County Down

Christmas and New Year Customs and Superstitions, (BY Catherine Hudson in "12 Miles of Mourne")


Much of the information in this article has been recalled from reading publications, such as "Irelands Own" and "Irelands Eye" over the years. Iam also indebted to the late Annie Mary Murphy, Jean Kenmuir, Mary (Cissie) Doran and Ellen Colgan who contributed to the information contained here. Thanks also to the late Jean Sambrook for the use of old Christmas and New Year cards.

Catherine Hudson

Christmas as we know it today has changed out of all recognition from years gone by when restricted incomes and very simple lifestyles were the order of the day. Most of the old customs and superstitions associated with that time of year have gone and it is difficult to understand how some of them originated. One can only surmise that living, as so many did, in isolated areas with little outside influence, every little thing that occurred would be noted and, that over a period of time, a series of happenings or coincidences would be associated with previous events and so myth became reality.

Christmas Fare

For good luck and good fortune in the coming year it was recommended that herrings, fresh or salted, be eaten as the first meal on Christmas Day. So when people returned from midnight Mass or church service they would have a meal of fish, salt and potatoes or a pig’s head and bacon.

The Goose was the traditional Christmas fare or, if less well-off, a chicken was substituted. Turkeys were introduced in the 17th century but were for a tong time restricted to the ‘gentry’. Towards the end of the 18th century both turkeys and geese sold for about one shilling and ducks and chickens for a few pence.

Tea was expensive and a rare luxury, and so was a special treat at Christmas. For those who could afford mince pies, it was the tradition to eat a pie each day for the 12 days of Christmas. It was believed this would help ward off illness in the coming year. The Christmas pudding was not like today’s plum pudding but was made from potatoes and bread and was boiled in a cloth (usually cut from a flour bag) suspended in a cooking pot over an open fire. It was also usual to give the animals extra food at Christmas.

One of the nicest of the old customs was that of ‘leaving the door on the latch’ when neighbours and travellers could feel free to call and share the food and drink, however meagre. Rhymers or Strawboys travelled around from house to house performing short plays or dancing and the pennies they collected were used for charity.

Christmas Candles

A lovely old custom which has not entirely died out is the placing of a lighted candle in the window. The first two lines from a 1920 poem read: “She set her lighted candle inside the window pane, the happy time of Christmas had come to earth again”.

The biggest candle that the family could afford was lit with great ceremony late on Christmas Eve, the oldest and the youngest members of the family holding the lighted taper. This custom is thought to have originated in Ireland in the 17th century. Imagine the scene, in the days before electricity, of a village or even a small rural community, its windows all aglow with flickering candles welcoming not only the birthday of Christ but, in a practical way, the footsore weary traveller or home comer. When the Famine led to mass emigration this custom was taken to America where it became very popular.

Customs connected with the candle varied from place to place but generally it was not extinguished until dawn. It was thought to bring great luck to have breakfast on Christmas Day by its light. In some places the candle was lit each evening over the 12 days of Christmas. On the night of 6 January a tin lid was filled with sand and 12 small candles arranged in a circle. They were lit before the evening meal and allowed to burn out. When they did, Christmas was over and everyone said, “May we all be alive and well this time next year’.

The Crib

Another surviving custom is the placing in homes and churches of figures representing Mary, Joseph, the infant Jesus, and the shepherds and animals in the stable at Bethlehem. The first crib in the 13th century was the idea of St Francis of Assisi when he used real people and animals to represent the scene. Since then, the crib, with its figures made from china, plaster, wood or even cardboard, is frequently displayed. The figures of the three Kings or Wise Men are added to the others on the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January. This is also known as Old Christmas Day as this was the day on which Christmas was held before the calendar was changed. It was also called in Gaelic Nollaig na mBan as it was a special day for women. The woman of the house was waited on by the family as a reward for all the hard work she had done before and during Christmas.

