A Child’s Christmas in Dublin

Clery's lit for Christmas

Clery’s of Dublin lit for Christmas

Last year Robert posted a story for Christmas, The Other Crowd. We decided this should be a tradition, so here is a story based on memories of Christmas in Dublin in the 1950s.  The photographs were taken during a recent trip to Dublin.

“Stuff this turkey?”  Mum was shouting. “It’s you I’ll be stuffing, if you ever do this to me again!”

“But it’s fresh, straight from the country.”  Dad looked crestfallen. “I thought you’d be delighted. You’re always talking about fresh food from the country.”

Dad had arrived home from work several days before with a mysterious parcel strapped to the carrier of his bicycle. As we clustered around the box, he reached in and gingerly pulled out a very large dead bird. It was covered in white feathers, but had an ugly red neck and head and long cruel talons. Uncle Dan in Killarney had sent us up a turkey for Christmas. There would be no butcher shop undersized bird for the Finlays this Christmas, he announced proudly, but farm raised turkey. Mum gazed uncertainly at the dead bird.

“What are you supposed to do with it?” she asked. “How do I get it ready to cook?”

Dad wasn’t too sure, but said that Uncle Dan had said to make sure we hung it for a few days, to “age” it. So it hung by its neck on the back of the bathroom door for a time. Fergus, Hugo and I would creep in to look at and poke at it with our fingers, but Mum started to lock the bathroom door once Hugo started to get nightmares.

Finally, on Christmas Eve Mum declared she couldn’t put it off any longer, and it was time to pluck it and clean it. Pulling the feathers out started off well, with great handfuls of feathers coming away, but the smaller feathers proved to be more resistant, and soon Mum was wielding a pliers, red faced and fierce, shouting at us to get outside and to stop throwing the feathers around. When we ventured back into the kitchen it was to see her smoking a Woodbine with her head tilted upwards to keep the smoke out of her eyes, plunging her arm up to the elbow into the turkey and coming out with masses of slithery guts and gizzards.

polar bearsBy now, it was obvious to us that Mum was in a very bad temper. Three little heads and six hands clinging on to the edge of the kitchen table observing every minute of the operation and making vomiting noises as innards slid onto the table, was the last straw. With a martial light in her eye, she told Dad that she would not be finished in time to go into Dublin with us for our annual visit to see Santa Claus in Clery’s, and he would have to take us by himself. Dad looked close to panic at this, but for some reason didn’t argue, but told us to get ready to catch the bus.

We had been looking forward to this day for weeks. The three of us had agreed that we would each ask Santa Claus for a cap gun for Christmas. That way, we would be able to play Cowboys and Indians together, and shoot each other dead whenever one of us caught the other. Mickey Moran next door had the ideal cap gun, so we knew just what we wanted. It was silver, and looked like a real six gun with a revolving chamber in the middle. Best of all, it cracked open in the middle, so you could load in a round of caps, and it pulled the caps through properly, so each time you pulled the trigger, the hammer came down on a cap, which exploded with a satisfying bang and smell of sulphur. Mickey even had a holster and a sheriff’s badge, so he always got to play “the chap.”  We wanted to be the one to play the chap, the Lone Ranger maybe, or Hopalong Cassidy, and not always have to be the Indians or the stage coach robbers.

Mickey Moran was going to see Santa too, but he said he was going to Switzer’s and that that was better. His father and mother were taking him and his brother in their car. We saw them leave as we set out for the bus, skipping along beside Dad. As we rode on the top deck so Dad could smoke he told us we should be ready with our requests as soon as we sat on Santa’s knee. O’Connell Street was thronged with Christmas shoppers. Groups of carollers had set up at corners, collecting pennies in boxes they rattled at passers-by. Everyone seemed happy. Dad wasn’t really used to having the three of us to mind on an outing like this, and kept wanting us to hold hands with him and with each other. I didn’t mind this, I liked holding his hand. But Fergus thought that a seven year old boy shouldn’t be holding hands with anyone.

Once in Clery’s we took the lift up to the top floor. This wasn’t where Santa was, it was just part of the treat, to ride the wrought iron lift up the open shaft and watch the uniformed man press the buttons and pull the levers and open the double doors to let people in and out. Hugo said he wanted to do that job when he grew up.

Santa's WorkshopWe joined all the other kids and parents going to see Santa, filing slowly past a series of Christmas scenes. Each one had wooden figures set up to show Santa’s workshop, or a family around a Christmas tree, or children skating on a frozen pond. In each scene some of the wooden figures had mechanical parts which moved. A ballet dancer pirouetted on the ice, elves hammered and stitched away at toys, two woodsman sawed a large log, a mother placed an angel on the top of the tree. We were transfixed, pointing and lingering, and having to be pulled along not to lose our place in the queue.

After the scenes, we were directed into a small room, where we sat on benches. The lights went out and I held tight to Dad’s hand when strange music started, and a screen at the front of the room started to flicker. “You are travellers in another galaxy,” a voice boomed. “You are millions of light years away from earth, trying to get home for Christmas.”  And then we were screaming, as our seats were bucking and swaying, and our spaceship was hurtling though space, dodging huge boulders and flying saucers, swooping right and left and finally crash landing on earth at terrifying speed. As the lights came on and the doors opened again smaller kids were clinging to their parents and the bigger ones were wanting to know why they couldn’t stay and do that again, and parents were moving away from the doors and saying it was over now and Santa Claus was next, and exchanging laughing comments with each other.

