River Deel flows nearby.  In Ireland in the 1830’s the English were busy converting many such place names from the Irish language into the now legally required English.  Sometimes they were very diligent and sometimes they were very lazy!  The Irish phrase for a Hanging Tree would have been Crann Crochadh and on a Friday evening, after a long week translating place names into English, it might have been very tempting to translate this Crann Crochadh into what we know today as The Crooked Tree.

Talking of place names in the locality, however, tends to disprove my theory.  Not too far away from the townlands of Gortroe and Ballingowan, as one exits Newcastle West heading for Dromcolliher, is the townland of Ardnacrohy.  Now, this must have definitely been translated in somewhat of a hurry because the original would have been Árd na Croiche which should be translated directly as ‘The Hill of the Gallows’, or ‘Gallows Hill’ maybe, or ‘The Hill of the Hanging’ or somesuch gruesome alternative.  My point is that if  Ardnacrohy was the location for local hangings then The Crooked Tree was not needed – except maybe in an emergency!

(It is interesting, even fascinating, that in Cork City there was also an Árd na Croiche, at the top of Barrack Street in the city, Cork’s Tyburn if you will, but the earnest and diligent Corkman, who carried out the translation for his English masters, must have been very conscious of the future tourism potential of the place so he translated Árd na Croiche into the far more innocuous and inviting placename, calling it Greenmount)!

So, there you have it, ‘fanciful thought’ or long embedded local lore no one is sure – the jury is still out – or maybe they didn’t have much use for juries in the ‘good old days’ long, long, ago!

Bibliography

Knockaderry Clouncagh Community News – Christmas Annual 1983

Knockaderry Clouncagh Journal – Millennium Edition, 1999-2000

fullsizerender-3

‘Death of an Irishwoman’ by Michael Hartnett

brigid-halpins-cottage-today

Bridget Halpin’s cottage in Camas as it is today. Photograph is by Dermot Lynch.

Death of an Irishwoman

By Michael Hartnett

Ignorant, in the sense
she ate monotonous food
and thought the world was flat,
and pagan, in the sense
she knew the things that moved
at night were neither dogs nor cats
but púcas and darkfaced men,
she nevertheless had fierce pride.
But sentenced in the end
to eat thin diminishing porridge
in a stone-cold kitchen
she clenched her brittle hands
around a world
she could not understand.
I loved her from the day she died.
She was a summer dance at the crossroads.
She was a card game where a nose was broken.
She was a song that nobody sings.
She was a house ransacked by soldiers.
She was a language seldom spoken.
She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.

© 1975, The Estate of Michael Hartnett
From: Collected Poems.Publisher: The Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 2001.

Author’s Notes:  Púcas: This was the Irish (Gaelic) term for pookas, hobgoblins, fairies.  In the Irish language a man of African descent is described as a fear ghoirm, a “blue man”.  In Irish, “an fear dubh” (“the black man”) exclusively denotes the devil, therefore, the reference to “darkfaced men” in this poem does not have any racial connotations.  

A wake was a social gathering associated with death, usually held before a funeral.   Traditionally, a wake took place in the house of the deceased with the body present.

In 1965 Michael Hartnett was in Morocco when his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, died at the age of 80.  Hartnett had spent his formative years in Halpin’s simple, meagre cottage in Camas soaking up the stories and folklore of the area as she entertained her cronies in the mid to late 1940’s. She had a great array of Irish words in her vocabulary, many related to the animals of the countryside and life on the farm, although she and the family didn’t use Irish in everyday conversation. Nevertheless, her knowledge of Irish had an immense influence on the young Hartnett, who would go on to became as fluent in Irish as he was in English.

Camas is a hugely important place for Hartnett. It was there that his poetic gift was first recognised and cultivated, particularly by his grandmother.  His first ever published poem was called ‘Camas Road’ and was published in The Limerick Weekly Echo on 18th June 1955.  Hartnett was thirteen.  This present poem, ‘Death of an Irishwoman’, is his effort at an apology for not being there at her funeral – ‘I loved her from the day she died’.

Hartnett returned to his West Limerick roots in the mid-1970’s having made his famous declaration from the stage of the Peacock Theatre at an event organised by Goldsmith Press on June 4th, 1974. At that event, Hartnett informed the audience of his resolution to cease writing in English, stating that his “road towards Gaelic” had “been long and haphazard” and until then “a road travelled without purpose”. He reassured his audience that he had realised and come to terms with his identity while acknowledging that his “going into Gaelic simplified things” for him and provided answers which some considered to be naive but at least gave him “somewhere to stand”. Rediscovering and reinventing himself and the long forgotten echoes of his Gaelic past was a central project for Hartnett during those years in the 1970’s.  Bridget Halpin played a significant role in this process.

Bridget Halpin is a symbol for all that was lost in the traumatic early years of the Twentieth Century in Ireland.  In Hartnett’s view one of the many precious things which was lost, ignored, and abandoned was the Irish language itself and so the poem can be read as a post-colonial lament.  According to Census returns for Camas in 1911, Bridget Halpin was 26, living with her husband Michael, ten years her elder.  This would mean she was born in 1885, a time of cultural revival, coinciding with the founding of the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association.  Hartnett always considered her to be a woman ‘out of her time’.  She never came to terms with the New Ireland of the 1920’s, 1930’s, and though her life spanned two centuries she was, in his eyes, still living in the past, ‘Television, radio, electricity were beyond her ken entirely’ (Walsh 13).  To her, ‘the world was flat / and pagan’, and in the end,

she clenched her brittle hands
around a world
she could not understand.

There is a strong sense of regret for a lost generation in this poem and this is particularly in evidence in the poignancy of the line:

I loved her from the day she died.

 What follows is a masterclass of poetic skill, the poet cherishes the memory of his lost muse with an epitaph made up exclusively of metaphors:

She was a summer dance at the crossroads.
She was a card game where a nose was broken.
She was a song that nobody sings.
She was a house ransacked by soldiers.
She was a language seldom spoken.
She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.

These metaphors conjure up an almost forgotten rural idyll: dances at the crossroads on summer evenings, the hustle and bustle of the rambling house with its card games and music sessions, slow airs and sean nós singing, sets and half-sets.  Hartnett also veers into the political sphere with reference to The Black and Tans and the fraught Irish language question, which he sees as having been abandoned and neglected by successive governments since the foundation of the State, ‘Our government’s attitude is hostile and apathetic by turns’ (Walsh 126).  His final metaphor:

She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.

captures the futility and frustration felt both by his grandmother and the poet himself at the relentless pace of change.  Safia Moore, in her excellent blog, Top of the Tent, says of this metaphor that it encapsulates the notion of his grandmother as ‘being out of step with the utilitarian, modern world’.