Christmas Boxes, Cards, Trees and Decorations

Until the I 950s and before the advent of the supermarket, it was customary for family grocers to reward their customers with a ‘Christmas box’. This was sometimes a small hamper containing a large candle, an iced cake or biscuits. Most businesses routinely gave customers a calendar; this usually had a pouch on the front in which to keep letters. If the picture on the calendar was a pretty one, as it very often was, it would be kept safely and put in a simple frame to adorn the wall.

Christmas cards were first published in 1843 by an artist called Horseley. However, they were rarely sent or received, except by wealthy families, until well into the present century as they were much too expensive for common use. They were very often in the form of postcards.

The Christmas tree is a relatively new custom which was imported from Germany and Scandinavia. Yet it is said that, as far back as 900 AD, a group of Irish monks on a bleak mountainside in Alsace, feeling homesick and lonely one Christmas time, decorated a tree underneath which they sang hymns.

Great superstitions by pagans in ancient times were attached to both holly and ivy but these were later adopted by Christians for use at Christmas - the prickly holly as a symbol of Christ’s suffering and the red berries as a reminder of the blood he shed. It was also said that to hang up mistletoe brought happiness and good fortune - provided it did not touch the ground.


It was believed that the donkey and oxen knelt in their stables at midnight on Christmas Eve. This was thought to originate from the fact that it was a donkey that carried Mary to Bethlehem and the breath of the ox and donkey that kept the Infant warm. It was also believed that the cock crowed each night for three weeks before Christmas. This must have been believed centuries ago as Shakespeare writes in Hamlet “Wherein our Saviours birth is celebrated, The bird of dawning singeth all night long”.

If the cock crowed at midnight on Christmas Eve it was thought to be a very good omen. Bees are also believed to wake from hibernation at Christmas and hum or sing in celebration.

Old Sayings and Beliefs

A very old custom more common in Antrim and Kerry was of playing hurley with improvised sticks, barefoot on the sand.

The day on which Christmas falls was deemed to be of significance. If it fell on a Sunday it signified a windy winter and a good summer with peace throughout the land.

Monday and especially Tuesday were not considered good days for it to fall.
Wednesday meant a hard winter and good summer, but a bad year for ships.
Thursday and Friday also foretold hard and windy winters but good summers and harvests.
Saturday signified a severe winter and wet summer. Frost and snow at Christmas were welcomed as they were thought to be the sign of a mild spring. A new moon on Christmas Eve was also considered lucky. Old sayings include:

• A green Christmas fills the Churchyard.
• When the blackbird sings before Christmas, she will cry at Candlemas.
• If ducks can swim at Halloween, at Christmas they will slide.

New Year

An old custom was to open the door of the house at the last stroke of midnight. on New Year’s Eve to allow the old year out and the new year in. New Year superstitions abound with ‘don’ts’. On New Year’s Day:

• Don’t wear shoes which have a hole in them or financial problems will stay with you the whole year long.
• Don’t wear new clothes on this day.
• Don’t sweep the floor, else you’ll sweep a friend away.
• Don’t do any washing, as throwing out water on this day is considered unlucky.
• Don’t remove the ashes from the fire or take a burning ember from one house to another.
• Don’t let the fire go out.
• Don't make any money deals as money made on New Years Day will only bring bad luck.
• Don’t carry any debts over into the New Year.
• Don’t pay out any money on the first Monday of the New Year.
• Don't poke a neighbours fire.

With such a volume of things not allowed it might be safer to hibernate for the day! But only after you clean your chimney as this will bring you luck. To find a lump of coal, or for someone (preferably a dark haired man) to bring it to your home (‘first footing’) is considered good fortune but beware a red haired lady as your first visitor, or someone whose eyebrows meet across the nose.

A custom specific to the Mourne area was that no flesh meat was eaten on New Years Day as it was believed this would safeguard the family from infections in the in coming year. Another local custom was of young people bringing ‘wisps’ (which were small bundles of straw often taken from the crib) around the houses very early on New Year’s Day and saying, “A penny a wisp and a happy New Year” as they handed it to the householder.

