How people prepared for an old Cork Christmas

As the festive season nears, Jo Kerrigan looks back at the way we approached the lead up to Christmas in the past
How people prepared for an old Cork Christmas

Christmas lights at St. Patrick's Street, 1961. Picture: Archive

THE restrictions have been eased, and we are all rushing frantically into the Big Christmas Preparations. But even without the pandemic, it’s always been that way.

Next Tuesday is December 8, the traditional day on which the season started, no earlier. Country folk came up to the city to do their festive shopping, and everybody started thinking about the most important deadlines ahead. Ponies and traps were tied up in Princes Street and while wives headed determinedly into the English Market to order the goose or turkey, their spouses would seize the opportunity to have a relaxed pint in the Oyster or the Mutton Lane.

Nowadays it’s more about buying everything we can lay our hands on, but back in older times customs like gathering ingredients for the traditional fruit cake, stirring up the pudding, and doing a serious bit of housework were top of the list.

Cleaning the house from top to bottom was instinctive. Alice Taylor remembers that walls were whitewashed as a matter of course, the chimney ceremoniously brushed, and everything scrubbed and polished.

Girlie O’Donovan recalled the 1930s when her own mother got going: “At the end of November, if there was any papering or painting to be done, she got the necessary materials together and any titivating necessary was undertaken.

“At the beginning of December the curtains were taken down and washed. The lace curtains and cross screens were dipped in blue bag water and a little starch. Next it was time to take the valances off the beds for laundering and starching.

“We knew that the next move would be for one of us (or sometimes two – to get us out from under my mother’s feet) to be sent down to Simon Mahony’s shop in Barrack Street for a bottle of mahogany stain so that the surrounds of all the floors could be touched up.”

The shops began to prepare too, and great was the excitement when a corner shop at last put out some bright cards and perhaps a string of tinsel around a box of oranges. Bigger places of course made the most of the festive season.

Cash’s in particular created fairytale windows, and both Grants and the Munster Arcade displayed tempting Christmas gifts. The Lee Stores, Day’s, Kilgrews, Woolams, all made much of toys and games which had young window shoppers flattening their noses against the glass.

Strings of lights were first seen on Patrick St in the early 1960s and were magical to our unaccustomed eyes. And of course as times improved, Santa arrived in the big shops, with an extra attraction added to the gift: a slide in Kilgrew’s, a short film of The Night Before Christmas at the Munster Arcade, a real reindeer at Buckleys.

Christmas shopping - turkeys on display at the English Market, Grand Parade in December 1964. Picture: Archive
Christmas shopping - turkeys on display at the English Market, Grand Parade in December 1964. Picture: Archive

The all-important bird, goose or turkey, was of course centrepiece of the dinner table on the day itself. Denis O’Mahony, a child of the Fifties, always knew it was Christmas when there were turkeys hanging by the legs from the fountain in the English Market.

“It’s one of my abiding memories. The birds were simply plucked and hung ‘in the skin’ to await customers. Presumably, if you bought one, the butcher would clean it out and remove the unwanted bits.”

He does remember one Christmas when the turkey arrived unplucked.

“My mother’s friend, Rita, came and plucked and cleaned it in our kitchen. I remember her sitting on a chair and the floor strewn with feathers, and then head and feet removal and the clean-out, done with the dexterity of a trained surgeon. I think we were all a little horrified. We never experienced that again.”

Denis’ mother told him that in her young days in the 1930s, her uncle would stay up all night on Christmas Eve, cooking a goose on the rotating spit in front of an open fire.

“Geese were the more normal Christmas fare at that time. When did we switch to turkeys?”

Christmas turkeys on sale at the English Market, Cork in 1947. Picture: Stock
Christmas turkeys on sale at the English Market, Cork in 1947. Picture: Stock

Kay O’Sullivan remembers the year they got a present of a goose for Christmas. Her mother hung it up from the skylight.

“I came home that night and walked right into it. I got the fright of my life!”

Besides the bird and the essential ham, without which the table would not be complete, Cork revelled in that local delicacy, spiced beef, reserved and bought from the chosen butcher in the English Market in good time. Thankfully, you can still get that today.

Expats in far lands get tears in their eyes when they think of the spiced beef of their native city. Preparing it actually takes many weeks of marinating in special blends of spices, and butchers have made their name on their own particular recipe, jealously guarded over the years.

Good housewives in the Fifties of course had been collecting the ingredients for the Christmas puddings and cakes from way back. When we were only just emerging from rationing, you couldn’t always rely on the availability of almonds, raisins, or glace cherries.