In effect, Hartnett is not only writing the epitaph for his grandmother but for a unique and precious culture which he sees drifting towards oblivion through neglect.  During these years in Newcastle West and in his cottage in nearby Glendarragh, Templeglantine, Hartnett wrote many such epitaphs for local people and their dying country crafts.  This is a facet of Hartnett’s work which began with his grandmother, Mrs Halpin. (See Epitaph for John Kelly, Blacksmith as one example of this).  Therefore, in a way, not only is Hartnett lamenting the death of Mrs Halpin here but also, like Heaney in many of his poems, he is lamenting the loss of ancient crafts and customs which, with the progress of time, have become redundant.  He has returned home to find things falling apart and that Time has thinned the ranks of the stalwarts of the town.  His local poetry, in particular, takes on a nostalgic retrospection and features poems about those who have died, such as ‘Maiden Street Wake’, where he describes one such wake:

We shuffled round and waited.
Our respects were paid.
And then we ate soft biscuits
and drank lemonade.

This period in his life is, therefore, best depicted as a period of intense creativity and a series of well-documented farewells, best characterised by this poignant line from the ‘Maiden Street Ballad’ where he ruefully declares:

old Maiden Street went to the graveyard.

Author’s Note:  Students of Hartnett and aspiring academics will readily verify that Harnett, whether deliberately or mischievously, was a master of misinformation.  The Youtube clip above is a perfect example of this.  As he begins to introduce the poem, ‘Death of an Irishwoman’ he states that his grandmother, Bridget Halpin was born in 1870 when,  in fact, we know through Census returns for 1911 that she was born in 1885.  He also says that she was 93 when she died when, in fact, if the Census returns are to believed, she was a mere 80!

Bibliography

‘A  Necklace of Wrens’ (Film). Harvest Films. 1999

Walsh, Pat. A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett’s Farewell to English, Cork: Mercier Press, 2012

Confirmation in Clouncagh 1963

The accompanying film clip records the parishioners from Knockaderry and Clouncagh gathering for the Confirmation ceremony which took place in St. Mary’s Church in Clouncagh in 1963.  The ceremony was conducted by the Very Rev. Henry Murphy, Bishop of Limerick and he was assisted by Rev. Fr. Costello P.P.

The occasion was filmed by John Joe Harrold and we are grateful to jdtvideo for uploading the very historic footage to You Tube for our enjoyment.

 

 

Girls Confirmation Photo 1963

Included in photo is Bishop Henry Murphy, Bishop of Limerick, and Canon Costelloe.  The teachers are Miss Margaret Droney and Mrs. Eilish Hickey.

Back row: (left to right): Marie Sheehy, Eileen Lynch, Mary Cregan, Ann Quaid, Margaret Cregan, Violet Hennessy, Kathleen Chawke.

Front Row: Nora O’Gorman, Bridget Downes, Bridie Chawke, Catherine Butler, Jacinta Scanlan, Margaret Sheehy, Christina Quaid, Mary Curtin, Mary Noonan, Mary Chawke.

image

 

 

Boys Confirmation Photo 1963

Canon Costelloe is at the left at the back, Bishop Murphy is in the centre at the back and on the extreme right is Master Micheál de Búrca.

Back row: (left to right): John Guiry (R.I.P.), John Wall, Patsy Downes, John Collum, David Noonan (R.I.P.), William Hickey, Michael Moloney, Donie O’Sullivan, Michael Dowling.

Third row: David Downes, Jack Hennessy, Eddie Liston, John O’Gorman, Paddy Curtin, Philip Hickey, Liam O’Sullivan, William O’Connor, Jerry Hennessy, Eddie O’Connor.

Second row: Ted O’Gorman (R.I.P.), Diarmuid O’Sullivan, Paddy Walsh, David Guiry (R.I.P.), Bernard Mackessy, Jimmy Dowling, Eddie Dillon, Harry Maune, Gerard Moloney (R.I.P.), Tom Scanlan.

Front row: Michael Cunningham, Thomas Butler, Michael Dowling, Liam Doherty, Noel O’Gorman, David Collum, Joe Dowling, Christopher McCabe.

image

Sources: Knockaderry Clouncagh Christmas Annual 1986 and Kno0ckaderry Clouncagh Annual 1990.  Thanks to jdtvideo for making footage available on You Tube.

Blessing of the Marian Grotto in Knockaderry 1963

 

Holy Wells and Shrines have been renowned places of worship in Ireland from the earliest times, all dedicated to some particular saint.  The Knockaderry Marian Shrine was built in 1963 on a natural base of rock, on an elevated site beside Saint Munchin’s Church in the village.  The beautiful Carrara marble statue of Our Lady was purchased from a firm in Rome.

On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception the shrine was blessed and unveiled by the Parish Priest of Knockaderry, Very Rev. Fr. T. Costello, assisted by Rev. J. Sheehy, CC, Knockaderry, and Rev. T. Greene, CC,  Feoghanagh.  To mark the occasion a special sermon was preached by the Very Rev. Archdeacon Carroll, PP, VF, Rathkeale, and a very large number of parishioners were present at the ceremony.

All the work on the Shrine was done voluntarily under the guidance of the local guild of Muintir na Tire.  The railings and wrought iron canopy was the work of local craftsman, Denis O’Sullivan.

In 1978 the Shrine underwent a facelift.  the large granite stones were removed and replaced by Liscannor flags.  The existing railing was removed and replaced by a brick frontage.  Flower beds were introduced on both sides of the path.  Kerbing was also laid.

Further restoration was carried out in 2013 under the guidance of Pat Quilty and a beautiful stone backing and canopy was constructed to protect the statue. On November 22nd 2013 the Shrine was again blessed and reconsecrated  by Bishop Brendan Leahy, Bishop of Limerick, assisted by  Rev. Fr. Edwin Irwin, PP, Knockaderry and by Mons. Liam Boyle.

The work of construction and the dedication and blessing of the shrine was filmed and captured for posterity by John Joe Harrold on his own cine camera.

Official Opening of Ahalin N.S., 1963

I recently came across this fascinating footage of the Official Opening of Scoil Mhuire, Ahalin (Achadh Lín) in 1963.  The filming was done by local parishioner and filmmaking enthusiast John Joe Harrold.   In recent weeks up to 45 short videos, many filmed in the early 1960’s, have been uploaded to You Tube and are now finally available for all to see.  As you can see this short film is Episode 38 of this series, which is entitled Memories of the Past.

