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The best Christmas gifts from the counters of West Cork stores ... a century ago

December 5th, 2023 8:00 AM

By Southern Star Team

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From thick woolly long-johns, to lever-filling fountain pens, knitted tea cosies and luminous alarm clocks, the shops of the region were a delight for the senses of Christmas shoppers, this time 100 years ago

SPIRITS were low, money in short supply, but most people were still determined to make the best of Christmas in 1923 it seems.

One hundred years ago, a Christmas shopping list might have included a state-of-the art Onoto lever-filling fountain pen from Cadogan’s in Skibbereen, or, for a child, a torch from Lester the Chemist, so you could secretly read a book in bed. But standing tall in the window of Notter’s, a watchmaker and jeweller’s on Barrack Street in Bantry, was another temptation, namely a luminous alarm clock, its hands and numbers coated with radium (not considered dangerous then) so they glowed in the dark.

Better not let on that it’s going to cost your granny and grandad six shillings and nine pence, especially if they’ve read about the proposed reduction in Old Age Pensions from ten shillings to nine shillings per week, as reported in The Southern Star of December 22nd that year. No mention of anyone giving or receiving a ‘Christmas box’, when money was tight after years of war, the constant ‘crack of rifle and the crash of bomb’.

Some people ‘were not interested in promoting peace and goodwill’, continued this newspaper, even claiming that Christmas was ‘a thing of the past’.

With the number of poor relying on handouts continuing to increase, the St Vincent de St Paul Society appealed for extra generous donations at its annual charity sermon in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Skibbereen.

‘The cold weather, the long cheerless nights, and the fireless grate, intensify the sufferings of the destitute.’ The poor in Timoleague were especially desperate for fuel, since the Travers family, who’d always administered the coal fund, had had their home destroyed in the ‘burning of the big houses’.

This meant that gifts for Christmas 1923, more than ever before, had to be ‘useful’ if they were to be ‘acceptable’.

Celebrations seem to have been downbeat, with the first advertisements for presents only appearing in December, unlike today, when they start in September. The focus lay firmly on clothes and other essentials, bought in local shops, not in shopping malls or retail parks – and certainly not online! And there’s nothing more basic than prayer books and rosary beads, tea cosies and slippers, and all-wool underwear for the ‘cold snap’. Willie only had a small shop in Skibbereen but was still able to provide a ‘charming variety’ of shoes and boots for boys and girls, ladies and gentlemen.

‘Everyone must have a new pair for Christmas,’ he urged.
Recognising that money was scarce, the retailer A Powers of 7-8 Main Street in Skibbereen, gave special Christmas reductions on their ‘usual rock-bottom prices’ for clothes, and household goods such as tablecloths, sheets and thick army blankets. Nevertheless, some presents were wonderfully festive: silk scarves and silk stockings, fur-lined gloves, electroplated silver tea sets, and embroidered handkerchiefs (even ‘dainty’ ones for children), packed in decorated boxes by T Lyons & Co in Skibbereen.

Why not indulge a loved one with a manicure case from Lester’s, who sold ‘all the latest perfumes’, eau de colognes and lavender waters in ‘beautifully shaped bottles.’ Receiving such a gift would certainly have helped lighten the gloom, though maybe not like a flask of seven year-old whiskey from Pat Sullivan, whose shop lay opposite the monument in Clonakilty, or a bottle of wine or sherry from Bernard’s in Dunmanway, which stocked ‘only the best’.

Of course, Christmas has always had children at its heart – for it is they who keep the festival ‘perennially fresh’, recognised The Southern Star. Shopkeepers were quick in pandering to the whims of their younger customers. At Horrigan & Co in Skibbereen, the smallest child would receive the same attention ‘as the best judge’. Choices were much more limited than today. Nothing in the line of customised neon signs for the bedroom, or wireless bluetooth karaoke microphones, or any other 2023 ‘must-haves’.

But there was enough to please most children, including lovely dolls and toy horses, brightly painted scooters and motorcars. Not forgetting teddy bears – celebrating their 20th birthday in 1923!

When Christmas was over, and you had to write ‘thank you’ letters, you only needed to open that fancy box some kind soul had bought you in Cadogan’s, pluck out a sheet of ‘quality notepaper’ and a matching envelope, pull back the filling-lever, and away you could dash with your stylish new Onoto fountain pen!

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