“My mother would reverently take out the paper bag of precious almonds, still in their skins, from her store cupboard, and blanch them in boiling water,” remembers Katie O’Brien.

“We would be allowed to pinch the brown skins to make the shining white almonds pop out, but woe betide us if we sneaked one into our mouths. Almonds were expensive. Even today I still believe that they are an extravagant treat, because I remember how she valued them.”

Once they had been skinned, her mother would dip them in milk before laying them individually on top of a fruit cake before it went into the oven. In that way they browned beautifully. Even preparing the tins with greaseproof paper took ages, she remembers. And the earlier the cakes were made, and then wrapped up and put away in cupboards to mature before being iced and decorated, the better.

Princes St., Cork in 1984. Picture: Archive
Princes St., Cork in 1984. Picture: Archive

For Yvonne Hurley, the excitement started in late November when ingredients were gathered for the Christmas puddings and cakes.

“The pudding would be made in a big baking bowl and everyone would get to stir and make a wish before they were put into pudding bowls. Brown paper would have been saved during the year as it was needed along with greaseproof paper for the top of each, so they wouldn’t burn when cooking. A piece of string was carefully tied around the top of each pudding bowl and secured to make a handle. The cake would be a rich fruit cake, covered in homemade marzipan and finally white icing. It would be decorated with little silver edible balls and a tree, Santa or snowman on top.”

Those ornaments would be kept carefully from year to year, and children grown to adults would complain loudly if they didn’t appear on the cake every Christmas.

Janet McGreevy says she can still see her mother in her mind’s eye, mixing and baking their family cake and puddings.

“We’d all make a wish as we stirred the pudding mix saying ‘I wish I wish a very good wish, I wish my wish comes true.’ That’s a tradition I now continue with my grandsons!”

Girlie O’Donovan worked at Thompson’s in the 1930s, where Christmas was an exceptionally busy season.

“Preparations started in November. There was a huge, spare room near our cloakroom and the first sign that the preparations had begun was when we observed girls who were strangers to us, sitting at tables in that room, cleaning fruit.

“These girls had been taken on for the season. The tables were a novel invention. There were crude holes in them, with bags were attached underneath the holes. The girls put the fruit down the holes and it fell into the bags. The ‘tails’ and rejected fruit remained on the table and were then swept into a waste bag. This job was the first step towards the making of the Christmas puddings. Thompson’s Puddings were known far and wide, even exported to America.”

In early December, the packers moved in. Some of these, explained Girlie, were brought up from the permanent staff in what was known as the Cake Room.

Christmas Shopping Patrick Street Cork. /December 1927. Picture: Archive.
Christmas Shopping Patrick Street Cork. /December 1927. Picture: Archive.

All year round, the Cake Room was used for the daily packing of cakes that were dispatched to Thompson’s shops in town and to customers all over the country. The supervisor in the Cake Room took over in the Christmas Cake Room.

“Her name was Bella Hannon and on occasions, if the bosses wanted something, we would hear them call out ‘Bella’! But we never addressed her as anything but ‘Miss Hannon’. She was a superior class of person.”

When the Christmas Cake Room was in operation, Girlie moved in there, together with another girl, Maura Mullins, who was taken on for the Christmas period.

“She worked in the Court House during the other months of the year.”

Thompson’s travelling salesmen, she recalled, had very little to do in December.

“They would have already submitted their customers’ orders and had no reason to be ‘out on the road’. Consequently they hung around and were in our way. They often made a right nuisance of themselves trying to get more cakes for their customers than they had originally ordered!”

Girlie’s memories of the different confections were diamond-sharp after all those years.

“The small ones like Queen Cakes, Petit Fours, Lemon Buns, Jam Tarts, Iced Fancies, Doughnuts, Doughnut Rings, Cream Horns, Coconut Buns and many, many more, were still sent out from the regular Cake Room.

“The Christmas Cake Room packed all the block cakes and puddings. We had sultana cakes, and a Best Sultana, which was beautiful. There was a regular Dundee cake, Light Fruit cake, Madeira, a Best Madeira, and a Seed Cake.”

The richest, and consequently the dearest, was the Simnel Cake, made especially at Christmas and Easter.

“All cakes were made either round or block, and the block cakes were often sold by the pound weight. They were made in different sizes, 2, 3 or 4 lb. A pound of Simnel went a long way. It was so rich that a little was enough for anybody.

“Of course, Thompson’s made traditional Yule Logs and the Iced Christmas Cakes too. It was a very busy time for everybody and we often worked late to get the extra paper work done. We were glad when the Christmas holidays came!”

What do you remember of the preparations for Christmas? Email jokerrigan1@gmail.com.

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