The “New School” in Ahalin was built on a site purchased from Mr. James Cantillon, commanding a fine view southwards towards Kilmeedy.  The first intake of pupils took place in September 1963 when all existing pupils from the old school in Ahalin relocated to their new state of the art Primary School. The school was officially opened on 21st October 1963 and, as can be seen in the film clip, it was an occasion of great celebration for the parish of Knockaderry Clouncagh and for the School Manager, Rev. Canon Costelloe P.P.

Master Micheál de Búrca, who features prominently in the film clip, was the first Principal of the new school and he continued in this role until his retirement in 1970.  He died in 1973 and is remembered by many for his commitment to the promotion of the Irish language and for his work in promoting Drama within the school and parish.

 

Sources: Knockaderry and Clouncagh Annual 1990 and jdtvideo and You Tube.

Epitaph for John Kelly, Blacksmith

John Kelly in his forge in Maiden Street

John Kelly in his forge in Maiden Street

Epitaph for John Kelly, Blacksmith

By Michael Hartnett

Black clothes do not make mourners:

                                      the cries come out of the heart.

And local men at street corners,

                                      who have stood

                                      and watched grained wood

in horse-hearse and motor-hearse,

                                      white plumes of feathers, blue plumes

of smoke, to the dead man’s part

                                      of  town, to the rain-dumbed tombs,

go, talk his life, chapter and verse,

and of the dead say nothing but good.

 

In Maiden Street

what man will

forget his iron anvil,

in early Monday morning, sweet

as money falling on the footpath flags?

 

Commentary:  This poem was written as a tribute to John Kelly, one of the ‘old stock’[1], one of the characters of Maiden Street and the Coole.  The Coole was an area in Newcastle West, which Michael Hartnett referred to as ‘The Claddagh of the town’.  It encompassed an area running parallel to Lower Maiden Street, a lane behind what we now know as The Silver Dollar Bar.

In bygone days, John Kelly’s forge was a focal point for the street and for the town, it was a place where town and country met, where stories and news and gossip were exchanged, and where tall stories grew legs.  The forge was an essential part of Irish rural life and farmers, in particular, used the services of the blacksmith to shoe their horses and make and repair their ploughs and iron gates and other farm utensils.  Indeed in harsher, more troubled times the forge also doubled as an ‘armaments factory’ where ancient pikes, and rudimentary spears and swords were forged and tempered in a clandestine way and often ‘hidden in the thatch’.  In a way, not only is Hartnett lamenting the death of a man here but also, like Heaney in many of his poems, he is lamenting the loss of an ancient craft which, with the progress of time, has become redundant.

In the Annual Observer, the journal of the Newcastle West Historical Society, published in July 1979, Lizzie Sullivan, a long time resident of the Coole, referred to John Kelly and his importance to the area:

“I can’t forget our blacksmith, Big Shaun Kelly.  He had his forge in a part of the Coole.  He was a fine type of a man, big and brave and he had a voice to go with it.  Many a day the youths of the Coole spent in his forge.  They used to love when they were asked to blow the bellows and Shaun would be singing or telling them stories as they made the sparks fly from the anvil.  He used to have them shivering telling them all about Sprid na Bearna and the dead people he met going home on a Winter’s night.  They believed every word he used to tell them”.

Like all epitaphs this poem is short and sweet.  In the opening stanza death and funerals are generalised.  Hartnett doesn’t seem to be talking about any particular death but remembers numerous funerals down the years and he refers to the funeral customs observed in the town.  Quiet men standing at ‘street corners’ looked on the ‘grained wood’ of the coffin as it passed, either in ‘horse-hearse’ or ‘motor-hearse’, on its way to the old graveyard in Churchtown.  There amid ‘the rain-dumbed tombs’ it was customary to speak well of the dead:

          go, talk his life, chapter and verse,

and of the dead say nothing but good.

The second stanza presents us with the real epitaph.  It is short, personalised and very well crafted.  Everyone in Maiden Street will remember the ring of the anvil on a ‘Monday morning’ and Hartnett uses a lovely simile to remember his friend: Heaney uses the image of an ‘unpredictable fantail of sparks’ coming from the anvil in his poem, ‘The Forge’, and here those sparks from John Kelly’s anvil are compared to money falling on the ‘footpath flags’.  His exquisite use of assonance and alliteration in these short lines emphasises his poetic craft.  The poem is also noted for its use of compound words such as ‘horse-hearse’, ‘motor-hearse’,  and ‘rain-dumbed tombs’, which hopefully, in time, will be used as an excellent example of alliterative assonantal onomatopoeia!

In ‘Maiden Street Ballad’, Hartnett similarly remembers with fondness the work of John Kelly:

XXXVIII

I awoke one fine morning down in Maiden Street

to John Kelly’s forge-music ringing so sweet,

saw the sparks flying out like thick golden sleet

from the force of his hammer and anvil:

and the red horse-shoes spat in their bucket of steam

and the big horses bucked and their white eyes did gleam

nineteen forty-nine I remember the year –

the first time I got my new sandals.

 

There is a strong ‘local’ element to Hartnett’s writing – he tells us in Maiden Street Ballad that,

A poet’s not a poet until the day he

                             can write a few songs for his people.

This loyalty to his native place and space and the people who live there is admirable and is acknowledged with gratitude by those same locals to this day.  Seamus Heaney, in his introduction to John McDonagh and Stephen Newman’s collection of essays on Hartnett, entitled Remembering Michael Hartnett, says that,

Solidarity with the local community and a shoulder to shoulder, eye to eye relationship with local people distinguish Hartnett and make him the authentic heir to the poets of the Maigue.

These local people, John Kelly included, had a great influence on the young Hartnett as Heaney also points out in that same introduction:

The young Hartnett rang the bell, and images from the world of the smithy would turn up in some of his most haunting work, as when a rib of grey in a woman’s hair is compared to a fine steel, ‘filing on a forge floor’ (‘The Retreat of Ita Cagney’).

But I’ll leave the last word to Lizzie Sullivan:

“When the circus was coming to town, Shaun the Smith would be talking for days before it came… It was lovely to see all the fine horses and ponies.  There would be thirty or forty going up to Kelly’s Forge.  Then, when the circus was gone away he would be still talking about it for days.  He would let Sprid na Bearna rest, and all the other ghosts he used to see.  He made many a one happy, especially the young lads listening to him….. God be with the Coole and all the fine people that are gone!

 

[1] Hartnett assures us in a footnote to ‘Maiden Street Ballad’ that to qualify as ‘old stock’ a family had to be established in the town for at least three generations.  He goes on to say that the phrase can also be very useful if you meet someone in the street and you can’t remember their name!