A custom which died out in the 18th century involved opening the Bible at random and picking a verse with a pin hoping to find some guidance for the year ahead. King Charles I is reported to have done this and ‘pinpointed’ a verse from Numbers which referred to the loss of a Kingdom. This was an understatement as he eventually lost a great deal more - his head!

Seasonal greetings for 1907

Seasonal greetings for 1905

Old Time Kilkeel Fishing Boats
(With kind permission from the Mourne Observer)

"We wur joost talkin' about the oul' boats, Tam, and their skippers," said Hugh. "Sure ye knowed them all. Cud ye gie us their names?"
"Och, man, A cud that," replied Tom, and he then proceeded to reel off an exhaustive list of boats of olden days, lovely, lyrical names most of them, which came so trippingly off the trumpet tongue of this grand old seaman that I felt intrigued as I listed them. I have no doubt that this list of names of the Kilkeel and Annalong craft and their skippers of a past generation will be of more than passing interest.

Here they are, with the skippers' names in brackets:

The Saint Patrick" (Pat Curran), "The Mary Joseph" (Bob Wilson), "The Jane Gordon" (W. Douglas), "The Mermaid" (Robert McKnight), "The Kingfisher" (George Ballance), "The Jolly Tar" (Archie Mackintosh), "The Minnie" (Owen McConville), "The Arathusa." (Pat Cousins), "The Thermople" (Pat Collins), "The Never Can Tell" (Johnny Cousins), "The St. Joseph," the oldest one of the lot (Tom McGlue), "The Express" (Willie John McKee), "The Moss Rose" (Johnny McKee), "The Cissie" (Willie Ballance), "The Queen Bee" (James Donnan), "The Emu" (J. Chambers), "The Good Design" (J. Cousins), "The Village Girl" (Johnny McAdam, Annalong), "The Guiding Star" (Harry McBride), "The Victory" (Johnny McBride), "The Ellen Constance" (Jamey Quinn), "The Maid of Mourne" (Patrick Curran), "The Cypress" (Charlie Cassidy), "The Mary Sanders" (Willie Magennis), "The Jane Russell" (John Collins), "The Snowdrop" (Willie McDonald), "The Wanderer" (Hugh Green, sen), "The St. Mary" (Mick reen), "The Wizard" (John Sloan), "The Willie" (Jim Chambers), "The Imelda Jane" (James McKnight), "The Jennie Gardiner" (John Cunningham and Pat Collins), "The Shane's Castle" (Harry McBride), "The Winifred" (Tom O'Brien, Dunavil), "The Uncle Tom" (Archie Mackintosh), "The Water Lily" (Willie Cousins), "The Sarah" (Tommy Edgar), "The Children's Friend" (James Ferguson), "The Frances Russell" (Bob Cousins), "The Minnie," name changed to "Jane Russell" (Owen McConville and later Joe Collins), "The Rival" (Robert Young), "The Lady Nora" (owned and skippered by His Lordship The Earl of Kilmorey, who was the first man to put an engine in a fishing boat in Kilkeel), "The Ida Shannon" (John Edgar), "The Margaret Ann" (Frank McDonald), "The Nellie Woods" (Frank McDonald), "The Mary Joseph" (now skippered by young Tommy Curran, Kilkeel), "The Water Lily", now owned by Robert Hanna (formerly skippered by Willie Cousins), "The Mary Ann McCrum" (Johnny McCartan), "The Manx Heather" (skipper not known), "The Isobel" lskipper not known), "The Mary Sanders" (Tom McDonald), "The Ida Shannon" (Robert McKee), "The Annie Moore (Andy Coffey), "The Ida Johnston (Charlie McGinnis), "The Soggarth Aroon" (skipper's name not remembered), "The Antoinette" (J. Weddock), "The Atlantic" (skipper not remembered), "The Flirt" - `A don't min' the name o' her skipper," Tom added. "Well," rejoined Hugh, "if the name is anything to go be, that wan wuz boun' to have had more than wan skipper."

