Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christmas in County Down

Christmas celebrations in the 1840s were very different than they are now. For most of the poor Irish laborers, it was a day away from work. This gave them an opportunity for some time with their families. In good years, parents would provide a special treat, an orange, a bite of cheese or a hen that could be roasted over the fire. But no matter the year, this was a day without pay.

The Martin family was financially secure, so the worries of a payless day did not dampen the holiday. Often, they entertained the Harshaw family and other neighbors for a holiday breakfast. This tradition was followed in 1846 despite the famine that was engulfing Ireland at the time. After this happy gathering was ended, some participants attended a funeral for Mrs. Murdock.

Gathering together of family and friends was the single activity for most Irish families to mark the special day. There were no religious activities unless the holiday fell on  the Sabbath. In 1847, Christmas fell on Saturday. John Martin hosted the family breakfast in his home, Loughorne House that year, unaware that he would never be able to do that in Loughorne again. In the afternoon, John and his Uncle Harshaw went to their offices to pay their workers. This was a dark and deadly year for Ireland, and no one was in a position to wait for their pay.

Still, other activities took place to make the most of this day without work. Children played shinney on the lanes of Loughorne and Donaghmore. This was a game somewhat like hurling where children hit stones with curved sticks. Horse races across the fields and over the hedges occupied the horse lovers of the area. Orangemen took the opportunity to show their shooting skills in local competitions, the two events colliding in Ballyroney and resulting in the murder of Hugh McArdle in Ballyroney. (For an account of this, see post Death in Ballyroney.)

The great Irish famine raged across much of Ireland from 1845 into the 1850s. Few died in 1845, thanks to aid from the British government. But by the next year, many were already either dead or experiencing Christmas in a different land. The Martins and the Harshaws celebrated the holiday with heavy hearts ever thereafter.

Sources: Diary of James Harshaw, 1846 - 1850. Vol. One and Two.

[Updated with link]

I wish all my followers a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holiday. May you experience the joy of family gatherings that marked the day in Ireland.
Marjorie Harshaw Robie

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