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Ghost of Christmas past: when we partied like it was 1965


Chim Chim Cher-ee: Dick  Van Dyke and Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins.

Chim Chim Cher-ee: Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins.

Big draw: The Riordans

Big draw: The Riordans


Chim Chim Cher-ee: Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins.

Fifty years ago, at the close of Christmas week, Teilifís Éireann (TE) stayed on air extra late so that the last programme of 1965 and the first of 1966 would be a stirring recitation of the 1916 Proclamation, as the nation geared up, just like now, for an orgy of Easter Rising commemorations. This, however, is where the déjà-vu mostly ends.

The typical 1960s Irish Christmas had far more in common with the brief and modest affairs of the 1950s and 1940s than today's glitzy marathons of conspicuous consumption.

In 1965 the goose not turkey was still the centrepiece of most Christmas dinners (the go-to celebrity chef was meat'n'veg Monica Sheridan), church attendances were out the door (especially for Christmas Eve Midnight Mass) and if you hadn't enough milk in on the big day you could forget about looking for an open shop. But change was in the wind, and by far the biggest shift in the Christmas rituals was being wrought by the rapid spread of TV, with a glowing 19 inch screen in the parlour top of the gift list for countless families.

The TV sets of the day ran on fragile valves prone to popping, so many families hired theirs from firms like RTV Rentals offering quick replacements.

Some even rented 'Slot TVs' from outlets in Dublin, Mayo and Laois. The advert for this proto pay-per-view service said: "2/- in the slot covers everything. All the family share the cost. If the menfolk want to watch boxing or football, they pay. If the mother's fancy turns to Women's Hour, she pays. And if the youngsters want to watch Westerns - well, it's up to them."

Our politicians and civil servants had fought a rearguard action against a domestic TV service before conceding we needed our own wholesome, patriotic channel to counter the depraved trash penetrating Irish homes from British overspill signals. Loaded with civic responsibility and a deep deference to the Catholic Church, TE served up a Christmas schedule putting edification above entertainment.

So Christmas Day opened at 10am with Mass, followed by Pope Paul's Urbi Et Orbi address, followed non-stop religious fare until lunch when the froth finally arrived via Andy Williams, Lassie and a children's hospital visit by School Around the Corner host Paddy Crosbie. In 1965 Paddy giddily revealed that "the very first boy who appeared on the very first programme (Corner started on radio) will be ordained next year". Senior churchmen continued to frequent the home channel until Closedown.

The top rated TE shows for Christmas week 1965 were, in order, The Late Late Show, Tolka Row (soap), School Around The Corner, Quicksilver (quiz), The Virginian, Club Céilí, The Way of All Flesh (ancient slushy movie), Life of O'Reilly (music), The Fugitive, The Riordans and Teen Talk. Irish language kids' shows included Seoirse Agus Bartley (Irish song and dance), Murphy Agus a Chairde (a witch and a gossipy magic tree) and Dáithí Lacha, billed as "TE's wackiest, quackiest cartoon character".

Along the east, south-east, and the border, Christmas TV was a lot more fun. By the time TE had reached its first non-religious show, UTV had already served up Stingray, Fireball XL5, Robin Hood and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, with panto, The Beverly Hillbillies, Thunderbirds, The Big Valley and Bruce Forsyth piling in behind.

While a tad more staid, the BBC was still a big lure away from TE for those who could get it, starting with a breakfast serving of Laurel & Hardy and onward with Billy Smart's Circus, Dr Who, Ken Dodd, Val Doonican, The Black & White Minstrels and Christmas Top of the Pops.

Ireland's panto king Jimmy O'Dea had recently passed away, leaving the stage to seasoned troopers Maureen Potter and Jack Cruise, while the hit family movies, in an age when adult themes were routinely banned, included Tony Curtis in The Great Race, Cat Balloo starring Jane Fonda, and the all-star Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. The Irish public continued to flock to the summer release Mary Poppins while counting the days to next year's return of Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.

One of the public information films occasionally screened before the main cinema features was Good Manners in Church, which made no impression on the scrumb of men loitering down the back of Midnight Mass (in Latin) straight from the pub, reeking of booze and rain-soaked overcoats, some even having a sneaky smoke in the Nartex (entry porch).

As with TV, cinema, religion and everything else, the state was certain it knew best when it came to toys. There were tariff-protected toy factories in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Mayo, producing kids' scooters, tricycles, see-saws and wheelbarrows, while cottage workshops turned out clunky wooden 'craft' dolls, forts and puzzles. For our rulers, these craft toys supported jobs here, while keeping out imports from Communist Poland and Czechoslovakia. School principals were even enlisted to badmouth foreign toys. But the kids didn't want worthy but dull home-produced playthings, as recognised in one Dáil debate where a TD grumbling about Commie "junk" toys was told to take it up with Santa.

What the kids wanted for Christmas 1965 were Matel's Chatty Cathy doll that spoke 11 different inanities at the pull of a string, Airfix rockets and bikes with Comet wings (the space race was at full pelt) and Triang's 007 Aston Martin with an ejector seat that guaranteed the little plastic passenger would be lost forever before bedtime. Girls loved pneumatic plastic Barbie, despite an Evening Press plea to go back to "rag dolls, those squashy companions of our youth". For boys, the ultimate pressie was the new improved Scalectrix, "the most complete model motor racing system in the world".

On December 8, the Catholic Feast of the Immaculate Consumption, half of rural Ireland descended on Dublin for Christmas shopping. Some years earlier the owners of Clerys had hit on the inspired idea of refunding the travel fares of customers who spent over a certain amount instore and by 1965 meeting and regrouping under Clerys' clock was itself a hallowed custom. For stocking fillers, decorations and assorted bric-a-brac the busiest stores on the big shopping day were Banba Toys and Hector Grey's.

For many teenagers in 1965, the must-have present was the portable transistor radio which would hurt the showbands by exposing kids to the original artists rather than their ballroom impersonators.

Gay Byrne rounded off the year with the withering note: "Two years ago the novelty of having our own showbands on disc was so great that the fans rushed out and bought them regardless. It didn't really matter what the song was like or the arrangement or the production. But now the honeymoon is over. Every Tuesday for the past three months at the BBC (I've tried to) select at least one Irish showband record. There were very few I could honestly stand over."

Ireland's pop kids concurred and made The Beatles their Christmas No1 with 'We Can Work It Out/Day Tripper.'

Indo Review