Remember when you used your loaf of bread to signal new year?

How did you used to celebrate a new year as a child? JO KERRIGAN hears some readers’ memories of hurling a loaf of bread against the front door, in her Throwback Thursday column
Remember when you used your loaf of bread to signal new year?

New Year’s celebrations at Jurys Hotel in Cork city 50 years ago - on December 31, 1972

WE are coming up to the end of 2022 with all its many incidents, experiences, worries and joys, and looking forward to 2023 with perhaps a certain sense of trepidation, but also eagerness as we wonder what is in store.

How did you celebrate New Year’s Eve in childhood? Did your family have any special customs or traditions?

Tim Cagney writes: “The only custom I remember about New Year’s Eve was my mother striking the front door with a loaf of bread, whilst uttering words along the lines of ‘May the Lord keep the hunger from this house, from this night until 12 months forward’.”

This, or some variation of the practice, was widely observed here in Cork, where memories of harsher times and genuine hunger were still vivid in people’s memories.

Some would send out a male of the family to knock on the door at midnight and proffer a log of wood, a piece of turf, or a chunk of coal, to ensure that the home would be warm and secure in the year ahead. (One wonders if current political thinking would forbid this - unless, of course, it was specially and expensively kiln-dried wood, and certainly not coal or turf.)

Other households would be content with a ‘first footing’ by a tall dark man, to bring luck for the year ahead, with his peremptory knock at the door.

Some would chant that traditional Irish saying ‘Go mbeirimid beo ar an t’am seo aris’ (May we all be alive this time again, ie next year), sing a special song or ring bells as midnight struck.

There is a strong belief still current in some rural areas that all unfinished tasks must be completed before midnight on New Year’s Eve as otherwise they will never be done.

Conscientious housewives (probably not the menfolk) will scrub and dust and generally tidy up, so as to be ready for whatever comes in the following 12 months.

One moving tradition which is still followed in rural areas, is that of leaving doors unlatched on this night, so that friends and family members who have passed on during the year may come back and visit. Linked to this is the tradition of setting an extra place or places at the table for these visitors.

Did you make New Year resolutions? These were a big tradition in most virtuous Cork households, and indeed one of the first queries between friends meeting again after the break was “What resolutions did you make?”

They are common enough today among adults - to lose weight after festive over-indulgence, to take up new hobbies, to deal with the garden or that unfinished DIY task - but back then they tended to be rather depressing undertakings such as doing your homework immediately instead of last-minute before school next day, or remembering to brush your hair and tidy your room. It didn’t really matter, though, since most resolutions were forgotten before January was half over.

One of the best-loved traditions of an older Cork was the time-honoured hooting of all the ships moored in the Lee on this night. As the hands of the clock approached 12, households near to the river would open their windows to hear the first lonely blast, followed by an echoing cacophony of sirens as all the boats joined in.

Chief among these would be that of the much-loved Innisfallen if she happened to be in her home city that night, although mostly she would be somewhere between ourselves and Wales, packed with travellers celebrating at sea. It is a sound we tend not to hear so much these days, but to anyone who experienced it in childhood, it’s a memory that will never be forgotten.

Bell-ringers ringing in the new year at St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork, on January 1, 1935.
Bell-ringers ringing in the new year at St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork, on January 1, 1935.

Tim Cagney remembered flares being fired from the ships moored at Cork docks at midnight on New Year’s Eve, and always associated this glow with a strange terror, born of a rumour which was rife in the late 1950s and very early ’60s - that the world was about to come to an end.

“Has any other reader got recollections of religious predictions about the end of the world?” he asks.

“I think these were, largely, based on the so-called Third Secret of Fatima and were totally believed in by many people. This caused no end of anxiety to both myself and my sister, Margaret. I, in particular, feared that the dreaded event would occur at midnight on December 31. I used to stare at the night sky, fully expecting it to turn red. Luckily, the only glow to be seen was from those flares down by the quays. This sort of thing went on for years - I always dreaded it.”

Katie O’Brien has that same memory of hearing that the world was ending very soon, and how terrified it made her.

“I think there was a rendering of an old Nostradamus prediction which could be adapted to any year and any date. For our generation it was ‘And the world unto an end will come, In nineteen hundred and sixty-one’. It seems silly now, but to young and impressionable minds, the fear was very real.”

The fear was aided and abetted, Katie reveals, by a somewhat obsessive nun at her convent school.

“She would tell us how soon the world would end, and how appalling would be the suffering we would endure as a result of being so bad.

“She managed to blend this end-of-the-world diatribe with her hatred of Communism, and would tell us that, even if the world didn’t end quite yet, we would wish it had, because the Communists were going to take over, and all our homes, our toys, our pets, our parents even, would be snatched from us.

