Calling all Cork women - share your memories of Women’s Little Christmas...

JO KERRIGAN says January 6 is a pivotal date for females... while a reader recalls when the Model School was used as a festive sorting office for post staff
Calling all Cork women - share your memories of Women’s Little Christmas...

The Cork telephonists’ Christmas party in 1949 - the vast majority of the workers were female

DO you know what day tomorrow is? Well, apart from “de day after de Throwback Thursday”, that is?

Well, it’s January 6 - Women’s Christmas. Or, as it is sometimes dismissively called (mostly by males) Little Christmas.

The idea being that, as women had borne the brunt of all the festive preparations, from cleaning the house from top to bottom through buying all the food, mixing cakes and puddings, finding the money somehow for gifts, and then acting as cook, waitress and washer-upper on the big day - they could now have this one day of rest to themselves.

There is a lot more to Women’s Christmas than that, as those readers with long memories can attest.

It is actually one of the oldest of our pre-Christian beliefs, the day dedicated to the mother goddess, and through her to all women who were regarded with far more respect and honour back in ancient Ireland.

This was the day the female of the species had to herself, to gather with her friends and celebrate, while the menfolk were banished to the fields or the hay barn to pass the time somehow until midnight.

Even in recent memory, the women of Co. Clare would come together in a chosen home and there sit to chat, knit or spin, tell stories, and enjoy the food and drink brought by all the participants.

And ask local women anywhere in the city or county today what they are doing tonight, and many will tell you that they will be off out celebrating with their friends, and their husbands or partners can just make the best of it when left alone for the evening.

And we know of several professional ladies who host special breakfast parties to mark the day that is in it. “It goes back so far, it’s in your instincts,” said one.

Do you have any memories of your mother or grandmother marking Women’s Christmas?

Not long ago (only pre-Covid really), it used to be traditional here to have special concerts and shows for Women’s Christmas, when the halls or theatres would be packed with girls of all ages, ready for a good time, the stairs of the hotels jammed with a colourful procession of women dressed up in all their finery.

We remember one male singer who confessed that he dreaded this particular gig because “you wouldn’t know what they’d get up to. They go half-mad, and you’re not safe at all!”

Almost reminiscent of the Furies of ancient Greece and the vengeance they wreaked on any menfolk they happened across!

So, any of the female of the species reading this, make sure you mark this oldest of Irish traditions properly tomorrow.

Take all the time you want over your shower, leave the breakfast things to be washed up by someone else, haul out that glamorous outfit you never dared wear, and head off to have a good time! You are honouring an age-old custom.

Now to other memories of times past...

Pat Kelly, who has come up with some wonderful recollections of childhood before now, has sent us some on the Model School which he attended from 1950.

“In that year, my parents had left married quarters in Collins Barracks to move to Haig Gardens,” says Pat. “Prior to that, my brother and I had started school in St Patrick’s, then in St Lukes, but since demolished.

“I was in First Class with my brother, but when we were enrolled at the Model, my brother, being younger than me, was again put into First, while I started in Second.”

Pat recalls being intrigued at the furniture which he discovered stored under the sheds outside the school.

“They were a beautiful kind of tables with pigeon holes, where people could work from both sides. These, I eventually found out, were brought into use for Christmas, when the post office would use the very large classrooms to sort the flood of parcels and letters.

“I have often seen photos of postmen sorting mail which is identified as taking place in the post office. Wrong, it was in the Model School!

“And the best thing about it was that we pupils got an extra week’s holiday at Christmas so that the classrooms could be used for the festive rush! We were well pleased, I tell you!”

Staff preparing to deliver the last of the Christmas post at the GPO, Oliver Plunkett Street, Cork, on December 23, 1936. A reader recalls when the Model School was used as a mail sorting point at Christmas.
Staff preparing to deliver the last of the Christmas post at the GPO, Oliver Plunkett Street, Cork, on December 23, 1936. A reader recalls when the Model School was used as a mail sorting point at Christmas.

The reason Pat’s mother picked the Model school for her sons was that she and her brothers had been educated there, as had her father before her.

“Back then, in British times, the Model was very different. Pupils here were taught that they were loyal English children, subjects of the Crown.”

In his own time, Pat recalls ruefully, the teachers could be fairly tough. “I remember one who had a stick which was part of a brush handle. When he hit your hand, it was nothing short of brutal. I wouldn’t think anyone has good memories of him!”

But writing about the older, British-run days reminds Pat of a statue of Queen Victoria which formerly stood on the front lawn of Leinster House.

Once Ireland had gained its hard-won freedom, TDs and others passing by would refer to her as ‘The Famine Queen’, “And so the statue was removed, and stored,” says Pat.

