Dipping into the newspaper archives, it’s interesting to look at how Christmas was celebrated in Dublin a hundred years ago. Indeed, celebrated might not be the right word. This was the second Christmas of the First World War, and it was becoming apparent to people in towns and cities right across Europe that they may have been sold a pup when they bought into the idea that the war would be ‘over by Christmas’ of the previous year.
The absence of many sons, brothers, fathers and husbands from Dublin households ensured a sombre feeling in the city, primarily but not exclusively in its working class districts (it should be remembered that over four hundred students and graduates of Trinity College died in the war too). The Irish Times wrote that “the second Christmas since that doomful August of 1914 finds the war still undecided: for seventeen months we have been witnesses and victims of the greatest strife of arms that the world has ever known.”
The football kickabouts and informal truces of Christmas 1914 seemed a world away now, both to those actually fighting in the war and those at home. At Christmas 1915, in a Daily Chronicle report reprinted in many Irish newspapers, a journalist from the frontlines wrote that:
The war did not stop, although it was Christmas Eve, and the only carol I heard in the trenches was the loud deep chant of the guns on both sides and the shrill soprano of whistling shells, and the rattle on the key boards of machine guns.
The war effected almost every aspect of life of course, including the toy industry. One Irish newspaper wrote that:
Everywhere toy sellers complain of a dearth of mechanical toys of all kinds such as toy engines, steamers, walking animals, cranes, clockwork motorcars, and the like. The reason is that the plant necessary to make them is not available. Firms have frequently approached manufacturers, only to find them too busy “war working” to think about making toys.
Toy shops in Dublin, like Lawrence’s on O’Connell Street, reportedly did a strong trade, as did Clery’s. Within a few months of Christmas 1915 many of the businesses who were selling toys found themselves giving them away for free, though not exactly by choice. Toy shops proved particularly popular with the looters of the Easter Rising.
Some Irish businesses were eager to seize upon the war in any way they could. O’Connell’s Dublin Ale, which was named after Daniel O’Connell and had its branding origins in the days of his Repeal movement, took out prominent ads telling people that “on the advice of the Irish war savings committee home industry should be supported as much as possible.” If you were going to drink booze over the Christmas season, they argued that the morally right thing to do in a time of war was to drink Irish booze.
Pantomimes and other forms of performance entertainment thrived in the Dublin of a century ago, and the tradition stretches right back to 1873 when The Gaiety Theatre hosted Turko the Terrible, beginning the love affair between the city and the Christmas shows. Puss in Boots, Sinbad The Sailor, and Cinderella became mainstays, and it was all so popular it sometimes went on right into February. The Panto industry was a kind of hidden godsend in the city too – hundreds of seamstresses were employed producing costumes, as Joseph O’Brien notes in his study Dear,Dirty Dublin. There were snobbish attitudes in some quarters, and The Irish Times even complained that the fact they were so popular was “a sad commentary on modern changes in social life.”
In addition to the Panto, December always saw plenty of popular entertainment in the city. A century ago, “the famous Yiddish Comedian” Joe Hayman performed in the Coliseum, alongside Horace Lane and Nora Guy in Fads and Fancies. Like Lawrence’s toy shop, the Coliseum would be a victim of the Rising.
Newspapers reported plenty of shopping, but terrible weather, with one writer asking in The Irish Times why they continued to sell Christmas cards showing snow scenes in Ireland, when all Christmas seemed to mean here was rain. On the subject of Christmas cards, there was evidently a belief in some quarters that they were on the way out, with one writer asking in the same people if the Christmas Card had “passed the zenith of its popularity and is doomed to follow the once universal Valentine into oblivion.”
Often in 1915 they depicted soldiers, and aimed to remind people of the lads in the war, but you could tell a lot about someone from the politics of their Christmas card – Thomas Coleman’s on Westmoreland Street sold Irish made Christmas cards, many of them As Gaeilge, and depicting “national symbols”. For the ‘Irish-Ireland’ inclined, there was the popular Aonach na Nollaig fair in the Rotunda, where only Irish produced goods were sold. This fair as initiated by Sinn Féin, but brought together a wide range of nationalist figures.
While there was no ‘Twelve Pubs of Christmas’, it was reported in the papers that “the Christmas weekend was a quiet one for the police in the city of Dublin”, as “only twenty three drunks appeared before Mr Drury…on Monday morning in the Northern and Southern Courts.”
Was there any sign of what was to come? Within a few months, the rebellion of 1916 would be international news of course. James Connolly’s words, in the pages of his newspaper, The Workers’ Republic, in retrospect are interesting. He asked his readers:“Shall we see another year and Ireland patiently bearing her chains? To all slaves in revolt we wish a Merry Christmas!” In a similar vein, the nationalist newspaper The Spark noted that “when we are old (those of us who live to be old) we shall tell our grandchildren of the Christmas of 1915 as the second Christmas which saw the nations at war for the freedom of the seas; and as the last Christmas, it may be, which saw Ireland…in the keeping of the English.”