Voices at Christmas

John Quinn - spent his working life recording people’s stories.

Photo Deirdre Holmes

John Quinn - spent his working life recording people’s stories. Photo Deirdre Holmes

‘If we had extra geese or cockerels my mother and myself would bring them to the market in Loughrea on the second Thursday before Christmas that was known as 'Big Thursday'. The market was held on the main street that time, you would not collect much money, maybe three shillings per goose but that would help to buy the Christmas.

'I used to go with my mother to Curley's in Kilreekill to buy the Christmas shopping which would be very simple that time but we always got a present from the shopkeeper. This was usually a bottle of port wine and a big Christmas cake. We used buy a big red candle and light it for the 12 days of Christmas.

'Santa Claus used to come but the presents would be very small. Also we used to light a candle and put one on each window during the Christmas. On St Stephen's day we used to have local mummers and they would be accompanied by musicians who would do a bit of a dance. My mother would give them a few shillings and they would spend the day visiting houses and enjoying themselves.

'On the eve of the Twelfth day of Christmas we used to light 12 small candles in honour of the 12 apostles. We used to pick a candle each to see who would die first....'

These are some of the early memories of John Joe Cunniffe from Dartfield, Kilreekill, collected by Pauline Birmingham Scully who began writing down the life stories of people in South Galway as part of her university degree, but it has become such a passion that this autumn her second volume of stories was published with a third promised next summer.*

Pauline is now a familiar and welcome figure arriving at the farmsteads and town homes, tape recorder in hand, creating an invaluable picture of Galway rural life in the middle decades of the last century.

Gerry Mannion, a third generation postman from Labane, recalled that at Christmas there were a lot of American parcels, bringing welcome gifts to families from their children far away. 'The post office in Galway was full of parcels.' Closer to home, many people sent a turkey or a goose from the farm to their family living in the towns: 'a lot of them badly parcelled, or some still fully feathered with just a label around their necks!'

Spirits of Galway

I am not quite sure why ghost stories are associated with Christmas, but they are. Maybe it grew from olden times when people amused themselves late at night around the fire; Santa, after all, is a spirit, a fairy man.

We remember Charles Dicken's famous story A Christmas Carol (published in London 1843, and has never been out of print ), about a bitter old man, Ebenezer Scrooge, who at the behest of ghosts from his past and future, suffers a black night of the soul, only to emerge a gentler and kindlier man.

Local historian and author Peadar O'Dowd, has pulled up his chair to the fire to thrill us with an encore to his first collection: More Spirits Of Galway. It is a slim volume of strange tales touching Taylor's Hill, Salthill, Claddagh, Bohermore, even Corrandula does not escape a ghostly touch on its shoulder. Wonderful value for €5.

Writing talent

Every Christmas for the past 12 years, the Loughrea Creative Writing Group, under the guidance of Liam Nolan, produce an excellent collection of short stories under title of Razzle Dazzle **. Thirty four imaginative stories, bizarre, humorous, warm and brilliantly observed, most of which are good enough for The New Yorker magazine.

Several caught my fancy but I particularly enjoyed McCarthy's Nose by Fiona Nolan where the narrator takes revenge on the school bully Jerry McCarthy who tormented her while growing up.

Many years later the narrator becomes a renowned plastic surgeon, when lo and behold, her old school bully, now a grown man, is stretchered semi conscious, into her hospital. His manly nose bashed in after a mugging.

With great skill she she gives him 'a perfect feminine nose: narrow at the bridge, and a small up-turn at the end, It was beautiful.'

But in fact Jerry has the last laugh. When they do meet again, and this time Jerry recognises her, he thanks her for doing such a great job on his nose. He decided to follow the theme and became a 'she'. Jerri is now a very successful and generous businesswoman.'

Liam makes the point in his introduction: 'Writing is a craft. And the essence of writing well is rewriting...'

Christmas at Coole

One man who does not need to be taught his craft is broadcaster and writer John Quinn who has spent his working life recording people's stories. It is a curious thing about broadcasting but interviewees are happy to talk away, often about intimate memories, without inhibitions. In a new anthology of people and places, *** John looks back into his extensive achieve, and gives us some of his best moments with such people as Seamus Heaney and his school days, Eibhlís de Barra, growing up in Cork, John Lonergan on Mountjoy Prison, Douglas Gageby on Belfast, Thomas Pakenham on his trees at Tullynally, Katie Martyn on Island Eddy, and many others, including places that have affected John deeply such as The Holy Land, Gallipoli, and the ancient Greek city of Ephesus.

John was also fortunate to catch Lady Augusta Gregory's granddaughters, Catherine and Anne, who in their late years returned to Coole Park where they recalled happy childhood memories with their grandmother, in their charming book Me and Nu.

'We always had an enormous Christmas tree. It was always put up in the breakfast room late on Christmas Eve, and Grandma and Mamma decorated it after lunch on Christmas day. We weren't allowed to see it, either before or after it was decorated, until we were all called in - wild with excitement - when all the candles were alight.

'The room looked like fairyland with the silver star glittering at the tip-top of the enormous tree, nearly touching the ceiling; the candles flickering made all the pictures on the walls appear to move with the light coming and going on the glass; the masses of piled parcels at the base of the tree, and masses more little parcels in bright paper tied on the branches among the fairy-like decorations; and above all, the wonderful, heady smell of hot candle-grease.'

Next week: The Christmas

Misscellany.... Book your copy now!

NOTES: *South Galway Stories: Oral Narratives, Volume I and Volume II, published by Bookhub, priced €15, each.

** Razzle Dazzle 2016, introduced by Liam Nolan, published with assistance from Galway County Council Arts Office, on sale €10.

***This Place Speaks to Me - an anthology of people and places, by John Quinn, Veritas publishers, on sale €17.

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