Works Cited

McDonagh, John and Newman, Stephen eds. Remembering Michael Hartnett, Four Courts Press: Dublin, 2006

Michael Hartnett’s ‘Christmas in Maiden Street’

This piece of incisive and insightful social commentary, written by the poet himself, describing life in Newcastle West in the 1950’s, first appeared in Magill magazine in December 1977 and later in the Journal of the Newcastle West Historical Society, The Annual Observer, in July 1979. Hartnett, the poet, was back in town and the dam burst of memory and nostalgia was beginning, culminating with the bitter sweet Maiden Street Ballad, written as a Christmas present for his father, Denis Hartnett, in December 1980.

Christmas in Maiden Street
By Michael Hartnett

5551343337_fda62f0416_z - Copy

A shouting farmer with a shotgun, a few patch-trousered urchins, soaked, snotty and unrepentant, running across wet fields, arms full of holly. The long walk on the railway tracks, the sleepers treacherous and slimy, the dark station, the lamp posts with their glittering circular rainbows. We stopped at the shops’ red windows to admire toys we could never have. A few drunks waltzed by, happy and moronic. An open lorry went by to jeers and obscenities; the pluckers, shawled and snuff-nosed, on their way to a flea-filled poultry store to pluck turkeys at nine pence a head.

Candles and paraffin-lamps did not brighten the darkness in kitchens in Maiden Street – they only made the gloom amber. The purloined holly hung on holy pictures. There were no balloons, no paper chains, no Christmas trees. Coal was bought by the half-stone, butter by the quarter-pound, and tea by the half-ounce. The country people trotted by on donkey and cart or pony and trap with ‘The Christmas’ stones of sugar, pounds of tea. Women in shawls and second-hand coats from America stood at half-doors, their credit exhausted, while the spectre of Santa Claus loomed malevolently over the slates and thatch.

Members of Charitable Institutions distributed turf and boots, God Blessing the meagre kitchens, as hated as the rent-man. They stood well-dressed on the stone floors, were sirred and doffed at. They paid their workers slave wages. They looked without pity at the nailed together chairs, the worn oilcloth-topped tables, the dead fires.

Outside, the rain fell and blew along the street. The tinkers fought. Bonfires died out in the drizzle. We were washed and put to bed, happy and under-nourished. The oldest went to Midnight Mass. The Latin was magic, the organ, the big choir. It always seemed like a romantic time to die.

It was a Christmas of tin soldiers, tin aeroplanes and cardboard gimcracks. We were Cisco, Batman, Johnny McBrown all that day. Our presents – ‘purties’ we called them – seldom lasted longer than that day. It never snowed. There was no turkey, no plum-pudding, no mince-pies. The Victorian Christmas was not yet compulsory. The very poor managed roast meat, usually mutton. We often rose to two cocks. The goose was common. There was a fruit-cake, jelly and custard; the dinner of the year. I never remember drink being in the house. There were never visitors, nor were we encouraged to visit anyone. If the day had been anyway fine, we were to be found on the footpath or in the puddles, knuckles blue.

The Wren’s Day always brought frost. Small warm heads came from under rough blankets to the sound of flutes and banjos and bodhrans far up the street. We donned boot polish and lipstick and old dresses and went out to follow the Wren, tuneless chancers. We sang and giggled our way to a few bob and a glass of lemonade. The back kitchens of the pubs filled up with musicians, the musicians filled up with porter and their wives filled up with apprehension. In a few hours, winter took over again.

There will never be Christmasses like those again, I hope to God.

 

MichaelHartnett

THE TOWN THE YOUNG LEAVE

The following article was written by Michael Hartnett for The Irish Times in the early 1970’s.  It shows Harnett to be an astute social historian and keen observer of local mores and foibles – talents he later used to good effect in his ‘local’ poems such as Maiden Street Ballad, The Balad of Salad Sunday, The Duck-Lovers Dance, etc.

download (2) 

THE TOWN THE YOUNG LEAVE

By Michael Hartnett

Newcastle West, County Limerick, is an Irish town that is not dying.  It has kept its economic stability at a terrible price, the constant exportation of human beings.  It is the example of a town that is alive because the young leave, a town that would certainly be ruined if those people born in the 30’s and 40’s had stayed at home en masse.  The transportation still continues and it is against this background of population loss that the town has survived and is now slowly regaining the status it had in the 19th century.  It was then the largest market town in the county, outside of Limerick city.  It had woollen, linen and brewing industries, two coal mines were operated in the nearby hills and there was a proposal to cut a canal to the Shannon, fourteen miles away.  The population then, 1837, was 2,908.

The population (that part of it which lives in the town proper) has been more or less the same since, but the industries have gone.  The harshness of the 1840’s led to their death.  The people began to leave, at first from despair but in the past twenty years through pure instinct.  Today the major employers are the local County Council, two bottling plants, the local hospital for the old and the unwanted and a few shopkeepers.  A factory, which has been hoped for for many years, is at last being built, and this should reduce the outflow of the young.  A new school was built in the late 1950’s to replace the old, built in 1826: this old school was the one I attended.  It was unbelievable.  In the summer the swallows built in the large beams inside the rooms, flying in and out all day to feed their young.  One of my favourite pastimes was drowning woodlice in the inkwells, as they fell in ridiculous numbers from the rafters.

Some of the boys who did not live in the town brought their lunches – bread and butter and milk wrapped in newspaper, and these were raided almost every day by the rats who lived under the floor and scampered about, completely ignoring us.  Rat poison was put down, and the entire school was pervaded by the delightful aroma of decaying rats.

Home and Abroad

The Headmaster has given me some information indicative of the trend which has kept the town stable.  The following is a list of the pupils from Newcastle West who were in the Sixth Class in 1955.  On the right are their ultimate destinations.

