December 7th 2009
A Parcel from America
Reading the tealeaves
In a strange way brown wrapping paper and hairy string remind me of Christmases long ago just as much as do mistletoe and bright berried holly. Centuries of emigration to America ensured that a great number of us had relatives in that country, relatives that quite often sent packages, especially at Christmas. These much desired parcels always came wrapped in heavy brown paper secured with a peculiar kind of strong, shaggy twine.
My mother didn't like uncertainty. There was far too much of it about she said! Occasionally, when her patience expired, or times were especially bad, she peered into the future. When she found spare time she’d ‘read the cards', or the tealeaves. Savouring her cup of tea, she swilled the last drop around and drinking it, peered intently into the bottom of the cup. Future events were encoded in the designs deposited there. All kinds of things were revealed to her in the mystery of the leaves: births, deaths, marriages, journeys across water, dark handsome strangers for the neighbouring girls who came to call and — parcels from America. She could even unravel whether it was an envelope with money in it that was on its way, or a box.
When I looked over her shoulder it made no sense at all — until she pointed out the pattern in the cup that represented a journey or a letter or a package on the way. Then I believed! Part of the magic that marked the season was the sense of excitement and anticipation as we waited on dull dark days for the prophecy to be fulfilled.
Short trousers and 'plusfours'.
We know now that Santa and his reindeer are the stuff of fantasy. But our Santa had an ass and cart, and it was real. When our postman’s load got heavy at Christmas he left his bike aside, harnessed his ass to the cart and piled the post on there. When, eventually, our turn came and John Higgins steered his sleigh onto our cobbled street, pulled the canvas cover back and carried the long awaited package to the door, it was joy fulfilled. What excitement as we tore the wrapping off and pulled out colouring books, red striped ‘candy cane’, packs of multi-hued crayon, and shiny plastic packages of brightly coloured rock candy.
Sometimes it was clothes that came in these Christmas boxes, checked double breasted suits, heavy woollen shirts and strange looking three-quarter length pants with elasticated bottoms called ‘plusfores’. Nothing could persuade me to wear these odd looking trousers as they looked exactly like those worn by little Lord Fauntleroy in the comic strips. However, my mother was not to be beaten: she cut the bottoms off the plusfores and made short trousers of them. My protest was ended and I strode out in short trousered urbanity to the admiration and envy of my less fortunate peers.
My favourite of these gifts though was the hooded, wool lined, heavy lumberjackets that were impervious to driving snow or biting wind. No encouragement was needed to wear these elegant jackets that kept me warm as I went about my work feeding calves and milking cows in many a cold and bitter Atlantic gale.
Dead mice or teabags?
We puzzled over some of the stranger items such as tea bags. This was the ‘50s and we hadn’t seen anything like this before. It seemed extremely odd that we should stew the bag that the tea came in along with the tea itself. ‘It’s not tay at all’, my mother said as she pulled the coals out from the fire and crushed them to set the teapot on. ‘Them bloody bags look like dead mice in the bottom of the pot, and they taste as bad!’
We tore open the strange little bags and emptied them into the teapot. We were not impressed with the result. So we went back to stewing the tea, bag and all. But the resulting watery yellow concoction could not compare with the strong brown draught that my mother drew on the coals from pinches of loose tea.
Then there was the strange sounding ‘chicken noodle soup’. ‘Noodlehead’ was the derisory term applied by our teacher at school to students who didn’t have their homework done or who generally didn’t measure up to her standards. Having a name with such unpleasant associations was a very bad start indeed for ‘chicken noodle soup’ and we only drank it reluctantly when there was nothing else in the house.
‘Skippy Peanut Butter’ the label on the glass jar read. This was another item that aroused a good deal of scepticism. Peanut ‘Butter!’ This stuff didn’t look like butter and it definitely didn’t taste like butter. Butter came from milk and milk came from cows. And, no, it wasn’t likely the ‘Yanks’ had learned how to milk peanuts! So we read the label again but could garner no additional information. Nice people our cousins, but they sure had some strange ways with them. Even our ‘uncle who had lived in America’ wasn’t interested in this one. He often criticized the Americans for their unhealthy eating habits, ‘Too much rich, starchy foods,’ he said disapprovingly. So we figured if it wasn’t good enough for him it was no good for anything.
