And the countryside seemed always to be covered in frost at Christmastime,
“The weather wasn’t severe, but the roads were slippery,” recalled Kathleen McDonagh, who grew up on a family farm in County Tipperary.
A week before Christmas, her parents and the five children traveled the six miles into Thurles on a horse and trap.
“The home of the GAA,” said McDonagh, a long-time camogie enthusiast. “That was a big treat; all the lights in the town. It was something special.”
There wasn’t much in terms of material possessions but immigrants who grew up in 1940s and ’50s Ireland remember the Christmas period as a magical time.
“Christmas presented its own atmosphere. It came over the whole country,” said Connie Doolan, a native of the Lough section of Cork City. “People really got into the Christmas spirit.”
“It was a nice time of the year,” said John Fordham, a native of Ballindereen, a fishing village in South County Galway.
It was better economically, too. The farmers in his community, his father among them, were allowed to dredge for oysters in December and sell them for the Continental market.
“There was a good bit of extra money,” said Fordham, who immigrated to the United States in the mid-1950s. “My father did it — two men to a boat — my older brother did, too, and later I did it for a while. You were guaranteed someone would buy them.”
Even though Sean McGovern grew up in a boom town, there was little in the way of decorations or lights. “That came in a later generation,” he said.
However, he did eye an expensive-looking model airplane in a shop window.
Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal, was transformed by the Erne Scheme, which built a hydroelectric dam. “From a small town, the population grew to 30,000 almost overnight,” McGovern said. “Everyone had boarders.”
His father, who had been a member of the army since he joined it from the IRA in 1922, got work in 1945 with the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, which organized the Erne workers.
In Cork, people worked as a community, Doolan said. Nobody was left without.
“Times were simple, but the quality of life was far superior in many respects,” he said.
“Church was very meaningful in the whole thing,” he recalled. “There was reverence for the occasion. The birth of Christ was the focal point.”
“It wasn’t commercialized then,” said Mairead Dowling, who came from Castleknock, Co. Dublin. Nonetheless, she remembered the excitement in the city’s streets. “Moore Street, that was a big thing,” she said, referring to the famous market. There were carol singers on Henry Street and outside the glamorous stores in Grafton Street, and, of course, on O’Connell Street, home to Clery’s department store, and Santa Claus.
“Carol singers would come around the houses as well; they would gather around a lamppost, and one person would collect door to door,” Dowling said.
“We were brought to see Santa Clause in Clery’s,” said Maureen Conway, who grew up in Blackrock, Co. Dublin. “He shook your hand; you didn’t sit on his knee,” she said. “You got a parcel, which cost a shilling.”
In Sarah Jones’s working-class Dublin home on Dominick Street and later in Cabra, all the family participated in the making of the plum pudding.
In some homes, she said, it was made months beforehand, so it could age. But her household comprised her parents and eight children, so it had to be made shortly before Christmas Day,
“Nothing aged in our house,” she said, laughing.
Most immigrants living in England traveled home to Ireland.
“Come hell or high water you were going to get home,” Doolin said. “People made every effort to be with family, even if they had to borrow money.”
He compared Christmas a half-century ago in Ireland to the present-day American Thanksgiving, with its emphasis more on family being together and less on gift-giving.
Margaret Bohan, a native of Loughill, Co. Limerick, lived in Cheshire, England, from the age of 5 until she was 11.
“We came home at Christmas,” she said. “We had some money when we were in England and we had a huge tree with clip-on candles. Of course, you only lit them for a short time.”
But Ireland had one advantage over post-war Britain: it was not subject to drastic rationing. So, at Christmas, even if there weren’t elaborate gifts, there seemed always to be plenty of food.
“The stores were generous with their regular customers,” Bohan said. “You always came back with something extra.”
Midnight Mass happened only at Christmas, which emphasized the uniqueness of the season.
“The choir seemed to be at their best, then afterward everybody wished each other a ‘Happy Christmas,’ ” McGovern said.
This aspect of adult behavior in the first hour of Christmas morning stood out in the memories of those who witnessed it as children
“I remember outside after midnight Mass people shaking hands, wishing their neighbors a ‘Happy Christmas,’ ” Bohan said.
Then with her cousins, she’d take a shortcut through the fields to get home. “It was frosty. I remember looking up at the stars. And you’d be so excited, wondering what you got [from Santa],” Bohan said. “They were the greatest times.”
“It was very hard to fall asleep with excitement over Santa,” Conway said. “My mother would say, ‘He’s on O’Donovan’s roof and he won’t come until you’re asleep.’
“Later, when I was 10, I cried when I heard there was no Santa.
“My most cherished memory is getting 12 pennies, which was equivalent to one shilling,” Conway continued. “I called them ’12 golden pennies’ because they were shiny. I saved them. I wouldn’t even touch them.”
McGovern got his airplane.
“It might be a half crown in a stocking, which was hung over the fire,” Fordham said. “Or you might get a ball. You hung your stocking over the turf fire. Now, they’re looking to see what’s in the next box.”
“They’ve too much today,” Bohan agreed.
“It was always something very practical, like an item of clothing,” Doolan said.
One item was the norm. “A doll maybe, or a pair of skates,” said Dowling.