J. O’Sullivan… Co. Limerick        J. Ambrose…………Dublin

P. Ambrose……. Teacher              M. Ambrose………..Sligo

T. Ambrose……….England           P. Condon….Co. Limerick

S. Corbett………….Dublin              P. Devine…………..U.S.A.

T. Dineen…………England            D. Donoghue……Dublin

T. Driscoll…………Dublin              E. Field……………..Dublin

J. Finucane……….England          D. Flynn……………..At home

T. Gray……………..England           T. Hackett…………England

J. Hartnett……………U.S.A.           D. Healy……………….Kenya

S. Hunt……………..At home           D. Lenihan…………At home

J. Maguire …………Dublin            D. Maguire……………Cork

P. McAuliffe………….Garda          T. Massey…………At home

J. Moore……………At home          T. Moriarty………England

R. Mulcahy……….England           L. Murphy…………At home

J. O’Connor……..Limerick           M. O’Connor………….U.S.A.

M. O’Shea………..England             M. Quaid…………..England

T. Roche…………At home             J. Sexton…………..England

P. Shine………….England             J. O’Sullivan ….Co. Limerick

B. Whelan………Dublin                J. Whelan……………Limerick

P. White…………England

This list spotlights the enemy.  England claims 30%, Dublin 20%, and Ireland, excluding Newcastle West, a total of 40%.  Only 18% have found work in the town – seven out of thirty-nine.       These figures do not apply, of course, to the girls of the town; they also drift away.  The enemy is not England, not Dublin, it is the town itself.  It fails to attract and it fails to employ.  I have met most of those who are in England.  They all say: “If I had a job tomorrow I’d go home.”  But they know there is a problem of integration; they have encountered it when they come home on holidays.  It is mainly of their own making.  They usually mock the ways, the wages, the deadness of the place, and, what is worse they manage to acquire an obnoxious London slang which they imagine to be a better English than that spoken in Newcastle West.  The people at home resent this, rightly.  If the emigrants do come back to stay, the many snide remarks that hint at failure make life unpleasant.  Those to whom I have spoken to in Dublin have no desire at all to go back, but they have not been alienated from their own.  Anyway, to the people of the town ‘to go to England’ suggested poverty; but ‘to go to Dublin’ suggests cleverness at school.   Yet none of the 30% I have mentioned who did go to England were poverty stricken.

Why they go

The reasons for leaving are many, but the main one is shortage of work.  I have spoken to many of my friends in London about these reasons.  I have sat in Kilburn pubs all night and heard nothing else discussed but Newcastle West, and with a deep nostalgia.  One of the immediate reasons, one that arises before the young person’s mind turns to employment is that he has a brother or friend in England.  He has heard of the huge wages (usually untrue) and the freedom from priest and parent; he has seen the cheap but tidy suits his returning friends sport, so as soon as possible he is gone.

He returns usually within a year, to sport himself, and his lies about his wages are in proportion to his misery in London.  He is repulsed.  He comes again a few years later, and this is usually his final attempt.  Many of the fights that happen in pubs involve a local and a visiting emigrant.

I have been told in Kilburn of the social injustices.  Some I have witnessed.  Many are so unapparent to the people at home that they are barely injustices at all.  One young man told me he had left for one reason only: it was a practice in Newcastle West, up to the 1960’s, for the priest to read from the pulpit the names of those people who had paid their dues, markedly omitting those who did not or could not – markedly, because the names were read in street order, so everyone knew who had reneged.  The decency of the good, he said, was turned to pride, and the poor were stigmatised.

Why did the better dressed and richer people sit to the front and middle of the church on Sunday and the poor sit right and left, or stand in the porch?  Why were the poor branded and why could the poor not face their God on Sunday?  Were they less religious than the rich?  He said he lost his religion because he could not walk to the altar rails with a hole in his trousers or kneel to God because of a tattered shoe: “God may have been at my face, but the sneering population were behind me.”  I suggested that he was proud, and that a Christian should be humble.  “Humility should not be enforced,” he said.  He also reminded me of the cult of the “ould stock”: that is, if you or even your grandfather was not born in the town, you were a stranger; on the other hand if you happened to reside there since the founding of the castle by the Knight’s Templar in 1184, your history was known, and you wouldn’t be forgiven if you tried to “marry above your station”.

Images from the past

Newcastle West and its countryside provided me with images.  Its neighbourhood is not spectacular: the mountains are miniature, the woods are copses at best.  But it is soft, beautiful, inland country very green and over-lush in the summer.  It is easy to sit in a city house with chrome and enamel, with all ‘mod cons’ and (perhaps) with that essential anonymity found there, away from parent and priest.  It is easy to laugh, and criticise quaint ways and hypocrisy, but beneath these there is a great part of a ‘hidden Ireland’ preserved and no amount of modernity, no television set, no pointed shoes will make up the loss of the last vestiges of an older Ireland.

“Church Street without a church, Bishop Street without a bishop and Maiden Street without a maiden” goes a Newcastle West saying; and Maiden Street alone was – and is – a microcosm of an Ireland that is dying.  It was the Claddagh of the town.  When I was about ten, I took a friend of mine home.  “Please don’t tell my father I’m down here,” he said, meaning “in Maiden Street”.  He was ten years old.  The town was small – and he had never been “down there” before, nor was he allowed to go there by his parents.  The street was mainly a double row of mud houses, some thatched, a few slated, most covered in sheets of corrugated iron.  This was “Lower” Maiden street.  “Upper” Maiden Street was given over to small shops and public houses.

Before the Corpus Christi procession each year all walls were limewashed in bright yellow, red and white colours, windows were aglow with candles and garish statues and any unsightly object, such as a telegraph pole, was garlanded in ivy or ash branches.  Banners and buntings spread across the houses and on the day, with the ragged band blowing brass hymns, followed by all the townspeople who carried confraternity staffs, the Host under a gold canopy was carried through the town.  It matched any Semana Santa procession in Spain.

The Old Customs

Old customs survived for a long time.  I played ‘Skeilg’ once a year, chasing unmarried girls with ropes through the street, threatening to take them to Skeilg Mhicíl; I lit bonfires along the street on Bonfire Night; I put pebbles in a toisín (a twisted cone of paper in which shopkeepers sold sweets) and threw it on the road.  If anyone picked it up and opened it, I lost my warts, a pebble for each one in the paper, and the person who picked up the paper took the warts from me of his own free will.

Then Maiden Street received a severe but necessary blow.  The houses were small with no sanitation: one fountain served the whole street, most of the floors were mud, with large open hearths with cranes and pothooks to take the cast-iron pots and bastibles.  And, of course, families were large.  In 1951 a new housing estate was opened on a hill overlooking Maiden Street and many of the families, including mine, moved there.  Now we had toilets and taps (six I counted, overjoyed) electricity and upstairs bedrooms.  But Skeilg was never played again.

Better standards of living may improve the health of people, but this price of abandoning poor peoples’ customs must always be paid and the customless bourgeoisie come into existence.  Yet the general spirit has still survived; when the oppression of religion and work are forgotten they find again their old joy and innocence.  This innocence is not to be confused with stupidity: I mean wonderment such as expressed by the old man in a story a friend of mine told me.  My friend went home to Newcastle West from U.C.D. and met, a few miles away on Turn Hill, an old man on the road, a distant relation.  The talk came round to Dublin.  “Where do you stay there?” asked the old man.  The other explained about ‘digs’.  “And you pay four pounds a week for a room only?”  He was surprised.  No, my friend replied, that included food as well.  The old man was amazed.  “Surely they wouldn’t charge you for the bite that goes into your mouth?”