“That was pretty terrifying stuff for young children. I suppose you could call it a form of abuse really.

“That nun was frequently carted off to hospital with severe stomach ulcers, which may have occasioned her dreadful lectures, but even now I find it hard to forgive her the trauma she caused.”

And now to recollections of memorable gifts received at Christmas long ago. Patrick O’Donovan has given us two.

“We lived in a two-up-two-down, and I woke on Christmas morning to find that Santa had left a lovely tricycle at the foot of my bed. Squealing with delight, I hopped out and immediately tried to cycle it down the stairs. Fortunately, not before my father grabbed me and averted a Christmas disaster!”

That reminded Jane Kelleher of a similar festive gift.

“I was about three, and was utterly thrilled to see the shiny tricycle under the tree, all for me! Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be all for me that day, as it happened. It was a wet Christmas, and my father enthusiastically organised an obstacle race around the dining room, in which every single one of my older brothers and sisters, plus my father himself, climbed on to my dear little new tricycle and navigated ropes slung from chair to chair, awkwardly-placed boxes, and other traps, as they circled happily around the room.

“I, in the meantime, stood on the side, close to tears, as they creaked and pushed the pedals violently, wrenched the handlebars, and pulled my tricycle every which way. It was my present, and I wanted so much to play with it all by myself!”

Children in Churchfeld, Cork city, watch as Eamon de Valera launches RTE TV on New Year’s Day in 1962.
Children in Churchfeld, Cork city, watch as Eamon de Valera launches RTE TV on New Year’s Day in 1962.

Patrick O’Donovan’s other abiding memory comes from later childhood, and is of an electric train set, thoughtfully and practically mounted on a 6x4 sheet of plywood.

“I happily spent the whole of Christmas adjusting the contact points and replacing the train when it came off the tracks or lost contact. I don’t think I ever got the train to do more than two circuits before ‘repairs’ had to be carried out again!”

Janet Kelly writes feelingly: “I was at work during the week and opened a bag of bright new coins. This immediately brought me back to Christmases years ago, when we searched our stockings for shiny pennies. We thought we were made for life! No fancy stockings for us back then, just dad’s socks. We always went for the longer ones, thinking Santa would fit much more in them!

“There was always an apple, an orange, and a little pack of chocolate fingers, the ones with the foil around them. And of course the magic shiny pennies. Toys were always under the tree. Happy memories, simpler times!”

Yes, who can remember hanging up a stocking on Christmas Eve? It was the normal thing to do back in the ’40s and ’50s, when we were still living in more austere times, and very few could afford large gifts or indeed a decorated tree.

“The excitement of seeing that empty hanging stocking as you closed your eyes, and the thrill of seeing it bulging in all sorts of strange ways when you woke up again! Small tin toys, a stick of barley sugar, maybe a tiny doll, or a rolled up little book. And, whenever possible, an orange, or an apple, and, most exciting of all, bright shiny pennies right down there in the toe.

“You could sit up in bed, enjoying the rare treat of sweets before breakfast, perhaps reading the new book, which had to be straightened out and flattened first, and planning what you would buy with the pennies when the shops opened once more.”

Now. You may remember Pat Fitzgerald’s recollections of old Blackrock, which we published back on December 8, and particularly the local shop known as Tessie’s.

Eileen Foley (nee Brady) wrote to thank Pat fervently. “Your photographs brought back happy memories from childhood days playing on the old railway line and I was also a frequent visitor of Tessie’s shop.”

Of course, we asked Eileen for more childhood memories and she obliged:

“I went to the Ursuline Convent National School. Our childhood days were spent playing games like hop-scotch on the footpaths, spinning tops and skipping (there were no cars on the road that time).

“What I can remember about Blackrock is having picnics at the green point, which is now Mahon, and playing on the slip at Blackrock Castle. People would come down from the city at the weekends.

“There would be many people sitting on the bridge wall watching people get on their buses home. This was a source of entertainment for us. The village which was known as the pound where Tessie’s shop used to be, would be full of people queuing for milk and cakes. I would have regularly done my food shopping at Tessie’s but the one thing that always stands out in my mind are the cakes!”

“Blackrock was known as a fishing village back then, she says. I also have fond memories of the regatta which was a big day up the Marina! Totally changed now. Grateful for all the memories made back in the day - so innocent!” But was the village really called ‘the pound’? “Yes, it was always known as the pound when I was growing up. Not sure if it was just a native thing. The pound was the last bus stop in the village.”

Let’s have your memories from the past. Email or leave a comment on our Facebook page:

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