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Looking Forward to Christmas

Christmas tree 2023 in situ

The Christmas Coat

This story by the late great Seán MacCarthy is one of my all time favourites. I repost it every year. If you are new to the blog you are in for a treat. If you remember it like it was last Christmas, enjoy it again.

I still don’t know if the story is biographical. A lot of the details are anyway.

The Christmas Coat   

Seán McCarthy  1986

Oh fleeting time, oh, fleeting time

You raced my youth away;

You took from me the boyhood dreams

That started each new day.

My father, Ned McCarthy found the blanket in the Market Place in Listowel two months before Christmas. The blanket was spanking new of a rich kelly green hue with fancy white stitching round the edges. Ned, as honest a man as hard times would allow, did the right thing. He bundled this exotic looking comforter inside his overcoat and brought it home to our manse on the edge of Sandes bog.

The excitement was fierce to behold that night when all the McCarthy clan sat round the table. Pandy, flour dip and yolla meal pointers, washed down with buttermilk disappeared down hungry throats. All eyes were on the green blanket airing in front of the turf fire. Where would the blanket rest?

The winter was creeping in fast and the cold winds were starting to whisper round Healy’s Wood; a time for the robin to shelter in the barn. I was excited about the blanket too but the cold nights never bothered me. By the time I had stepped over my four brothers to get to my own place against the wall, no puff of wind, no matter however fierce could find me.

After much arguing and a few fist fights (for we were a very democratic family) it was my sister, Anna who came up with the right and proper solution. That lovely blanket, she said was too fancy,  too new and too beautiful to be wasted on any bed. Wasn’t she going to England, in a year’s time and the blanket would make her a lovely coat!. Brains to burn that girl has. Didn’t she prove it years later when she married an engineer and him a pillar of the church and a teetotaler? Well maybe a slight correction here. He used to be a pillar of the pub and a total abstainer from church but she changed all that. Brains to burn!

The tailor Roche lived in a little house on the Greenville Road with his brother Paddy and a dog with no tail and only one eye. Rumours abounded around the locality about the tailor’s magic stitching fingers and his work for the English royal family.  Every man, woman and child in our locality went in awe of the Tailor Roche. Hadn’t he made a coat for the Queen of England when he was domiciled in London, a smoking jacket for the Prince of Wales and several pairs of pyjamas for Princess Flavia

The only sour note I ever heard against the tailor’s achievements came from The Whisper Hogan, an itinerant ploughman who came from the west of Kerry.

“ If he’s such a famous  tailor,” said Whisper, “why is it that his arse is always peeping out through a hole in his trousers?.

Hogan was an awful begrudger. We didn’t pay him any heed. Tailor Roche was the man chosen to make the coat from the green blanket. Even though it was a “God spare you the health” job, a lot of thought went into the final choice of a tailor.

The first fitting took place of a Sunday afternoon on the mud floor of the McCarthy manse. The blanket was spread out evenly and Anna was ordered to lie very still on top of it. Even I, who had never seen a tailor at work thought this a little strange. But my father soon put me to rights when he said, “Stop fidgeting, Seáinín, you are watching a genius at work.” Chalk, scissors, green thread and plenty of sweet tea with a little bit of bacon and cabbage when we had it. A tailor can’t work on an empty stomach.

The conversion went apace through Christmas and into the New Year. Snip snip, stitch, stich, sweet tea and fat bacon, floury spuds. I couldn’t see much shape in the coat but there was one thing for sure – it no longer looked like a blanket. Spring raced into summer and summer rained its way into autumn. Hitler invaded Poland and the British army fled Dunkirk, the men of Sandes Bog and Greenville gathered together shoulder to shoulder to defend the Ballybunion coastline and to bring home the turf.

Then six weeks before Christmas disaster struck the McCarthy clan and to hell with Hitler, the British Army, and Herman Goering. We got the news at convent mass on Sunday morning the Tailor Roche had broken his stitching hand when he fell over his dog, the one with the one eye and no tail. Fourteen months of stitching, cutting, tea drinking and bacon eating down the drain. Even a genius cannot work with one hand.