Our entertainment was innocent too but not without a touch of cruelty at times; watching crawfish clawing their way towards the river across the roadway, gambling with passing cars.  And on hot dusty summer evenings (all the summer evenings before adulthood seem hot and dusty) suddenly at the pub not far from our door, there would be the joyous sound of curses and breaking glass – joyous to us because we knew the tinkers were settling some family problem in their own way.  We would sit on the window-sills, eating our rawked apples, while they fought.  We never cheered, nor would any of those who appeared over the half-doors up along the street.  Someone would send for the Gardaí, and then light carts and swift horses would rattle off down towards the Cork road, all the fighters friends before the common enemy.  We sat on, waiting for the last act, when, half an hour later, the fat amiable Garda would come strolling down, to an outburst of non-malicious jeers.  But we were poor too, and there was the misery of drink in many houses.

I often tried to read by the faint light of an old oil-lamp with a huge glass globe which was suspended from the rafters.  The house seemed big at the time, but was really incredibly small, and one had to stoop to enter.  I sat there in the small kitchen-cum-livingroom, innocently working out the problems my father set me: “If it took a beetle a week to walk a fortnight, how long would it take two drunken soldiers to swim out of a barrel of treacle?”  I never worked it out.  Or “How would you get from the top of Church Street to the end of Bridge Street without passing a pub?”  He did supply the answer to that, which indeed is the logical answer for any Irishman: “You don’t pass any – you go into them all!”

 The Mission

Once a year the otherwise idyllic life of the town was ruined by the coming of the ‘Mission’.  It was as if the Grand Inquisitor himself walked through the town pointing out heretics.  I sat in the church on the long seats, sweating with fear at the Hell conjured up by the preaching father, as he roared all sorts of vile accusations at the people.  They sat, silent and red-eared, until he told an ancient joke, probably first told by Paul in Asia Minor, a joke that they had heard year in, year out, for a long time.  But they tittered hysterically, delighted at being able to make a human sound in church.  Outside the ‘Stall’, with its cheap trinkets from Japan, was dutifully looked over by the congregation: phials of Lourdes water, prayer books and all the tokens of religion bought and sold like fish and chips.  But they were not ‘holy’ then, not until the end of the Mission did the preacher bless the huckster’s dross and only then did they become sacred.

Part of the old castle grounds were made public by an Earl of Devon in the nineteenth century.  The overgrown acres were a retreat from the Mission for anyone daring enough to go there during a service.  Getting to the Demesne from the town without being seen was an art in itself (which I cannot divulge lest some young person read this and be led astray), but once gained, it was a haven of quiet trees and overgrown paths and two rivers.  I read much poetry on such nights, watching the shadowy figures of fellow-transgressors hiding in the bushes, a small cloud of blue cigarette smoke over their heads.  I even met a girl there once; easy enough, as the Mission had Men’s Weeks and Women’s Weeks; their sins, I assumed then, were different.

There are as many things to love in a town as there are to hate.  Indeed, the only things I disliked were class and priest-power, but if injustice is not seen to be done, such opinions are merely private prejudices.  I remember, with pity for the man, a priest beating a child about a schoolroom for no good reason.  I remember with joy for myself, my grandmother coming into town on her asscart, her black fringed shawl about her small fresh face, with her stories of pishogues and enchanted fairy forts.  I remember her dancing on the road to a comb-and-paper hornpipe: I remember her illness and her dying and my absence from this, being in London working or drunk in a Dublin pub.  If you cannot mock a place you love, how can you love it fully?  And can you not hate it because it is becoming televisionised, educated and more middle-class every year?  Is Dickie Rock to replace the Wren-boy?

The Wren Boys

Christmas Day was not unique in Newcastle West.  I remember no customs that were not common to today’s commercial carnival, but St. Stephen’s Day – the Wren’s Day – was always exciting and memorable.  One fine frosty morning the sound sleep of our house, after the excess and boredom of Christmas Day, was magically finished by the excitement of bodhrán and the wild tin whistles of a group of ‘Wran Boys’ from Castlemahon.  I saw the masks and the weird costumes through the window and was out of bed, searching my pockets for the pence of Christmas Day.

“The Wran, the wran, the king

of all birds,

St. Stephen’s Day he was caught

in the furze.

Up with the kettle and down

with the pan,

And give us a penny to bury the Wran!”

 

That was the first and last time I saw a dead wren, complete with nest, held up in a furze bush, hung with red streamers: it was 1949.  The pubs were open that day, and melodeon, pipes, bodhrán, fiddle, drums and tenor voices raced up and down the streets until night.  It was like that for a few years, but again progress stepped in; in 1951 the ‘New Houses’ were opened and for some reason seemed prohibitive to the Wran-boys.  They still kept to the town, but all we got was a few guitars and little boys with lip-stick singing “I’m all shook up,” or some such transient ditty.  A brilliant move, however, was made by some of the townspeople and Wran-boy Competitions were organised every New Year, in which authenticity figured greatly, and which has helped preserve the custom or at least to lengthen its days.

But that small town, the small farmer, is slowly becoming obsolete: even the labourer himself is going.  A small town like Newcastle West is perhaps the pattern of all small towns in Ireland: the pseudo-comforts of so called civilisations like that of the U.S.A. and Britain are being sought after.  Few would deny progress, but then few reckon the cost.

(Reprinted from articles published in The Irish Times.)

 images (2)

Happy Memories of St. Ita’s Secondary School!

 

St. Ita's Secondary School Staff 1986.  Missing from the photograph is the then Deputy Principal, Donncha Ó Murchú.  The appearance of this staff photo, taken in 1986, in Facebook earlier this year provoked a virtual avalanche of nostalgia and all the memories and nicknames resurfaced once again like recurring cold sores!

St. Ita’s Secondary School Staff 1986. Missing from the photograph is the then Deputy Principal, Donncha Ó Murchú. The appearance of this staff photo, taken in 1986, in Facebook earlier this year provoked a virtual avalanche of nostalgia and all the memories and nicknames resurfaced once again like recurring cold sores!

There is a stark universal truth that I have discovered and it is true today more than ever before: a school is only as good as its teachers.   For fifteen years of my teaching career I taught in a school that would have been condemned as unfit for purpose or human habitation in Dickens’ time.  Indeed, there are those who think that Dickens modelled Mr. Gradgrind’s school in Hard Times on St. Ita’s in Newcastle West!  However, all who ever entered its hallowed halls would probably admit that it was a great school and is proof positive that modern facilities are not the only requirement for a good education.

 I was also reminded of ‘the good old days’ recently on reading an article by Dr. Pat O’Connor, an illustrious past pupil of the school, which appeared in a commemorative booklet produced to celebrate the Fiftieth Anniversary of the school’s opening in 1986.  He attended St. Ita’s from 1959 until he sat his Leaving Cert in 1964.  He says that, “these were happy, constructive, creative times, and the school provided the milieu for a learning odyssey which continued throughout the palmy decade of the 60’s”.

