A very Derry Christmas 1944

The Cunningham family in Friel's Terrace in 1948. Pictured at back: Paddy (father), Susie and Cassie (mother), holding baby Hugh. Middle: Freddie, Danny and Phil (author). Front: Mary, Margaret and Helen.
The Cunningham family in Friel's Terrace in 1948. Pictured at back: Paddy (father), Susie and Cassie (mother), holding baby Hugh. Middle: Freddie, Danny and Phil (author). Front: Mary, Margaret and Helen.
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As a child, my family lived in Friel’s Terrace, which was a row of ten houses between upper and lower Nailor’s Row at the top of the banking overlooking St. Columb’s Wells. During those years of scarcities and strict food rationing, whenever WW2 was still raging, early November was the time of the year when my two younger brothers and three sisters and me were encouraged to start saving our pennies for Christmas.

This nostalgic piece is an adapted extract from ‘Derry Down the Days’ by local author PHIL CUNNINGHAM. The book was originally published by Guildhall Press in 2002 but, such was its success, it was re-published in 2010.

Phil Cunningham.

Phil Cunningham.

As a child, my family lived in Friel’s Terrace, which was a row of ten houses between upper and lower Nailor’s Row at the top of the banking overlooking St. Columb’s Wells. During those years of scarcities and strict food rationing, whenever WW2 was still raging, early November was the time of the year when my two younger brothers and three sisters and me were encouraged to start saving our pennies for Christmas.

My mother washed out empty syrup or treacle tins for us to use as moneyboxes and my father, who was a gasfitter plumber, soldered a few spots around the edges of the lids to make them burglar proof. He then made slots in the lids just wide enough to insert the coins that were given to us on paydays by my father and older family members who were working.

Whenever any of our aunts or uncles visited the house, the moneyboxes were taken out of their hiding places and given a wee rattle in the hopes that a few more precious pennies might be dropped in.

By the time Christmas week came, we had saved about six shillings each. Then it was time to empty the moneyboxes by inserting the flat blade of a knife into the slots and turning the boxes upside down so the coins slid out along the blade. It took a fair bit of jiggling and fiddling until the last valuable halfpennies dropped out onto the table.

Nearing Christmas Day, we were very excited and wrote notes to Santa asking him to put our toys into the stockings we would hang at the foot of our beds. Then we held the notes above the fire and the draught pulled them up the chimney so he would find them.

Because there was no way to keep food fresh, most of the shopping was done on Christmas Eve when the town centre bustled with people carrying shopping bags and parcels. Feathered as well as plucked fowl such as chickens and geese hung upside down, inside and outside the shop doorways.

In Ferryquay Street, the strong aromas of coffees and teas wafted out from inside the Maypole Tea and Coffee Blenders. Weary passengers who disembarked off the Scotch and Liverpool boats jostled through the crowds of shoppers to catch the buses and trains that would transport them to their homes and families for Christmas. They included lots of old and young Donegal people carrying suitcases and various sizes of brown paper parcels tied with string.

That week, too, my mother made a large pudding mixed with fruits and spices, adding a bottle of stout to the mix. The mixture was put into a muslin sack and steamed in a big pot that hung over the fire for hours causing its appetising aroma to permeate the entire interior of the house.

My father at that time of the year would invite some of his friends into the house for a drink of stout and a drop of whiskey. The same wee treat was given to the postman, the coal man, the milkman and the bread man, and many’s a horse was seen at a late hour plodding home pulling its cart and its sleeping driver.

The bottles of stout were bought in Devine’s public house at the top of our street. The corks were pulled with a corkscrew and the inky coloured stout was poured into white delft bowls. After a while, whenever the creamy top went off the stout, my father heated the poker in the fire and put it into the bowl to make the head creamy again.

The same bowls were used every day to drink tea from and occasionally soup.

A couple of stouts later, the men would begin to sing, and it was then that my father sang his favourite songs, It was so peaceful listening to them singing while we lay cosily tucked up in our beds before drifting off to sleep.

On Christmas Eve night, we were bathed in the big galvanised tin bath in front of the fire. The clean clothes I was to wear at the Christmas morning Mass were hanging over the brass rail below the high mantelpiece above the range; new gansy and short trousers, snake buckle belt, grey long tailed shirt and grey knee length woollen socks. Lined along the top of the fire fender, were our polished black leather boots and my sister’s shining black patent leather shoes.

Our bowls of porridge were hastily eaten before we scampered up to bed by candlelight, and each, with our stockings hanging at the foot of our beds, cowered under our blankets full of dread and excitement.

Before eventually dropping off to sleep I thought about Ned McDevitt’s two donkeys, on the banking behind our house, with the dark crosses on their backs and knew that at midnight whenever we would be fast asleep they would go down on their front knees to adore the Baby Jesus.

In the darkness of the early Christmas morning, we awoke to search through our bulging stockings to find in mine, a colouring book and crayons, an apple and an orange, a three penny bit and a toy gun or an aeroplane made from balsa wood.

We went to the ten o’clock Mass in Saint Columba’s RC Church where we sang the Nativity hymns, ‘Adesté Fe Delis’ and ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’, among other hymns of the period.

At midday, our Christmas feast consisted of soup, potatoes, peas, chicken and gravy, and to finish it all off, a dish of lovely jelly and yummy custard, an extremely special mouth watering treat we very rarely savoured during thoselean times. There were usually sixteen of us for dinner, so that meant that we the six younger ones ate first and then the adults.

A busy morning it was for my mother, Aunt Julia and the older girls because the men didn’t do any kind of cooking or housework in those days.

Later on in the evening, our Uncle Joe Cooley and Aunt Rosie, from Bishop Street, along with our cousins visited and then it was time to play more games with our cousins and eat the iced cake and buns along with big glasses of lemonade.

The war in Europe was far away and forgotten about by us then until the holy peace of that Christmastime came to an end.