Christmas in Rochfortbridge

A memoir from the sixties

by Danny Dunne

Christmas Eve
At Christmas when the dinner is over and all the hype associated with the season becomes just a memory Christmas is as far away as ever and we leave midwinter behind and look forward to longer days and the impending arrival of Spring. Its at this time that one remembers the days in the distant past when Christmas was so special and it was a magical time for us all. Living in the country we were all in the same boat, a time when it was hard to make ends meet and we relied on the few dollars from America or a pound from a Great Aunt in Dublin to bring home the Christmas for a family of nine children. It all began around the 17th of December when Master McEngeggart closed the school door at Dalystown and we ran the three miles home through puddles on stony roads or frosty fields, not a care in the world for the wet or the cold. The first job was to gather the holly in Dunboden wood and take it to all the neighbours. The sash windows were adorned with holly and it was also placed behind the pictures on the walls. Then my mother and Father spent a day in Mullingar. We stayed at home and took care of the younger ones and we were not allowed venture into the town on that occassion. We spent our time making patterns on the frosty grass in the fields pretending that were were ploughing the land for the spring. Christmas Eve arrived and it was the longest day of our lives. We didn’t want to eat anything. Darkness arrived and having washed, we were dispatched off to bed. In the early years of our lives there was no electricity and there was a little oil lamp flickering on the mantlepiece. Outside we could hear my father doing the evening jobs like foddering the animals and milking the cows. He carried a lantern or yard lamp to give him light and we watched the moving glow in the back yard through the curtains. Of all nights of the year, sleep was the last thing on our minds. We called for drinks of water or requested to go to the toilet many times. Our father would occassionally peep in and say that he could hear bells over Dunboden wood. This was the worst thing of all to say as we were frightened that Santa Claus would pass us by and not make any deliveries at all. It certainly was the longest night of the year and we all felt it, but suddenly and out of the blue, sleep came and we would wake up at some unearthly hour of the morning.
Christmas Day

We’d sneak down through the darkness to find a stack of brown parcels tied with string on the kitchen table. Mother followed at our heels, and lighting a tilly lamp she distributed the parcels to us all. Back up to bed and the excitement was terrific. My first memory of this morning was opening a parcel to find a little wooden box of bricks. It had little windows with red see-through cellophane. They fitted into the little box like a jigsaw and and it had a sliding lid. There were also the trimmings, balloons, sweets, a toy watch, handkerchiefs with pictures of Santa going down the chimney and sometimes a Christmas stocking with allsorts of goodies from whistles to colouring books. Depending on the time of the morning my mother returned to bed, but at 6.00 a.m. we were all called to get ready for 7.00 a.m. mass in Rochfortbridge. In those years, my father had a pick-up truck as he cut and sold timber for fuel to people in Mullingar. On Christmas morning there was a gathering of neighbours who hitched a ride to mass on the back of the truck, rain, hail or snow. The village of Rochfortbridge was a busy place and it was lit up with bright electric lights. The rural electrification took place in the 1950’s in phases, as the villages and towns were lit first. We didn’t get the electricity until the early sixties, but thats another story. Our first excitement of Christmas was to visit the crib. We knelt at the altar rails and watched with great excitement at the infant in the cradle lit up by a red star over the crib. The crib looked as if it was made of stone and the statues were huge. To the right of the crib there was another room overlooking the altar and we could see nuns praying. The Sisters of Mercy attended mass in a little side-chapel looking on to the altar and in those years prior to Vatican II they did not mix with the community at all. The church came alive with the most beautiful music and singing as Christmas Carols eased us into prayer and soon mass began. It was a long wait as we were thinking of getting home and playing with the toys we got from Santa Claus. Mass was said in those early mornings by Father John Conlon, a native of Ballinabrackey Parish. He was curate in the parish for many years assisting Parish Priest Fr. John McManus, who was a native of Collinstown, Co. Westmeath. Father McManus preferred to say the morning mass in Meedin Church as it was a place close to his heart, being one of the earliest churches in the parish with links back to the penal days of the 18th century. It was always at this mass that Fr. Conlon announced the date of the annual Children’s Christmas party. It was usually held in early January around the time we returned back to school, but it was something we really looked forward to. At home, the table was dragged up to the fire and we sat down to a hearty breakfast. We were hungry after the cold early morning trip to mass. After breakfast we were dispatched off to the rooms to play with the toys as my father and older brothers did the outside chores and my mother began to make preparations for the dinner. Around midday, Uncle Tom my fathers brother called and he would share in the excitement with us all. He came to visit Grandfather Joe, who lived with us and spent most of his time in bed. If the day was fine, we went out to play or visit our neighbours to show them our toys. But the day passed quickly and we were tired going to bed that night.

