Thursday, December 20, 2001

Christmas Time in Athy / Bob Morrisson

Two letters received during the week brought me back to the Athy of 50 years ago and to the days when life seemed so much simpler and less complicated than it is today. The first letter was from a Coneyboro resident who wrote of memories of Christmas past.

“The night we brought our Christmas grocery list to Frank O’Brien’s was a great family occasion. All my teenage life, our family did the weekly shopping in O’Brien’s and each Friday, Mr. O’Brien would be seen delivering the weekly groceries and firing. But come Christmas our shopping list was special in more ways than one. I can still remember and sometimes still feel the excitement and magic of walking into O’Brien’s shop on that special night. Surrounded by Christmas everywhere, boxes of Cadbury’s chocolates, selection boxes, Christmas cakes and puddings and Santa’s smiling face on the Tayto boxes high up on the shelves. To me this was part of the Christmas magic for a young boy”.

My own recollections of Christmas when I was a young lad living in Offaly Street was of Duthie’s Santa Claus, the excitement of window shopping in Duke Street, the festive goose or turkey for Christmas dinner, and the eerie calmness of a Christmas day afternoon in the local streets. The nodding Santa in Duthie’s shop window placed in position some weeks before Christmas day was for us youngsters the start of the Christmas season. The winter evenings closed in early and the darkness descended on the quiet streets necessitating the advancement of the public lighting up time to an hour or so before tea time. It was that time which marked the schoolboys’ free time between the closing of the school for the day and incarceration at home following tea to “do our exercise”. In those innocent days “doing your exercise” had nothing to do with physical training, but rather an acknowledgment that we had to sit down at the kitchen table and learn the prescribed poem in Irish or English for the following day and perhaps agonise over an English or Irish essay.

The darkness of the November evenings were but sparsely illuminated by the old fashioned public lighting of the time but this merely added to the sense of adventure to the wanderings of the young fellows who walked up one side of Duke Street as far as Glynn’s Corner returning on the opposite footpath.

The shop windows all suitably decorated for the Christmas offered a hint of excitement to come when the long anticipated day dawned. We enjoyed peering into the shop windows and soaking up the atmosphere of a town where town and country folk came together in a mixum-gatherum of indistinguishable class and creed. Shaw’s of course, provided the biggest attraction with a number of shop windows, one of which always featured toys. A number of the smaller shops also stacked some Christmas toys while Duthie’s jewellery provided the Christmas window shopping show piece, the nodding Santa.

In those days, I can remember the long build up to Christmas each year. Maybe its only the anticipation of a young mind but everywhere then seemed to take on a christmassy feeling at the start of November. Displays in shop windows were changed, toys were taken out of storage and given pride and place where they could encourage little minds to prompt big dad’s and mam’s. The toys never seemed to change from year to year unlike today when the latest book or film inevitably spawns a plethora of gadgets in its wake.

Can anyone remember from fifty years ago any toy other than the gun and holster and if exceptionally lucky a cowboy suit for a boy and a doll and a pram for a girl. They were the basic and it has to be said the most desirable toys for young children then even if jigsaws, small paint boxes, snakes and ladders and other party games were sometimes also part of the usual Christmas fare. I am very aware now although I wasn’t then that for many local children even a gun or a doll was not to be had on Christmas Day. The very real poverty of the 1950’s, a poverty which saw children go to school barefooted and sometimes without a bite to eat for breakfast is now mercifully behind us.

The second letter I got last week was from an old friend and former neighbour who brought to my attention the recent death of Bob Morrisson. I remember Bob Morrisson who in the 1950’s worked in Shaw’s and lived in St. Patrick’s Avenue. He was a familiar figure as he walked briskly through Offaly Street each day on his way to and from work. His name was familiar to anyone who shopped in Shaw’s at the time and who in Athy of fifty years ago did not do that. Almost every local household involved in the rural electrification scheme of the 1940’s and 1950’s would have done business with Shaw’s for the new fangled cookers and other electrical equipment on offer at that time. Bob Morrisson was the man who with the proprietor Sam Shaw ran the sales campaign which Shaw’s of Athy put on in conjunction with the rural electrification scheme. He transferred to Waterford in the early 1960’s as Manager of Shaw’s Department Store in that City and died last week at an advanced age.

While I was writing on Bob Morrisson, I was reminded of these years when most if not every shop in the town gave tick or credit to their customers. I can recall my own mother having a book for Shaw’s wherein the goods bought and the instalments paid each month were faithfully recorded. I can also recall how a similar arrangement operated with the family grocer who in our case was Myles Whelan of Duke Street and later still Jim Fennin. This, of course, had the attraction, so far as the shopkeeper was concerned, of maintaining customer loyalty, something which is not very obvious today. The changes in shopping habits over the years and the discarding of the book in favour of cash sales has probably brought some benefit to the shopkeeper. I wonder to what extent the cash only sales concept has contributed to the loss of business to individual shops or indeed to our town of Athy as shoppers become more mobile , more demanding in terms of quality and service.

While I am writing of Athy in 1950’s its appropriate that I should mention that this week a group of school lads from the local Christian Brothers school of that time have agreed to have a class reunion in the town of the weekend of the 20/22 September next. Some of those not now so young fellows live as far apart as Australia, China, America and other far flung places, with just a few of us still here in the town. If anyone reading this knows of someone who was school with the likes of Mick Robinson, Teddy Kelly, Ted Wynne, Brendan McKenna et al, would you pass on word of a class reunion in September and ask them to contact me.

Happy Christmas to all my readers.

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