Well, 2020 has been a strange one, to say the least. A year where we saw Irish politics altered in a government formed of consonants and contrarians that was just missing a Big Brother/Love Island narrator. A pandemic that saw us hit pause in our schedules but ‘Continue Watching’ on our streaming services. We fell in love with Connell & Marianne, out of love with Zoom Calls and quizzes; but knowing that we never needed to hear the words “fancy a cuppa & a chat” more than ever before. We found new addictions like The Last Dance or The Nobody Zone, became masters of banana bread baking while the election turmoil in the United States appeared to offer a reprieve (from general monotony) before the real fare of the All-Ireland championship gave us Liam Cahill dancing a jig on the Croke Park side-line that would have made Michael Flatley blush.
This year ranged from Shakespearian tragedy to screwball farce (golfgate & Rudy Giuliani to name but two) while our frontline services and their heroic endeavours surpass Arthurian legend. It was the strangest and toughest of years, but we’ve been here before. Could the words of Charles Dickens (the man who invented Christmas) ever be more applicable than from A Tale of Two Cities – ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’
From the Pharisees to Faithlegg: St. Ita
One could argue that Waterford has had a connection to Christmas from the start of the story itself. As Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem where Jesus was born in a stable, the tale has a Waterford connection. St. Ita of Killeedy born in Faithlegg, County Waterford around 480 and known as the foster mother of the saints of Erin, was devoted to the Christ child with the poem Ísucán (cited in The martyrology of Óengus) depicting her nursing the infant Jesus. The reason for which was a logical way to fill the void of replacing her pet beetle. Yes, you have read that correctly. An unusual connection between the Pharisees and Faithlegg! Though Jenny Bledsoe concludes that “St. Ita’s tradition manifests a variety of forms of spiritual motherhood”. It’s not what Ita may or may not have done but rather that what she represents that is important.
She was seen to embody the ‘Six Gifts of Irish womanhood’ in the Celtic tradition; wisdom, purity, beauty, music, sweet speech and embroidery. It seems that Eleanor McEvoy’s A Woman’s Heart was for her – “as only a woman’s heart can know”. And just in case you’d like to mark your 2021 calendar, don’t forget Ita’s feast day is the 15th January. Even if you’re not religious like myself it would be nice to note the strength of the women in our lives on a more regular basis. Maybe the whole Woman’s Heart album might be played that day. Mary O’Neill and Ollie Carroll get the vinyl ready!
Caring is Sharing & the Gift is in the Giving: Waterford Toy Shops
As families rush to gather gifts for Christmas this year, spare a thought for C.V. K. of the Munster Express when he noted (in 1948) the toy shops Waterford could boast back in the early 1920s:
In the district of Waterford in which I grew up, we had – as it were – our own parochial toy shop, where all the year round we bought, at appropriate seasons, our marbles, hoops, tops, fishing nets, squibs, etc. That shop was…in Patrick Street and was owned in those days by Mrs. Manahan…her stock was always well stocked with the right kind of seasonal fare, and we seldom took our custom elsewhere, except perhaps a little farther down Patrick Street to Misses Nolan’s shop…
As we got bigger and ventured further afield down to Broad Street, we found that J.G. McCaul’s…shop had many more pretentious offerings in the line of toys, and here it was that many of us saw, for the first time, such modern wonders as trains on tracks, air rifles, Meccano sets, chemistry sets for the manufacture amongst other things of “stink bombs”…
In these pre-Woolworth days, the cheaper and less elaborate type of toy could always be purchased at Messrs. Power’s bookshop in Michael Street, and if we left our purchasing until as late as possible on Christmas Eve, we were always sure of a bargain in the drive to sell out Christmas stock before it went out of season…
…The shop of the late Mrs. Katie Dawson on The Quay, was another Christmas rendezvous of Waterford boys of my time, and here one could purchase cowboy suits…
This year will see the new Play Station top the Christmas list of many, while the cowboys of yesteryear such as Roy Rogers and John Wayne have been replaced by the Mandalorian and Stranger Things (if you pardon the pun). Air rifles now seem quaint to the capabilities of the new smart phone where likes on Instagram are akin to the games of Christmases gone bye. Still, it’s hard to beat the refrain of Shakin’ Stevens: ‘children playing, having fun’.
Driving Home for Christmas
In keeping with a musical vein, many will be listening to Chris Rea’s Driving Home for Christmas with some hope of the holiday ahead. But many will be filled with a bittersweetness such as for those who can’t make it home; from wherever green is worn like the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Though we will echo the thoughts of drive safely wherever you are.