Fergus had been frowning in concentration, as we stood in the queue drawing closer to Santa, magnificent in his red suit and white beard.

“Daddy,” he demanded suddenly, “How can Santy Claus be here and at Switzer’s at the same time?  And anyway, isn’t he only supposed to come on Christmas Eve?”

Another father gave Dad a cheerful nudge. “The chislers, wha?  They do be up to all the tricks.”

All three of us were now looking earnestly up at Dad, who took out one of his large white handkerchiefs and spent a long time blowing his nose. “Well, this isn’t the real Santy Claus,” he said finally. “This is one of his deputies, because he’s so busy right now he can’t be everywhere.”  He saw Hugo’s and my bewilderment, and before Fergus could get out his next question he coughed a couple of times and said decisively, “But the one who comes on Christmas Eve is definitely the real Santy.”

Any more conversation was impossible, as we had reached the head of the line. I watched as Fergus and Hugo climbed on Santa’s knee. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but Santa was nodding and smiling and the boys looked happy as they climbed back down. Then it was my turn.

Up close, the beard looked odd, made of some kind of cotton wool. Santa’s knees felt thin and bony, but he sounded jolly as he ho ho ho-ed and asked me what my name was.

“Have you been a good little girl?  Do you think you deserve a nice present this year?”

I assured him I had been extra good, and said, please, that I would like a cap gun. With a holster too, if it wasn’t too much trouble.

“A gun!  A holster!”  Suddenly Santa sounded like Mr. Moran next door instead of himself. “Mother o’ Moses, what would a nice little girl like yerself be wanting with one o’ them yokes?”

Taken aback, I stammered, “But that’s what I want. I thought you would bring me what I said I wanted.”

“Sure guns is for the boys. Tell you what, I’ll bring you a nice little dolly. How ‘bout that. Wouldn’t that be a lot better than a gun?”

I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to shout at him, to tell him I hated dolls, to tell him he was supposed to be listening to what I wanted, because I had been good, and this is how it worked. But if I shouted at Santy Claus’s deputy, he would tell the real Santa and then what hope would I have of getting my gun?  Dad must have seen my lip start to tremble, because suddenly he was hurrying me out and telling me to be a big girl and for God’s sake not to start crying and then we were back out in O’Connell Street and I was hiccuping that I didn’t WANT a stupid doll, I wanted a GUN. And people were starting to stare, and Dad was dabbing ineffectually at my eyes and saying “There now. There now.”

Dublin Lights

But Fergus and Hugo were both pulling at Dad’s leg and saying “Dad look, look!  Can we go over there?”  And as I looked where they were pointing my sobs slowed to a snuffle and I nodded vigorously that yes, I wanted to go there too.

We crossed the street to an enchanted kingdom. Henry Street was ablaze, with archways of lights stretching right across the street, each arch different colours and shapes, but all brilliant, dazzling, resplendent. Vendors and hawkers vied for the custom of the pedestrians who hurried by. Their raucous calls surrounded us.

“Last a de Christmas dekkerayshuns.”

“Get your Sparklers here. Oney a shillin a duzzen.”

Dad bought a packet of sparklers, because we begged him to. And we told him that Mum would love some of the bright paper chains and Chinese lanterns, so he bought some of those too, and some mandarin oranges around the corner in Moore Street.

Moore Stree

By the time we got on the bus, I had talked myself into an optimistic view of my Christmas present. And besides, today was Saturday, so the Beano would have arrived while we were out. After tea we could sit by the fire in our pyjamas and Mum, or maybe Max, would read it to us, putting on funny voices for Lord Snooty, or the Bash Street Kids. And anyway, that hadn’t been the real Santa. He would have received my letter by now, so would know, and when I came down on Christmas morning, a silver cap gun would be under the tree, all wrapped up in shiny paper, with my name on it. I wouldn’t have to fight for my share of someone else’s gun, and maybe even sometimes I would get to be the chap.

And later on, we would all sit down to a magnificent roast turkey, fresh from the country.

20 thoughts

  1. A few year late but you brought me back to Dublin in the 50’s and Christmas in my Grannys house in Sandymount. My Christmases now are sunny and hot here in Cape Town.


  2. Stories evoke memories and I started to recall my own mother plucking chicken feathers, then searing the skin with a match to clear away any remaining downy bits–while I held my nose! A different time indeed. Btw I never dared ask for a gun, though I had a “dandy” (to use my dad’s favourite word) bow and arrows set, albeit the arrows were quite quite blunt! Merry Christmas, Finola!


  3. Lovely, you took me there. Its wonderful how a good story makes so many unexpected connections for the reader. A wonderful cozy Christmas to you both.


  4. Thanks for the great images… the “ride” before seeing Santa is not a traditional North American thing, I don’t think…
    Blessings of the season


  5. Finola, did you get the gun? My visit to Father Christmas was at Switzers where you sat in an airplane which swayed to and fro and the scenery outside the windows moved forwards. I believed, I truly believed that I was flying.


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