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Oral history projects sparks Christmas memories for nursing home residents

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AFTER what has been a incredibly tough year for nursing home staff, residents and their families, a unique oral history project is hoping to spark reminiscences about times long before the threat of Covid-19.

Cuimhneamh an Chláir has dipped into its extensive archive to compile an album of Christmas stories which it is distributing to every nursing home in the county.

“We celebrated our tenth anniversary last year and were delighted that we got to mark it,” said Leonard McDonagh, Chairperson of Cuimhneamh. “Some people who attended our celebrations, including the late Chris Droney, are no longer with us and that’s a huge loss. We’re also conscious that many people in nursing homes have contributed their stories and memories to our archive. We wanted to give something back to them and that’s why we created the CD.”

The album contains voices from all over Clare and many colourful memories of Christmases past. Among the traditions described are preparing the house, ‘buying the Christmas,’ and baking and cooking for the festive season. Contributors from around the county also talk about going to Christmas mass and candles lighting up the countryside, as well as the displays in shop windows, the arrival of ‘Santy,’ and going on the Wren.

“We have a huge archive which we eventually hope to be able to hand over to Clare County Council, who are very generous in supporting us,” Mr McDonagh said. “Paula Carroll from Clare FM, who is really talented, compiled and presented the interviews and we have helpers getting the CDs out to nursing homes across the county. We’re sending them candles and cards too which are based on an original painting that was donated by artist Sheila Richardson. We’re hoping that residents will listen to the CD and enjoy the stories and that it will encourage them to share memories of their own. We might even find some more contributors to the Cuimhneamh an Chláir archive.”

One of the traditional rural practices on Christmas Eve involved leaving the doors unlocked for the holy family. Frank Davis from Ennistymon told Cuimhneamh about the tradition.

“Some of the older people always maintained that there was no place for the child [Jesus] to be born,” he said. “Children coming into the world in my time was a miracle. It was a great occasion. The mother and child had a place to come into.”

In another of the audio clips, Peggy Hogan from Feakle discusses decorating the house. “Christmas would come and the first thing you’d be inquiring was where the holly with best berries, the more berries the more beautiful it would be,” she said. “It would be selected out and any young lad in the house that would be riding a bicycle would go for a few branches of that and bring it and it would be left to one side. You’d stick it down in the earth to keep it fresh.

“Come along to Christmas Eve anyway and the kitchen would be whitewashed and cleaned up and there was a dresser in every kitchen with piles of delph and there was no such thing as Fairy Liquid like they have now for washing it. You’d shred soap and stir it up and put all your dishes in to have then shining for the dresser. And, then, you’d put holly over head all that and decorate the shelves and it was lovely… The windows would be polished for the Christmas candle and a big turnip got and a whole [made] in the middle of it and if the candle burned down, the juice of the turnip would never let it burn the window. The turnip would be wrapped with red and white paper to be colourful for the window.”

A special memory of December 26 festivities is shared by Teresa Flynn from Mountshannon.

“The greatest memory I have of St Stephen’s Night is when we were all at home and we had music in the yard,” she said. “Well, glory be to God, we didn’t know where it was coming from. We opened the door and they came in, grown men with a concertina, fiddle and tin whistle. I will never forget it. Andy Keane, God rest his precious soul, was the only one we recognised. We have no idea to this day who the other two were. They sat down and they played and Andy, God rest him, could sing. To this day, you could describe it as ‘indescribable’ because it was so unusual. The first time it ever happened in my house. But, having said that, previously, in my father’s time, there would have been an awful lot of adults going ‘doing the wren’ and they’d collect money and then, they’d have a big dance and therefore, everyone supported that. That had gone out by my time, but these three people coming in and sitting down, disguised and playing music, brilliant music, and singing, it has never left my mind.”

More information on Cuimhneamh an Chláir is available on Clarememories.ie.

About Fiona McGarry

Fiona McGarry joined The Clare Champion as a reporter after a four-year stint as producer of Morning Focus on Clare FM. Prior to that she worked for various radio, print and online titles, including Newstalk, Maximum Media and The Tuam Herald. Fiona’s media career began in her native Mayo when she joined Midwest Radio. She is the maker of a number of radio documentaries, funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI). She has also availed of the Simon Cumbers Media Fund to report on development issues supported by Irish Aid in Haiti. She won a Justice Media Award for a short radio series on the work of Bedford Row Project, which supports prisoners and families in the Mid-West. Fiona also teaches on the Journalism programmes at NUI Galway. If you have a story and would like to get in touch with Fiona you can email her at fmcgarry@clarechampion.ie or telephone 065 6864146.

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