Mitchelstown — Christmas in the Galtee Mountains, 1878.

I went to Mitchelstown workhouse today to see the paupers eat their Christmas dinner. The prospects I had seen of the festive season at Skeheenarinka excited a curiosity to learn how much worse off an idle pauper could be than a farmer who has spent all his days creating soil upon the breast of a mountain.
Now, the Mitchelstown Guardians do not feast their charges with roast beef and plum-pudding, and currant cake and tea, nor are the rooms wreathed with holly, nor do kind ladies distribute toys and sweetmeats among the children, as is done within other workhouse walls of my acquaintance. But they give the paupers a breakfast of bread and coffee, and a solid dinner of one pound of prime boiled beef and vegetables, with an inexhaustible cauldron of appetising soup. I saw the old people attack their trenchers, and right heartily demolish their contents. They were cleanly and warmly clad and shod. I saw parties of infirm men and women lolling before bright fires in their dayrooms, or basking in the sun in the exercise yards. I passed through the pure white dormitories, with floors scrupulously scrubbed and windows half opened to admit the bracing air from the hills. The mattresses of clean straw were, in the infirmary ward, extended on wooden stretchers, and in the able-bodied department, upon a raised flooring at wide intervals. The bedding was two pairs of woollen blankets, a pair of sheets, a warm rug, and a pillow.
I passed through the children’s quarters, where about a hundred healthy-looking little children are neatly clothed, and fed, and educated, and, I was glad to hear, admitted almost daily to breathe the air of the free fields. I saw old, bed-ridden people, whom the order of a doctor might elevate to a diet of wine or porter, beefsteak or arrowroot. It was not very splendid as a prospect in life; but, there were no dripping walls, no scanty clothes, no clamorous creditors, no hungry stomachs, though these people toiled not, neither did they spin. I am not going to say that Christmas on the Galtees was gloomier than in the workhouse. In many homes on the estate, I have no doubt, there were whatever Christmas comforts humble means could buy. In the very poorest, as far as I know, by whatever pinch or device, some scrap of meat was foraged out in honour of the first of festivals. The custom that it should be has the spell of a superstition. But I mean to say that the dryness, and cleanliness, and warmth, the indolence and fare, of the workhouse would have been luxury if transferred to two dozen of the cottier homes of Skeheenarinka, where men have delved all their lifetime for bread with twice the industry that would have cleared a settlement in the American backwoods.
Not a sprig of holly was to be seen in any house I visited. I looked up once towards where, in the obscurity, I thought I saw a flitch of bacon hanging up opposite the chimney corner, as I had seen in happier spots; it was a horse collar. Sweetmeats would be like sending one ruffles who wanted a shirt. It would be almost a levity to speak of the ordinary Christmas adjuncts of merry-making. A meal of bread and tea and pork was the average Christmas banquet. In one house there were 6lb. of pork among ten; in another 3lb. of mutton among five. A goose or a bit of bacon was the mark of superior station. As I drove past the base of the hill after nightfall, when no cheerful twinkle lighted the cabin windows, and when a snowstorm breaking over the Galtees overspread it like a shroud, there seemed to be few spots in Christendom that had less business with a happy Christmas.

From the book, Christmas on the Galtees by William O’Brien (Dublin, 1878), quoted in The Cork Anthology, edited by Seán Dunne (Cork University Press,1993).

Reprinted in The Green Dragon No 5, Winter, 1997 .