“Maybe you got a little doll if you were lucky,” McDonagh said. “We appreciated what we got. It could be a bar of chocolate, bought by my parents in Thurles. We really looked forward to that.”
Some got nothing.
“I never got a doll for Christmas,” said Jones, the third youngest in her large family.
Her father was a footman to the Earl of Athlone, her mother from a middle-class English family who’d settled in County Dublin.
“My parents loved each other. And I had a lovely childhood,” Jones said.
Though there was little or no gift-giving, Christmas was, she remembered, “very jolly.”
But she added that she knows it hurt her mother that the family had so little money.
The other two Dublin women identified the season with toy trains. Conway’s family had a train set that only came out at Christmastime. “It was for everybody, not just the boys,” she said. “And I still like trains.”
Dowling remembered the family had a “moving train.” She doesn’t believe its technology was very elaborate. “Still, it was fabulous,” she said.
The Christmas dinner was early, like the dinner on any day, usually at 12 or 1 o’clock. “In my day, people had goose,” Doolan said.
But some remember turkey for dinner, at least in some years. McGovern said he plucked a turkey on more than one occasion as a youngster.
McDonagh’s family had a chicken from the farmyard and all the vegetables were grown in the garden.
“There wasn’t much shopping done,” she said.
“I remember everybody cooking,” Dowling said. “And the neighbors coming in for a drink.”
Bohan recalled going to relatives where there were 21 children in the family. “Well, some of them were out of the house by then,” she added.
She was greeted at the door by one of the family’s young sons. “He had a turkey leg in one hand and a slice of Christmas cake in the other. He didn’t know which to eat first,” she recalled, laughing. “So there was plenty to eat.”
The remainder of the day was for relaxation and entertainment.
“We listened to the radio,” McDonagh said.
“Radio Eireann broadcast the Hospital Sweepstakes program,” Dowling said. Names of sick children were read out and requested music played on the sponsored show. “It was a lovely feeling listening to that.”
One advantage of Ballyshannon’s boom status was its two new cinemas. The McGoverns went to the movies later in the day. “On one Christmas Day we went to ‘Saratoga Trunk,’ which starred Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman,” he recalled.
But as the youngsters entered their late teens, the Abbey Ballroom was the main attraction.
McGovern recalled also that in the 1950s his mother liked to listen to the queen’s speech on the radio. “My father and I used to ridicule her,” he said.
In the Doolan home, the dinner was for the immediate family. Uncles and aunts visited later in the day. “There was the inevitable sing-song,” he said. When the children were sent to bed, they listened intently to the adult voices coming through the floorboards.
Six decades on, family members still discuss those nights and which of the adults sung what songs.
There was much singing and recitation on Dec. 26, St. Stephen’s Day, when the Wren boys went door to door.
“At 10, 11, 12 years of age, that was the greatest part of it all,” recalled Doolan, who is director of trade relations for Guinness in North America. “Beginning at 5:30 in the morning, it was a long, happy day.
“Though some of the salutations we heard from the windows are not printable,” he added, laughing.
The boys sang: “The wren, the wren, the king of all birds, St. Stephen’s Day, caught in the furze, up in the holly and ivy tree, give us our money, and let us be.”
It was good day also for Fordham in County Galway.
“We happened to be very good singers,” he said. “So we did well. We went to every house in the village.”
When McGovern emigrated in the summer of 1960, his mother made him a plum pudding.
He said: “I never saw her again.” She died that October.
“In Irish circles, we had turkey, but no pudding, that was the thing I missed,” he added.
He was unimpressed with the variety sold in tin cans in this country.
“A plum pudding made the old way is an acquired taste, like Guinness,” he said.
Nowadays, a cousin of his wife’s sends him one every year. “Man, can she make a Christmas pudding,” he said.
Generally, the young immigrants of the 1950s and early ’60s had to adapt.
“It could be a sad time,” McDonagh said.
On her first Christmas in New York, she and her roommate, a County Galway native and fellow camogie player, went to Prospect Park, near where they lived in Brooklyn, and pucked the ball around.
“That helped us get over the loneliness,” she recalled. “Then we went down for our meal about 4 or 5 at my uncle’s.
“It was much harder for the immigrants then. There was no calling. You wrote a letter home.
“What kept us together were the Gaelic games: football, camogie and hurling. Gaelic Park was our hangout. And the dance halls.”
“There were a lot of people your own age in the same circumstances,” Doolan said. There was a fellow feeling, he added, and a camaraderie, that although not referred to, was real.
“And the older group made sure that they were looked after,” he said. “They had an awareness of what they were going through.”
“It was totally different here,” Fordham said. “But you got used to it.”
Jones was surprised by the lavishness in the American Christmas. “I didn’t believe in going into debt,” she said. “You can only spend what you can afford.”
She did, however, send money home to her mother in Dublin to help make up for the years of poverty.
“My mother said I was the difficult one to raise,” she said. “I was a tomboy, a rossie,” she added, using a Dublin slang term for an impudent, naughty youngster. “But she said I turned out the best.”
Most of the immigrants never spent Christmas Day again with their parents, or, as the decades passed, with siblings who’d stayed at home in Ireland.
But some harbor a dream to be home again for that special day.
“I usually went back in the summertime,” McDonagh said. “I like to go back for Christmas, at least once more. That’s my wish.”