Anna looked very nice in her thirty shilling coat from Carroll Heneghan’s in Listowel as we walked to the train. Coming home alone in the January twilight I tried hard to hold back the tears. She would be missed.  The Tailor was sitting by the fire, a mug of sweet tea in his left hand and a large white sling holding his right-hand. I didn’t feel like talking so I made my way across the bed to my place by the wall. It was beginning to turn cold so I drew the shapeless green bindle up around my shoulders. It was awkward enough to get it settled with the two sleeves sticking out sideways and a long split up the middle. Still, it helped keep out the frost. Every bed needs a good green blanket and every boyhood needs a time to rest.

The ghosts of night will vanish soon

When winter fades away

The lark will taste the buds of June

Mid the scent of new mown hay.

A Printer’s Legacy

I was walking through St. Michael’s cemetery when I saw this memorial. It is on the grave of the Cuthbertson family.

There are no descendants of that family in town now so they would all be forgotten were it not for Vincent Carmody’s book, preserving forever the posters, penny ballads and other materials printed by Bob Cuthbertson on his printing press in Listowel.

May they all rest in peace.

A Fact

Christmas in Listowel Workhouse in 1907

(Research by Junior Griffin)

The workhouse was under the auspices of the “Listowel Board of Guardians” and the “Kerryman” report of the children’s Christmas party under that body in 1907 read as follows;”

Christmas treat to the Children of Listowel Workhouse

“The Xmas treat entertainment which has become a pleasing annual event in the lives of the little children of the Listowel Union, was carried out in an admirable manner on the night of New Year’s Day.

Mrs. Foran, Lady Guardian for Listowel, and vice-chairman of the board, was-as been her wont since she became a guardian of the poor-the central figure, as well as the originator of this year’s Xmas tree entertainment, and the manner in which the various details incidental to such pleasurings were carried out, as well as the considerateness with which she contrived to give pleasure to the individual little ones of the Workhouse by her kindly and tasteful distribution of the good things provided, gives evidence of her thoroughness of head and heart. The delight of the little ones was apparent in every nook and corner, where they could be seen gloating over their presents either singly or in groups.

The Ladies who were present were and who assisted in distributing the toys, etc., were- Miss J. Broderick, Miss Hartnett, Miss Lyons, Miss Nolan, Miss D. Nolan, Miss McElligott, Miss O’Donnell.  The Matron of the workhouse and the school mistress were most assiduous in securing comfort for the children.

The band of the Listowel Total Abstinence Society attended the entertainment, and ably rendered choice selections of music from 8 to 10 o’clock.  This did much towards enhancing the pleasure of the little workhouse children, and enough credit can hardly be given to the band, individually and collectively for their decent, humane and manly action in their giving to the children of the very poor, if even for only two short hours in the year, a glimpse into the joyful and mirthful things of life, which are by forces of circumstances to them denied, and which to the more fortunate little ones outside the workhouse walls are matters of daily, perhaps hourly occurrence. It is particularly creditable that each individual member of the band played his part with much zest and earnestness for those little waifs and strays of humanity as he could have done in the palace of a King and for the most select of audiences.  They well merited the thanks which Mr. Maurice Griffin, editor of the “Kerryman”, bestowed on them, and the proceedings terminated, leaving everyone with the pleasurable knowledge that those for whom the treat was inaugurated were for this one night as happy as if there was never a shadow of a care or sorrow in this vale of tears.

The following are the contributors- Mrs. R.H. McCarthy, The Glebe, box of toys; Miss McElligott, Mount Rivers, beautiful dressed doll, boxes of sweets, cakes, chocolates and picture books; Miss Hartnett, two gipsy dolls; Miss Foynes, mother-hubbard doll; Miss Stewart,  Sailor doll; Miss McAuliffe, box of toys; Mrs. Barry, tin of biscuits; Mrs Crowley, 2 boxes candy; Mr. T Walsh, oranges; Mr. Daly, oranges;

Mr. Corridan, box of sweets; Mrs. Foran, £2.



An Aviator and a Dunce


Christmas Then and Now

1 Comment

  1. Frances Blaikie

    Blessings to you Mary each day I read the “Listowel Connection” and this Christmas Season is warmed and cherished by “The Christmas Coat”.

    God bless you and a Happy Christmas and New Year.
    Frances O’Brien Blaikie

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