School Register of Moneydarragh National School March 1898, (part of)

Young, Mary Ellen 8 Years 8 Months R. C. Ballyvea Fisherman Infants
Rooney, Cecily 6 Years 5 Months " Ballyvea Labourer "
Rogers, Mary 7 Years 5 Months " Moneydarragh Farmer "
McCartin, Mary Ellen 6 Years 8 Months " " Fisherman "
Rogers, Mary Margaret 7 Years 8 Months " " Fisherman "
Rooney, Jane 5 Years 11 Months " " Sailor "
Young, Ellen 7 Years 8 Months " " Fisherman "
Young, Annie 6 Years 8 Months " " Fisherman "
Molloy, Mary E. 5 Years 11 Months " " Farmer "
Rooney, Susan 5 Years 11 Months " " Farmer "
Cunningham, Mary 6 Years 11 Months " " Farmer "
Young, Rose ------------------ " " Fisherman "
Rogers, Marianne 4 Years 11 Months " " Farmer "
Smyth, Marianne 4 Years 8 Months " " Farmer "
Rooney, Sarah 4 Years 6 Months " " Farmer "
Rooney, Ellen 4 Years 2 Months " Ballyvea Labourer "
Sloan, Catherine -------------------- " Moneydarragh Farmer "
Rogers, Marianne? 11 Years 5 Months " Ballyvea Fisherman 1
McKibben, Marianne 9 Years 5 Months " Moneydarragh Farmer 1
Rooney, Catherine 9 Years 8 Months " Moneydarragh Farmer 1
Sloan, Mary Ellen 9 Years 11 Months " Ballyvea Stone Cutter 1
Rooney, Marianne 7 Years 11 Months " Moneydarragh Farmer 1
Doran, Annie 6 Years 11 Months " Ballyvea Farmer 1
Rogers, Sarah 6 Years 11 Months " Moneydarragh Labourer 1
Cunningham, Alice 7 Years 2 Months " " Fisherman 1
McCartin, Alice 7 years 2 Months " " Fisherman 1
Young, M. Elizabeth 7 Years 11 Months " " Widow 1
McDowell, Marianne 6 Years 2 Months " " Farmer 1
Cunningham, Cecily 11 years 11 Months " Ballyvea labourer 2
Haggard, Lizzie 9 Years 11 Months " " Farmer 2
Rogers, Susanna 9 Years 11 Months " Moneydara Labourer 2
Quinn, Mary 9 Years 8 Months " Ballyvea Farmer 2
Rogers, Mary  S. ------------------- " Moneydara Farmer 2
Rooney, Sarah Jane 8 Years 8 Months " Ballyvea Labourer 2
Pues, Elizabeth 9 Years 11 Months " Moneydara Farmer  2
Rooney, Maggi 10 Years 11 Months " " Farmer 3
Rooney, Isabella 12 years 3 Months " " Sailor 3
McCartin, Susan 10 years 11 Months " " Farmer 3
O'Hare, Susanna 10 Years 11 Months " " Farmer 3
Rooney, Elizabeth 10 Years 8 Months " Ballyvea Labourer 3
Savage, Alice 15 years 8 Months " Moneydarragh Fisherman 4
McCartin, Maggi 9 Years " " Farmer 4
Harrison, Elizabeth 11 Years 11 Months " " Farmer 4
Doran, Annie, Mary 11 Years 8 Months " Ballyvea Farmer 4
Mooney, Mary Margaret 13 Years " " Farmer 4
McCartin, Mary 9 Years 10 Months " Moneydarragh Fisherman 4
Rooney, Catherine 12 Years 8 Months " Ballyvea Labourer 5
Rogers, Marianne 13 Years 8 Months " " Carpenter 5
Doyle, Winifred 15 Years 5 Months " Ballymartin Teacher 5
Doyle, Catherine 18 Years 6 Months " " Teacher 6