St. Stephens Day
On Stephens day the wrenboys came by. The story goes that when St. Stephen was trying to escape from those who were trying to kill him, he hid in the bushes and would have escaped only a little wren flew out alerting his captors to the fact that he was there and finding poor Stephen, they stoned him to death. It was tradition in Ireland to catch and kill a little wren and carry it from house to house chanting the rhyme:-

The Wren, the Wren
The King of all birds
On Stephens day
Was caught in the furze
Although he was little
His family was great
So rise up good lady
And give us a trate
Up with the kittle
And down with the pan
And give us a penny
To bury the wran(wren)
As I rose up with my hat so tall
I saw a wren upon the wall
I took a stick and knocked him down
And brought him in to Dalystown.
I dipped his head in a barrel of beer
I wish you a Merry Christmas
And a happy new year
The wrenboys who came to our door carried no wren as it was impossible to catch one. Such a practise is outlawed today, but I have seen people carry little plastic birds such as Christmas robins, re-painted to represent the wren. The children who came to our door were usually local children, with their coats turned inside out, their faces blackened by a cork which was placed in the fire or coloured with lipstick. My mother in her jovial way always tried to chase them to get a kiss from them and they ran screaming lest she would succeed. My father then called them back and threw a few copper coins into their little sweet can. As we grew older we all hunted the wren and we headed for Rochfortbridge. Our destination was the Bórd na Móna Houses(Derrygreenagh Park) or the three pubs, Lysters, Rowans and Whelehans. There were always plenty of people in those establishments on the day and in their high-spirited seasonal way were very generous in throwing money into our cans. The songs we sang were usually those learned at School, and at that time in the lead-up to the 50th Anniversary of the 1916 rising there was a plethera of Patriotic songs on the curriculum, The Foggy Dew, Roddy McCorley, The Three Flowers, God Save Ireland etc. They always went down a treat. Then we were asked to sing something Christmassy and we finished Jingle Bells. Tired and weary we returned home near dark to count our money and divide it up among ourselves.
Fr. Conlon's Christmas Party
Just as we were about to return to school we were driven to The children’s Party in the convent Hall in Rochfortbridge. The convent hall was the venue for many parish functions during the fifties and sixties until Fr. John Conlon built St. Joseph the Worker Hall using local volunteer labour. It became the focal point for many a Parish Dance during the Showband era but the Convent hall was a great venue for local drama as well as functions such as the childrens Christmas Party. It was a world then where the plastic cup and plastic bag were non-existant. We arrived at the hall and put sitting at long tables on forms, and the noise was deafening. Fr. Conlon had a whole team of workers at the back of the stage in what was known as the cookery room and it wasn’t long until the proceedings began. Down the steps they came carrying buckets of paper bags filled with boiled sweets from the cans sold in the shops. The wise ones put the bags in their pockets as the sweets began to melt away and the hands became sticky and wet. They were left for another day and on a few occassions some of the children didn’t want them and they were going to throw them away, so I ended up with a few bags of sweets going home. As I have said already, there were no plastic cups and people came from the cookery room with tin baths full of cups, volunteered from houses all over the village to feed the multitude of children. This was followed by buckets of Pak Orange diluted in water and the cups which were being banged off the tables, became quiet as they were filled to the brim. There were sandwiches, plates of Christmas cake, buns and biscuits brought to the tables. Amongst all the noise Father Conlon addressed the crowd of children and announced that everyone go out to play while the hall was cleaned up for the entertainment. On a number of occassions there was a film show. This was the first time I had ever seen moving pictures and my memory of them were of short stories, or fillers used between movies as children wouldn’t have the staying power to watch a full movie(or so they thought). On other occassions there was a concert of music and singing. Here my three oldest brothers played a part. Together with a few local lads from around the Rochfortbridge area, everyone was entertained by The Dalystown Juvenile Band. For a few years during the early sixties they entertained at local functions and they were taught music every Friday night at Dalystown School by Tony Lynch from Castletown Geoghagan and later by Larry Arthur. As the Sowband era drew in a group of young lads from Edendery called the Hoot’n Nannies sang and entertained us. Wearing cowboy hats and carrying guns and holsters they rocked the house away and it was magic. As the sixties progressed, the popularity of the Christmas Party began to wane as there were other attractions coming on stream, namely, television. But for a very short while Fr. Conloin’s Christmas party was the highlight of our lives and something that stayed with us for a very long time after Christmas. Sadly that great season of childhood ended very quickly and we returned to school. Christmas today, I suppose is different, but the magic is still there, but it has different dimensions in a more high-tech world. The only thing that has not changed are the children who have made this time of year their own with memories they too will cherish forever.

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