Sights, sounds, and smells of Cork's  Christmas past

From buying a tree at the Coal Quay, to having to kill the family’s ‘pet’ turkey, Cork people share their memories of Christmases past with JO KERRIGAN
Sights, sounds, and smells of Cork's  Christmas past

Christmas shopping at the Coal Quay in Cork city in 1946.

ALL of us remember how excited this final week leading up to the Big Day used to be. Michael Lenihan has shared his own recollections:

“Back then it was magical, as certain memories are stirred by the senses, such as Christmas lighting and sounds, but particularly the aromas. That festive fragrance comes into its own this time of year.

“Cinnamon, nutmeg, and all the other Christmassy spices were just a few of the enchanting elements. Just on their own the ingredients were distinctive, but it was the measuring and mixing for the traditional cake that truly brought forth the festive experience.

“The alchemy of turning this somewhat benign mixture - flour, sugar, a cup full of raisins or sultanas, a handful of cherries and mixed peel, a copious amount of whiskey, a pinch of salt, eggs cracked into a bowl - all lovingly whisked and mixed into a perfect gooey mass.

“The cake tins were rubbed with margarine or butter and lined with greaseproof paper which was cut precisely to fit.

“The mix was then carefully dolloped into the cake tin before being placed into the pre-heated gas oven.

“The process had begun, and with each passing minute, the room became increasingly infused with a delicate spicy seasonal fragrance. The cook issued dire warnings not to make any loud noise, as the cake could flop and disaster ensue. The minutes turned to hours as the Christmas cake neared perfection.

“Finally, it would be removed from the oven and perched in pride of place for the cooling period before icing.

“In due course, the cake cutting ritual was performed with a slow manual dexterity as the sharp knife sliced through the Christmas trophies.

“At last, the taste, as each crumb ignited our taste buds; we really knew then that Christmas had finally arrived.”

The build up to Christmas, recalls Michael, was like a slow burning fuse.

“As children, we were overly concerned that our chimney was swept, as we wanted to leave a good impression, not a sooty one on Santa.

“The weeks before, Cork city was prepared little by little as shop windows and displays became bedecked with seasonal goodies.

“The erection of the Christmas lights in the city was the start of the great illumination and the star=shaped lights were a particular delight as they dangled overhead.

“For children, toys such as train sets, dinky cars, dolls and the latest mechanised wonders of the day were the order of the day. Promotional Santa images appeared to be everywhere.

“One song encapsulated the shopping frenzy: Downtown by Petula Clark: ‘The lights are much brighter there, you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares, and go downtown’.

“The two main shops to gush over were the Munster Arcade and Cash’s, who employed the best window dressers in the city. Both department stores used their vast window frontage to entice customers with their special Christmas displays.

“Santa Claus was never far away and he was actively employed to tempt young children and parents to part with their hard-earned cash. “

Jay’s of Prince’s Street, and Kilgrew’s in North Main Street had great Santas, Michael recollects, “but some years later the Cork Iron & Hardware decided to embrace the bearded wonder and they had one of the best Santas in the city. This Santa was a little mischievous, and his little Elves went to the local pub to procure pint bottles of Murphy’s to keep that magical twinkle in his eyes!

“The invitation to visit his magic cavern soon overcame any parents’ dithering, as a crying, pleading child was a formidable obstacle to saying no.

“The journey upstairs was completed in the electric lift, which was the precursor to meeting the main man himself. It was a little like going to confession backwards, but this time you were going to list all the good deeds that you had accomplished throughout the year.

“This good conduct was usually embellished, thanks to the figment of a fertile imagination, which hopefully would give the required result of an even larger present.

“Most parents and indeed their children gauged the quality of Santa by the superiority of the presents received. This would dictate the next year’s Santa destination. If Johnnie droned on with a list as long as your arm, a signal in the form of a loud cough or splutter was usually enough to terminate the wish list.”

A turkey sale takes place in the English Market in Cork city in December, 1969.
A turkey sale takes place in the English Market in Cork city in December, 1969.

The custom of the youngest person in the house lighting the Christmas candle the night before was more than a spiritual ceremony in the Lenihan household.

“Through the mumbled prayer, thoughts drifted not towards the man above, but more towards the person who was about to arrive via the chimney. A lovely feature of this little ceremony was the placing of the lit candle on the window board to help guide strangers in the dark.

“The memory of the enchantment of going to bed the night before Christmas still lingers, praying that you would not wake up and disturb Mr Claus or his reindeer and receive the customary bag of coal.

“The magical excitement of subsequently waking up and discovering your presents were under the tree. Each carefully wrapped present was ripped open with all one’s strength. It was very rare that disappointment reared its ugly head as Santa usually got it right and happiness prevailed.