Kilkeel Workhouse names of infants born 1872. 1873. 1874

Return of Infants born in the workhouse and during the years 1872, 1873,and 1874

Union workhouse & christian & surnames of infants born in the workhouse or admitted healthy under 12 months Year Discharged Healthy In Hospital Dead
Kilkeel Union Workhouse          
Andrew Foy 1872 1 1 - -
James Heaney " 1 1 - -
Mary Margaret McNally " 1 1 - -
Teresa McKinnon " 1 1 - -
Mary Ann Allen " 1 1 - -
Alexander Graham " 1 1 - -
Thomas Glenny " - - - 1
Eliza Magennis " 1 1 - -
Thomas Curlett " 1 1 - -
Mary Catherine Cunningham 1873 1 1 - -
William McGivern " 1 1 - -
James McAleanen " 1 1 - -
Mary Ann Walsh " 1 1 - -
John Dinsmore " 1 1 - -
Julia Cronan " 1 1 - -
Ann Peery " 1 1 - -
Samuel Corbett " 1 1 - -
Thomas McNally " 1 1 - -
Agnes Morrison " 1 1 - -
Thomas McClelland " - - 1 -
Catherine Fox 1874 1 1 - -
Francis Gibson " 1 1 - -
Mary Ann Morgan " 1 1 - -
James Mason " 1 1 - -
Annie Alwell " 1 1 - -
Annie Wilson " 1 1 - -
John Atkinson " 1 1 - -
Mary Jane Campbell " 1 1 - -
Margaret Strainge " - - - 1

More information on Kilkeel workhouse

Emigration of Orphan Girls to Australia,

From Workhouses, 1890, Report

Kilkeel, Numbers of emigrants sent out, to date 14th. July 1849, 4. numbers since sent out 7. total number of emigrants sent out since the spring of 1848, 11

The children whose names are given in the several returns for Kilkeel Union were, with their parents, admitted frequently during the years shown, but only one admission has been given.

On the 25th. March 1842 there were 2 inmates of the Kilkeel Workhouse classed as Insane the annual cost of keeping them was £4. 4 shillings and 9 pence

Maintenance and clothing of paupers for the year, £101. 19 and 11 and a halfpence

1842 24th March, Mr. Gulson

Letter from the clerk of the Union to the assistant commissioner

Iam directed by the board of guardians of the Kilkeel Union to call your attention to the bad state of the house owing to the walls taking wet and to request you will not allow the contractor to be paid the balance of his account until it is put in a complete state of repair, and i have also further directed to state to you, that it was only on the faith of your getting this done that the deed of change was signed yesterday placing the 1,000 at the disposal of the Poor Law Commissioners,

Reply from the architect 31st May 1842.To Mr. Murphy and Mr. Gulson

Surveyed the building 28th March 1842, the walls do not in some portion resist the weather, but the work has been  very carefully performed, and much more labour given to it than usual with rubble masonry. It will be re pointed, or if it is insufficient it must be cemented, arrangments have been made accordingly.


Minutes of Guardians 18th. May 1842.

Resolved that it is important that the workhouse premises should be finally enclosed, and the gates put up, which cannot be done until the gate piers are altered and the commissioners are requested to order the boundery wall to be inspected, which the guardians consider to be very deficient in many places as to workmanship and durability.

Complaints to the contractors by the Pennethorne report on workhouses.1844

The wet penetrates very much through the walls and through the roofs, for want of lead flashings, and at the ventilators. This is a well built house, the contractor has dressed some of his work too much, in imating cut stone masonary, and these parts have have been most damp, the dampness however is now being remedied


Extract from Guardians minutes 13th. March 1844

On Mr. Moore's motion coming before the board to provide a fever hospital for this Union.