For instance on the 23rd December 1929, a motor lorry driven by T. Baldwin of Passage East, lost control of his vehicle and crashed into the iron railings of the Redmond Bridge. It was believed that the steering gear went and with carrying a large load, the lorry began to slip back on the slight incline and crashed. Luckily for Baldwin he was uninjured though the bridge had seen better days. Apparently, the city engineer wasn’t happy to inspect the damage on Christmas Eve, but he was just told to build a bridge and get over it. I should be writing the jokes for the crackers with that one.
The festive season can be a very difficult time for many. We only need to look at the story of Larry Griffin, the Missing Postman of Stradbally, whose family never saw him again after Christmas Day 1929. Over 90 years later his descendants still look for answers of what occurred in a small rural community. Though in tough times, we as a people can display our greatest character. We see Christmas as a time of giving, such as to charity.
Even with the pandemic of 2020 we still see the issue of homelessness still rife in a country that purports to be one of the most modern and diverse in the western world. Sadly homelessness is not a new tale around Christmas time. We have the story of the death of Patrick Kennedy of Lissellan, Tramore on the 26th December 1932. Kennedy aged 49 was stated to have died as the result of “heart failure” due to “starvation and want of proper care.” Ireland was a bleak place economically for large parts of the 20th century as the Great Depression worldwide and the economic war with Britain led to many being unemployed and destitute in the 1930s.
Kennedy had no work and was living for a time with his mother. His wife Bridget and two children stayed with their aunt but as Kennedy was earning no wage there was no financial support. While he lived with his mother and brother Martin, they survived on her pension of 10 shillings a week. The labourers cabin had two bedrooms, a kitchen, an earthen floor which was moist and muddy, no beds while the roof was as porous as a cullender. Such cramped confines led Patrick to look and beg for other quarters to reside in. So stark were Kennedy’s circumstances he lived in a shed for three months where his only warmth came from wearing two overcoats. They never complained nor sought help. Was it pride of a family or neglect of a society? Nevertheless, it cost Martin Kennedy his life that Christmas 1932.
Looking Back, Looking Forward
Christmas gives us a chance to pause and look back at our year or even life. Nostalgia is a plenty and hope is ever eternal. As we enter the period of completing endeavours and creating resolutions, remember the story of the author Morley Roberts. Roberts spent Christmas 1937 awaiting the publication of his book Bio-Politics which had taken him 50 years to write. At 80 years of age, he had already published over 70 books; mostly novels but had an affection for Waterford. A friend of Edmund Downey (novelist and owner of the Waterford News), Roberts had written a short story and poem about Waterford published in the Green & Gold magazine. Such was his interest in Waterford (which he visited two or three times) it was noted by the editor of the Waterford News that Roberts had ‘once wrote a letter to us in which he proposed a novel remedy for partition – a remedy too drastic for publication.’ And we wonder where Boris Johnson got his theories from?
The lesson would appear to be that no matter how far we come, be it from the beginning to end of a year, one Christmas to the next, completing education or starting a new job; there is always the hope and thirst for more. For many in the UK and Ireland, Christmas was made by Val Doonican whose rocking chair style and festive cardigan wear was compulsory viewing. His album Val Doonican Rocks, But Gently managed to knock The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper off the top of the charts in December 1967. In fact, it was harder to get the Waterford man’s LP in his hometown then it was in England, not because of it’s popularity but due to a distribution problem as a result of foot and mouth. I for one know my father will have Val on in the car this Christmas. Before I use to raise my eyes upon hearing the album playing but now I can’t imagine the festive season without it.
As you can see Christmas has seen difficult times before. Though it may not mirror that of EastEnders I think many will be glad for 2020 to be ending. Though we’ve had wonderful moments too such as Adam King (whose dad Dave hails from Dungarvan) who captured the hearts of a nation and reminded us no matter what obstacles, hugs can be given and dreams are there for us all. Some will dream of a White Christmas a la Bing Crosby. Others will not stop believing like Journey in the quest for Liam McCarthy. But Adam reminded me of a song that always comes to mind with Val Doonican, I can sing a rainbow. May we see brighter days ahead and all the colours of the rainbow.
So if you’re spending your Christmas in Ballyhack or Ballybeg, reading the excellent Waterford Harbour: Tides and Tales by Andrew Doherty or listening to Val, have a very happy Christmas.
Thanks to Cian Manning for this wonderful reflection on a year that we will all want to forget. If you want to experience more of Cians work you will find him on Twitter where he regularly promotes his blogs on his twin interests of Waterfords history and sport. He is also the author of the excellent Waterford City, A History. Currently available in the Book Centre Waterford