“The government did not know what to do with it: melt it down, or dump it in the deepest part of the ocean. However, a solution offered itself. Sydney in Australia had revamped an older building in its city and rechristened it The Victoria Centre. Bingo! Our government delightedly donated it to that centre, where it now stands.”

Many years on, Pat and his late sister had themselves gone to Sydney, in search of long lost family relations. And of course they went to see Victoria in her new position.

“I have a photo of the occasion. I was reading what was written on the back of the pedestal, that it had been presented by the people of Dublin to Sydney. A lady nearby had heard my accent, recognised it as Irish, and complimented us in gifting the statue!”

Pat says he could happily ramble on all day, and sends his best wishes to all our readers for the New Year. And the same to you, Pat!

Expat Lawrence Fray, now living in India, has shared with us his memories of the joy - and pain - of commuting by bus from Youghal to UCC in 1974, and then living in Cork city during the following year. Readers of our special feature last Monday will remember that the great old train service between the seaside town and the city had closed in 1963, and bus was thereafter the only way to go.

“The bus trip could really be an ordeal, especially in winter,” says Lawrence. “The Youghal wind can cut like a knife early in the morning, and the wind-chill factor during the walk to the bus stop could reduce the hardiest traveller to an icy wreck.”

But this, he says, was nothing compared to the words of welcome that would assail you when the bus pulled up, the door opened, and there to greet you was the formidable Mick Keogh, conductir extraordinaire and raconteur.

“Mick was one of the last bus conductors in CIE’s employ, and he and his driver partner, Bertie Doyle, were legends in their own lifetime.

“Many a commuter has been on the receiving end of his sharp wit as Mick strode up and down the bus like a Colossus (to misquote Shakespeare).

“One Monday, just after the Killeagh May Queen had been crowned, one wag announced to the bus in general that the May Queen was waiting at the stop and about to board. ‘Send her down here’, said Mick from the back of the bus, ‘And tell her that I’m the king of Youghal!’”

Mick was capable of some extraordinary acts of kindness too, though, stresses Lawrence.

“I once witnessed him dressing down a group of aggressive teenagers who pushed in front of an elderly woman who wasn’t too steady on her pins. He refused them entry to the bus, told them to get out of the way, and assisted the lady to board. The boys, suitably chastised, were only allowed to board after profusely apologising to her.”

Mick, says Lawrence feelingly, was conductor, comedian and commentator: a larger-than-life character who comes to mind whenever he boards the Cork-Youghal bus.

“Each morning, as Parnell Place Bus Station came into view, our bus would slow in the Cork rush-hour traffic, and often stop like a ship becalmed, while we started doing mental mathematics, knowing that it was 8.19am, that there was a 20-minute quick walk to UCC, that there was hardly time to spare to make the first lecture...

“On arrival, we would bound off the bus, cross the road, and up Oliver Plunkett Street we would go (still with traffic, not fully pedestrianised then), across the Grand Parade to Washington Street, along past Jury’s, and puff into the College grounds near to 9am, ready to creep into the back of a lecture room smiling enigmatically.”

After the years of commuting came Staying Up. “The following October saw me searching the ‘Places to Rent’ advertisements for digs in Cork. After an initial bad start, I, along with a friend, secured a rental in North Main Street.

“It was there I learned a lesson that I have trotted out to groups of students who left the schools where I worked. I ask them, ‘When does a young person mature?’ and then tell them that we all mature on the same day - yes, we really do - and that day is the day we receive our very first electricity bill with our name at the top!”

Nice one, Lawrence, and very true too. Our thanks to you for those memories sent from far distant India. Do share more with us as you think of days gone by in your home county!

Now, to end with, this chilly or wet weather which will probably last through to the end of February (only its own mother could love Ireland at this time of year), the mind turns to the parlour games of old.

What did you do for amusement in your household back in the 1950s or ’60s before a rented TV set ever crept in, when it was too rainy or too cold to play games outside?

Did you sit round the table with a game of Ludo or Snakes & Ladders. Do your best to score at Tiddley Winks? Tackle a really grown-up game of Pontoon or Hundred and Ten? Or embark on the big business trail with Monopoly, doing your best to get a hotel on Mayfair? (This was well before we had our very own Irish versions, with Cork or Dublin top-rent locations rather than London.)

Or was it more energetic, with dressing up in clothes from the old chests in the attic, for charades or acting out plays?

“We used to write and put on plays in the big bow window at home,” remembers Katie O’Brien. “It had curtains all right, but we could never work out how to make them open and shut at the beginning and end of scenes. They had been put up long before those clever modern set-ups which allow you to pull a cord at the side. We would have loved that, oh how we would!”

We would love to hear about the indoor games you played as a child. Tell us!

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