Duck! No, goose: I walked headfirst into our Yule bird hanging on rafter

Turkeys in the English Market, and Tanora, Taytos and selection boxes... Cork folk share their festive food memories of the past with JO KERRIGAN
Duck! No, goose: I walked headfirst into our Yule bird hanging on rafter

Christmas turkeys on sale at the English Market, Cork in 1947

IT’S not unusual to see a bird flying, but when it’s lifeless and in your kitchen, that’s a different matter altogether.

Kay O’Sullivan got a shock one Christmas as a child, when her mother got a present of a goose and hung it from a skylight.

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

Denis O’Mahony, a child of the ’50s, 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,” he said.

“Presumably, if you bought one, the butcher would clean it out and remove the unwanted bits.”

He does recall one Christmas when the turkey came unplucked. “My mother’s friend, Rita, came and plucked and cleaned it in our kitchen. I remember her sitting on a chair, the floor strewn with feathers, and then head and feet removal and the clean-out, all with the dexterity of a trained surgeon.

“I think we were all a little horrified. We never experienced that again!”

Denis’s mother told him in her young days in the ’30s, her uncle would stay up all Christmas Eve night, cooking a goose on a rotating spit in front of an open fire. “Geese were the more normal Christmas fare at that time. When did we switch to turkeys?”

Besides the bird and essential ham, Cork revelled in that local delicacy, spiced beef, religiously bought from the English Market.

Actor Shane Casey and Tom Durcan trying out a taste of spiced beef at Durcan’s in the Old English Market, Cork, last year. Picture Dan Linehan
Actor Shane Casey and Tom Durcan trying out a taste of spiced beef at Durcan’s in the Old English Market, Cork, last year. Picture Dan Linehan

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. Brown paper would have been saved during the year as it was needed, along with greaseproof paper, 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.”

Janet McGreevy 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 continue with my grandsons! The pudding was lit after Christmas Day dinner by pouring whiskey over it and setting it ablaze with a match. We always loved to see the flame.”

Then there were the boxes of sweets and biscuits, sometimes bought early and hidden in a secret place, safe from marauding hands, or else given by canny shopkeepers to good customers.

One of Janet Kelly’s earliest memories is of her dad arriving home with a big box of Lemon’s sweets hanging from the handlebars of his Honda 50. “They were such a treat back then, and how we looked forward to eating them after Christmas dinner!”

At the groaning table, what everyone remembers is the sheer plenty. “Not that we didn’t get enough to eat the rest of the year — of course we did,” says Sarah Kelleher. “But having all that food there at one time was amazing!”

The Hurley children, recalls Yvonne, would get “our own bottle of Tanora, a bag of Tayto and a selection box to have as we would sit around the black and white television for the Christmas film. There was only one channel so we had no choice but to watch whatever was on. There would be a run for the chairs as everyone wouldn’t get one. The younger ones usually ended up either on someone’s lap or on the floor.”

Girlie O’Donovan, a child in the 1930s, said: “When it was time for making puddings and cakes there was one job we hated: deseeding the Valencia raisins. It was a messy job and a slow one.

“Invariably, my father arrived on the scene and would take a fist of the deseeded ones, making our miserable pile even smaller. Before the puddings were made we also had to chop the suet by hand.

“When they were mixed and boiled (in the traditional way in a cloth), they were hung up until wanted. I remember one time my Aunt Lena had her puddings boiling and my grandfather, who was having a ‘stretch’ as we used to call a nap, shouted out to her from the bedroom ‘Lena, there’s a dog sick’.

“After that, when the puddings were boiling, we used to chant ‘There’s a dog sick!’

“The cakes were next to be made. We had two rich fruitcakes, one was almond pasted and iced and decorated with knick-knacks that we bought in town. The second one was almond pasted only.

“I remember an occasion when Dan Kelleher, one of my father’s agents, was invited to have a cup of tea. He replied he would prefer the ‘cake with the skin on it’.

“We also had a light fruitcake, Madeira and a seed cake. These were put in the bottom of the sideboard, out of temptation’s way.

“When the turkey arrived, my mother used to boil down the giblets for stock to make soup. This meant one of us had to go up to ‘Spudtown’ (Wycherly Terrace, near Denroches Cross) and in the first house on the left we would buy a few pence worth of pot-herbs. There would be a potato, a carrot, a parsnip, an onion, a few sticks of celery, a white turnip, a leek, and a sprig of thyme all wrapped in a sheet of newspaper.

“When the giblets were well boiled, they were taken out of the pot and the dogs got their first taste of Christmas. Then the fat was skimmed off and the vegetables, plus extra potato for thickening, were added to the stock. When the vegetables were cooked, the mixture was put in a sieve and pressed through with the help of a wooden spoon (no liquidisers then) and our soup was ready.”

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