 The official name for the school was St. Ita’s Secondary School, in deference, I think, to the fact that Jim Breen and Dave Hayes both hailed from Killeedy, the one remaining St. Ita’s stronghold. However, the school was variously called ‘The Library’ (the building had originally been a Carnegie Library) and later ‘Jim Breen’s School’ as a local compliment and mark of respect to the man who became Manager and Principal of the school for nearly fifty years – the school becoming synonymous with his name.

 Pat O’Connor is lavish in his praise for Jim Breen and he says that he, ‘made a distinctively personal contribution during the lean years that saw a blossoming of second level education in this country.’  He goes on to say that he, ‘asserted a strong presence and, being a big man physically, he rarely had to repeat anything.  He was a strict disciplinarian, meticulous in attention to detail, but never petty or vindictive.  He led by example in the sense that his own work bore the stamp of discipline and commitment.’  The sight of his green Volkswagen Beetle, registration number AIU 524, was enough to elicit an instant quickening in the step of many a tardy pupil.

 In those early years he gathered around him a small band of doughty men who came armed with a rich diversity of teaching skills.  Tim Murphy was one of those early arrivals.  Pat O’Connor remembers him as, ‘a quiet spoken, amiable mentor, thoughtful, and on occasion, thought provoking.’  He remembers with affection the prayer which Tim introduced to the Leaving Cert class of 1964.  Given a sufficiency of faith, it had, he said, never been known to fail!

 Another of that small band of teachers, Dave Hayes, brought style and panache to bear on the teaching of Latin.  According to Pat O’Connor he was, ‘unquestionably a classical scholar of stature.’  This assessment was reinforced later during Dr. O’Connor’s first year in UCD, when a well-known lecturer and future Minister for Education, John Wilson  no less, could, in his view, ‘do no better than stand in the long shadow of Dave Hayes’.

 Willie O’Donnell taught English at senior cycle level and employed strategies supremely well suited to cope with the rigours of the examination system.  A man well acquainted with the technicalities of language, he had a particular fondness for the double entendre, and one of his most favoured concerned the numbers of students from the school who would, ‘go down in history’!

 Donncha Ó Murchú arrived on the scene as a very young man in September 1959.  No sooner had he arrived than he was subjected to the kind of initiation rites that pupils like to try out on young inexperienced teachers.  However, Pat O’Connor remembers that Donncha proved to be a doughty survivor who had a marvellous feel for history.

 Pat remembers the arrival of Noel Ruddle to the school in 1963 and considered him to be the consummate teacher who introduced the new age of science to the school.  He was enthusiastic, bright, analytical and able.  Noel went on to become Principal of the school in 1977, although his time at the helm was cut tragically short through illness.

 In the 80’s numbers burgeoned, thanks in no small part to Donagh O’Malley and his introduction of ‘Free Education’ in 1967. After Noel Ruddle’s untimely passing in 1981 the baton was passed to Des Healy who became Principal and later Manager after the death of Jim  Breen in the summer of 1984.  He was supported in its final years before amalgamation by Paddy Geary, Dave McEnery, Paul Edmonds, Donncha Ó Murchú, Pat Hayes, Mike Kennedy, James Egan, Andrew Ryan, Barry O’Brien, Tommy Devine, Sean Flanagan, Mary O’Shaughnessy  along with the author of this tribute.  However, by then the  need for proper, modern educational facilities became a clamour which could no longer be ignored and plans for an amalgamation of schools in the town was proposed and acted upon by a vibrant committee during the 80’s, culminating in the opening of the new Scoil Mhuire agus Íde in September 1992. For many the traumatic move to Boherbuí was lessened in its severity by the knowledge that Paddy Geary, St. Ita’s to his core, was to become the Principal of the new educational adventure in Newcastle West.

 A word of caution to all as we remember those days:  in invoking and trying to preserve the past we can’t allow ourselves to be too maudlin and sentimental.  As Michael Hartnett, Newcastle’s Poet Laureate, (himself a past pupil of the school) points out:  ‘too many of our songs gloss over the hardships of the “good old days” and omit the facts of hunger, bad sanitation and child neglect’.

 Most of us who experienced and survived the building, the poor sanitation, the lack of proper toilets, know that all this only added to its mystique; the telephone was not installed until 1986!  All who entered under its portals were rendered immune forever from all contagious diseases following their exposure to the culture of the place!

 In conclusion there is another stark universal truth that I discovered while teaching in St. Ita’s:  a school is only as good as the students who pass through its doors.  In this respect, as with its teaching staff down the years, St. Ita’s was truly blessed.

 

Last Day in St. Ita's - Friday 29th. May, 1992

Last Day in St. Ita’s – Friday 29th. May, 1992

Delivering The Post on Christmas Day – in Newcastle West long ago!

Michael Healy served as postman in Newcastle West  for 45 years from the early Thirties until the Seventies.  In this article, which he wrote for the Newcastle West Historical Society Journal, The Annual Observer, published in July 1979,  he recounts the vicissitudes of the job and why he wasn’t sorry to see the Christmas Day deliveries come to an end.

 

THE POST ON CHRISTMAS DAY

By M.J. Healy

Micky Healy with his handcart in Maiden Street in 1936

Micky Healy with his handcart in Maiden Street in 1936

One of the Post Office services no longer available is the delivery of mail on Christmas Day.  We haven’t had it for many years.  To the older generation this is something to be regretted; a nostalgic yearning for the passing of a custom that lent a Dickensian flavour to the Festival, akin to the star on the Festive Tree, Christmas carols and robins pecking crumbs in the snow.  But, to the unfortunate postman, Christmas Day was the most arduous of the whole year; consequently the abolition of the Christmas Day deliveries was greeted by all and sundry in the postal service with considerable relief.

Our working day in the early 1930’s began around 7a.m.  It was part of my duty to meet the 7.15 morning train from Limerick and transport the Newcastle mails in a handcart to the Post Office in Bishop Street.  This meant being at the railway station at 7.15 on the dot, summer and winter, as the train halted in Newcastle for a mere ten or twelve minutes and a Post Office Official (the grandiose title for a thirty shilling a week postman) had to be on hand at this ungodly hour for reception of the mails from the carriers, the Great Southern and Western Railway, else he might find himself forced, at his own expense, to follow the train to Listowel to collect the mailbags.  The mail, in the 1930’s, was comparably small; a mere eight or ten sacks.  In those halcyon days it never entered your head that you might be molested and robbed by a bandit in the dark of a winter’s morning, so the duty was easy for an early riser.