Reluctant to throw something out for which a good use might yet be found, it sat on the dresser for a long time. My father, a thrifty man, who was loath to let anything go to loss, decided one day, having given the matter much thought, that it might be useful for greasing the axle of the ass cart. He smeared a good coating of the gooey mixture on the axle but it was a failure here too, the ass had to work twice as hard to draw the cart, and it eventually finished up out on the stone ditch, where even the hens walked disdainfully around it.
Letters to America
At my mothers insistence I wrote nice letters to thank my American aunts and cousins for their gifts of clothes, candy and colouring books. It was an exercise in stretching the truth as well, for not to be ungrateful I applauded too the exotic tea bags, peanut butter and plusfores.
Many years have passed since then; An Post vans have long ago replaced the ass and cart; teabags and peanut butter are now on every supermarket shelf — but, in this age of excess and overindulgence, the thrill of opening these packages from America is still, for me, a cherished Christmas memory.
Parcels from America were a great excitement. They rivalled, but never quite equalled the anticipation and magic when we crept down from the bedroom in the wonder-filled, shadowy half-light of Christmas morning to look in the chimney corner. It might only be a simple water pistol, an apple, or a handball that was left there, but that red costumed, white whiskered, mysterious, midnight visitor that climbed down our chimney on Christmas eve, imparted a magic to its simplicity that nothing else could ever quite equal.
A very Happy Christmas to all my readers
See also Christmas Mummers and Wrenboys in Ireland
For an article on reading tealeaves go HERE
December 24th 2009
Martin Forde, poet and raconteur
For the Christmas/New Year period I have a lighthearted piece in verse from an incident that happened in the Sligo countryside in a pre-television era. This was a time when every village sported a fireside poet who wanted only an excuse to memorialise or satirise some local event, perhaps a wedding, an elopement or in this case a Garda raid on Foran's pub in Lissadell. Such raids were always unpopular but this raid, which took place on Christmas Day, was especially so.
The gathering at Foran’s was traditional for the twelve nights of Christmas. It had been going on for countless years. Musicians came from all over to attend it. The noted Sligo fiddler, Peter Mullaney (the Apostle below), travelling ten miles on foot from his home in Mullaghmore, ‘never missed a night’. One of those caught breaking the law was Mick Herrity who became a Garda sergeant himself in later years. The whole affair had a sequel in court when Mrs Foran pleaded in defense that Our Lord had wine at the last supper. Judge Flattery agreed and fined her half a crown, the least amount allowed by law.
The event was immortalised in song by local man James Currid of Raughley who wielded a keen pen.
Ballyconnel and Lislarry, mentioned below, are nearby villages on the Garda beat. 'Red Robber' was the sergeants nickname. The 'twelve apostles' were twelve regular frequenters of the pub. 'Suggart' was a neighbour. 'Bona fide' was an article of law at the time which allowed that any person more than twelve miles from home could legally buy drink in a pub after hours:
The Raid on Foran's Pub
Beach Bar, Aughris, County Sligo
‘Sergeant Kelly marched on, he was out on parade
Said he, ‘Try Ballyconnell’, but he was afraid.
He came to the barracks and gazed all around
Saying, “Lislarry is quiet, I think I’ll go down”.
“Promotion,” he whispered, “we’ll try for down here
It’s a woman that runs it so there’s nothing to fear.”
He arrived at the pub as he oft did before
And roared in the keyhole to open the door.
Now the famed twelve apostles were clustered inside
They knew they were captured and not bona fide
They thought they were safer to stay where they were
So they off with their hats and assembled in prayer.
Peter the apostle looked quiet, no doubt
With his head bended over a large pint of stout
Kitty Meehan was singin’, ‘The Night of the Wind’
When the famous Red Robber he chanced to come in.
She thought it was ‘Suggart’ till she turned in her chair
But she puckered her brow when she saw the red hair.
He took out his note book, the names to take down
While the boys that were with him kept smelling around.
The writing was bad and the spelling was slow
But sure what could you expect from a man from Mayo
Again Kitty Meehan got out of her shell
Saying, “I wish you were roasted and toasted in hell.”
“You infamous red robber you might stay away
And give us a chance as it is Christmas Day.”
The trial came on and it stood half a day
Dolly swore she invited them all down for tay,
And to give them a drink, it was no crime at all
She could swear there was wine at the Feast of St. Paul.
The judge he looked down with a frown on his face
Saying, “Kelly, you should never have brought up this case.
These twelve pious men you have caused them to mourn,
You are free, Dolly Foran, this case I dismiss.”
A very Happy Christmas to all SligoHeritage readers!
For previous features go HERE