“Before the Christmas dinner, any Christmas sweets or biscuits that became available were usually hoovered up. The rich aroma of the Christmas dinner wafting from the kitchen seemed to permeate through the house as it became more and more concentrated prior to the moment of serving.

“One year in particular, an organic turkey was delivered to our house. Well, really, it was not just organic, but totally alive complete with all its feathers. Just what us young children needed, a Christmas pet!

“Everything was going swimmingly as we began to bond with our newly-named Matilda the turkey. Feeding time consisted of handfuls of Kellogg’s cornflakes complete with our imitation turkey noises. But unfortunately, our joy was about to turn to sorrow as our pet was to be transformed into the main course.

“The Aghabullogue executioner (Uncle John) came and did his duty. Luckily for us youngsters, we did not witness this dreadful act, but as a mark of protest, we duly refused to partake in eating our short-lived Christmas pet. We had unexpectedly become vegetarians for the day!

“At this festive time of the year, a visit to that once charming place the Coal Quay became a very special treat. The dealers and traders extolled the virtues of their merchandise. Second hand clothes in particular were flung about as eager would-be purchasers searched for bargains.

“Yes, indeed, the Coal Quay was totally transformed at Christmastime. It seemed suddenly engulfed with acres of fir trees and red berried holly. Buying a tree was akin to doing battle with an experienced gladiator. The haggle would begin, both sides having made a mental note of their final optimal price. In this verbal encounter, eyeball to eyeball, no quarter was given as raised voices were in a pitched battle for the so-called bargain.

“Of course, the more trees that were to be purchased would strengthen your bargaining hand. Having neared the rock bottom price, the inducement of a free bunch of holly was offered. This was to be the seller’s game changer.

“Having almost negotiated the transaction, a fine bunch of holly would be produced, asking an extortionate price. The final haggle would continue with the words, ‘Sir would you have me in the poor house?’

“A deal would be finally struck, only to discover when you arrived home that the fine newspaper-wrapped bunch of holly had transformed itself into a berry-less bunch of wilting green leaves. What harm! There would be always next Christmas for round two.

“If you returned the next year to a different dealer, you might as well as hang your head in shame as this would be tantamount to a sign of surrender.

“It was widely believed that these hardy traders had memories like elephants and could spot an easy target a mile away.

“Well, Christmas today is quite different, but always a precious time of the year.”

Tim Cagney also has vivid memories of the traditional turkey. “We have all become used to the luxury of buying this fully prepared for the oven. However, it wasn’t that long ago when the annual ritual of preparing the feast was more than a challenge.

“First of all, you had to go to some place, such as the English Market, or the Coal Quay, and buy a bird (thankfully dead). It came complete with droopy neck and a full complement of feathers. You then had to pluck the thing - a rather painstaking exercise - and then sever the neck, so it wouldn’t keep ‘looking’ at you.

“The final strand of the experience was, of course, the clean-out. Not many people were up to such a task, especially those who might be a tad squeamish. My mother was one of those. Luckily, help was at hand, in the person of a kindly neighbour - Jennie O’Donovan - who lived right across the road, on Richmond Terrace. Her children were friends of mine.

“Jennie was made of stern stuff. Within minutes of crossing our threshold, she would be up to her elbows in the belly of the beast, enthusiastically eviscerating the creature.

“The one thing that will forever stay in my memory was the smell - absolutely terrible. My mother and myself, together with my late brother (Con) used to observe the gruesome proceedings, with hankies covering our noses. My father was never to be seen, on such occasions. He would discreetly withdraw to the sitting-room fireside, his head buried in De Echo. Perhaps he also may have had a sneaky sample of the Yuletide ‘brew’ - bottles of Murphy’s, held in small wooden crates in the adjoining pantry. Anything to divert his mind from the macabre proceedings going on the kitchen.

“Meanwhile, Jennie - having successfully completed her grisly work - would wash her hands and arms and then enjoy a cup of Barry’s, along with one or two biscuits from the Afternoon Tea selection. This, of course, involved the violation of another taboo, i.e., never to open festive treats before December 25. However, my mother appreciated the value of her friend’s heroic efforts, so rules had to be stretched.

“Come the great day, and the turkey - now a beautiful golden-brown - would be gingerly lifted from the oven. The family would seat themselves at the table. Dad would pour himself a glass of sherry, whilst Mam - ever abstemious - would join Con and myself in glasses of Tanora.

“We would then allow our taste-buds to surrender themselves to the delights of the succulent white meat. All memories of how it made its way to our plates would, of course, be forgotten.”

A happy Christmas to one and all.

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