The Christmas Mail was something different.  Before the intrusion of high-pressure brain-washing, there were no appeals for early posting at Christmas, so why post a week earlier?  This meant mail descending in shoals on every Post Office in quantities that would seem impossible for delivery in one day.  Often the increase in numbers could be as high as ten or fifteen times an ordinary Mail.

There being no 7.15 Limerick Train on Christmas  morning the Mail was sent to Newcastle in a huge lorry.  Instead of 7.15 the lorry was usually an hour later.  The chaos began trying to take the Mail out of the vehicle.  The volume (comparably) was enormous, sixty or seventy huge bags.  These had to be disentangled from the Abbeyfeale and Listowel Mail, as the lorry driver, on a once-a-year job, hadn’t a notion of making it easier.  The primary aim was to divide the mail for the adjoining sub-offices, which had to be ready around 9.30 or 10 a.m., when the late Dinny McAuliffe R.I.P., or one of the other local hackney drivers, took the mail to Tournafulla, Kilmeedy or Knockaderry etc.

The completion of this task depended on the American Mail.  By some devilish twist of fate the White Star and Cunard Lines seemed to arrive in Cobh just before Christmas to scatter thousands of tons of Christmas Cards all over Munster.  Most people looked forward to hearing from relations in America and in the hungry Thirties the United States’ dollars were doubly welcome.  The American Mail on Christmas Morning was often equal to what you’d normally deliver in a week.

When the Mail was divided, each man had to put his letters and parcels in order for house to house delivery.  As an instance of what this could mean I had one house in my delivery with fourteen children, some grown up some toddlers, they all seemed to get cards and the total for this house on Christmas Day was never less than 70 or 80 items.  And I had almost 200 houses on my delivery.  With this amount of preparation the day was usually half over before you were ready for the road, and the three or four hours overtime allowed was already squandered leaving only the normal six hours.  If you got going at noon this meant only four or five hours daylight for delivery.

Christmas Day, for Christians was obviously one of the holiest days of the year, everybody went to Church.  But if you were a Postman – you didn’t – you couldn’t, you had to work.  Knowing the brief period of daylight one started off with little delay.  Even though you probably had nothing to eat since an early 7 o’clock breakfast the temptations of offers of roasted goose or ham or even cups of tea had to be ignored.  Eventually hunger compelled you to accept some householders hospitality, meanwhile keeping an eye on your watch to waste as little time as possible.  To rural dwellers the Postman was (and probably still is) treated like a distant cousin or a lifetime friend.  Then it was the custom to show this friendship with hearty Christmas hospitality.  There was a limit to the amount of turkey, ham, goose or fruitcake you could take.  But the bane of this form of conviviality was the man who took your arm in an iron grip and insisted you must have a little drop of something.

The arrival of the Postman with Christmas Mail always aroused intense excitement, especially in households with young people.  Letters were handed around, the children’s toys had to be admired, and somebody always remembered the Postman’s Christmas Box.  Being almost one of the family, nobody minded asking the Postman to do a favour during the year; bring a message from town, call with a message to the Vet or to a neighbour.  These favours were not forgotten at Yuletide and the Christmas Box seemed to give even more pleasure to the donor than the recipient.  But then there was always the few who felt your Christmas Box should be a drop of the hard stuff or a few bottles of stout.  These worthies always seemed to have the kitchen and parlour littered with cases of liquor and if you were unfortunate enough to have had one drink earlier and they smelt it, then it was a personal insult if you didn’t share their generosity.  I have often been told, ‘so-and-so when he was delivering before the war (the 1914 one) would always have a bit of the goose at Christmas and three or four bottles of stout’.  One of these robust Postmen was reputed to partake of a hearty meal whenever offered and of course three or four or more bottles of Guinness.  Thus fortified, if there was a gramophone or a melodeon player available would often organise a half-set, or waltz the housewife around for a spell before setting off on his rounds again.  With 200 or more houses to deliver one might expect he’d hardly return before the New Year.  Yet he was always home stone sober with all his Mail delivered as early as seven or eight o’clock.  They were giants in those days!

The weather on Christmas Day was always most important, especially on the Post, endeavouring to race with the few hours of daylight one needed a dry road, and dry hands; nothing more messy than handling letters in the rain.  Nature seemed always kind; in 45 years I can hardly recollect 5 wet Christmas Days.

Wet or dry you suddenly realised with horror that darkness was coming.  Usually by then, around five o’clock, one might still have another 40 houses scattered over 7 or 8 miles to deliver.  Then was no time for accepting hospitality, nor indeed for being very genial, when in the dim light of an acetylene lamp you negotiated rough passages, struggled with immovable gates and quarrelled with snarling sheepdogs, who insisted you couldn’t be the Postman at this hour of evening.  Sometimes you might have to knock three or four times before somebody came to a doorway; people were beginning to lose hope of any Christmas Mail after darkness.  One occasion, after waiting impatiently for an answer to repeated knocking, I pushed open the kitchen door to find the whole family on their knees reciting the evening Rosary.  What could I do? At Christmas?  I dropped to my knees and joined in, hoping in my heart they had reached the fourth or fifth decade (actually it was the second)!

Coming home, your path might cross a Postman from a neighbouring route.  Then you thought your day was terrible, listen to his, etc. etc.  Most of the men were back between seven and 8 o’clock and without expecting much sympathy, stories of their various misfortunes were bandied about before finishing work.  One had been bitten by a dog.  Another fell off his bike.  Then there was the man who crossed a footbridge over a stream and coming back walked into the river up to his knees.  He showed you the ends of his pants still wet.  And the punctures – every year somebody got a Christmas Day puncture.  Then there was the man who got home always early on Christmas Night.  He never accepted hospitality and hence didn’t delay on the road.  One particular year we found out why.  He could never eat with his dentures in and of course had no trouble taking them out at home.  He had the misfortune one Christmas Day of getting so hungry at five o’clock that he accepted an offer of a sandwich and a cup of tea.  Taking out his teeth and putting them aside he hurried the meal  and hastened away to finish his route.  What was his horror to discover when he returned to the Post Office that he had forgotten his dentures and horror of horrors he couldn’t remember where he had the meal and where they were left.  He told me it was well into the New Year before he found them.  As he said, ‘You’d be ashamed to enquire from anyone if you left your teeth at their house on Christmas Day’.

I sigh when I hear old people say, ‘Ah sure, it isn’t like Christmas any more without the Christmas Day post’.  And round eyed youngsters enquire, ‘Did you really have a delivery on Christmas Day?’

We did indeed child!  We did indeed!

Post Office staff 1950

Post Office staff 1950