Dr's McIlwaine and Reid were examined by the board and Mr. Gilbert to prove the necessity there exists for providing a fever hospital. The plans furnished by the poor law commissioners being examined by the board, it was resolved, that the board consider that the estimated cost of providing a fever hospital is too large for this Union, and as there is too much accommodation in the hospital attached to the workhouse, for the number of paupers in the workhouse, that the clerk be directed to apply to the Poor Law Commissioners to allow the two wings of the present hospital to be taken for fever patients, and to add another story thereto, the entrance to be from the back of the building, and the communication with the remainder of the hospital to be stopped.

Mr. Gilbert stated that the Poor Law Commissioners had an objection to allowing any part of the hospitals attached to be used for fever hospitals, but the board considered that under the peculiar circumstances of this Union being small and the numbers of paupers in the workhouse being few, they would make an exception in this case.


Workhouse rules and regulations which applied to most workhouses

1, All persons found begging in the town of Newry will be taken up by the Beadles and prosecuted as vagrants according to the law.
2, All persons in want of food, on application to the superintendents will be supplied therewith, for which a portion of work, suited to the capability of each applicant, will be allotted and the work so allotted and the work so allotted must be performed before the applicant is suffered to leave the institution.
3, All persons who become inmates must submit to strict discipline, hard fare and constant labour, and conform to all other rules of the establishment.
4, All strangers passing through the town in distress will be allowed to remain one night in the workhouse.
5, No spirituous liquors or tobacco will be allowed in the establishment.
6, All persons on entering as inmates, must be washed in the bath, their hair cut and combed, the clothes belonging to the institution put on, their own cleaned, tied up, labelled with the name of the individual, in order that they may be returned to the owner on leaving the establishment, when the clothes belonging to the instituation must be given up.
7, The hours for rising during 8 months of the year, commencing the 1st of March to be 6, o'clock, the beds and bed clothes to be folded up, the rooms cleaned,  and work to commence at half past 6 precisely, breakfast at 9 o'clock, work resumed at 10 o'clock, dinner at 3 o'clock work resumed at four, and to continue until half past six. All the inmates must be in bed at nine o'clock. The superintendents will examine the different rooms at a quarter past nine, and those disobeying this rule will have to perform the extra work allotted for disobedience of orders.
8, Any of the inmates disobeying the orders of the superintendents will be punished by extra work, according to the nature of their offence, for a second offence such further punishment  as the committee may direct and the law sanction.
9, That clergymen only be permitted to give religious instruction to the inmates of the workhouse, circulate or lend religious books or tracts to or among them and that exclusively among the members of their own communion.

Kilkeel, Co. Down

[Records] [Bibliography] [Links]

Kilkeel Poor Law Union was formally declared on the 29th July 1839 and covered an area of 127 square miles. Its operation was overseen by an elected Board of Guardians, 16 in number, representing its 10 electoral divisions as listed below (figures in brackets indicate numbers of Guardians if more than one):

Co. Down: Ballykeel, Bryansford (2), Fofanny (2), Green Castle (2), Kilkeel (2), Killowen, Maghera, Mourne Park (2), Mullartown, Rosstrevor (2).

The Board also included 5 ex-officio Guardians, making a total of 21. The Guardians met each week on Wednesday at noon.

The population falling within the Union at the 1831 census had been 26,833 with divisions ranging in size from Killowen (population 1,163) to Kilkeel itself (3,544).

The new Kilkeel Union workhouse was erected in 1840-1 on a 7.5-acre site at the north side of Newry Street in Kilkeel. Designed by the Poor Law Commissioners' architect George Wilkinson, the building was based on one of his standard plans to accommodate 300 inmates. Its construction cost £4,050 plus £767 for fittings etc. The workhouse was declared fit for the reception of paupers on 16th August 1841 and admitted its first inmates on 1st September. The workhouse location and layout are shown on the 1930 map below.


Kilkeel workhouse site, 1930.

The buildings followed Wilkinson's typical layout. An entrance and administrative block at the south-west contained a porter's room and waiting room at the centre with the Guardians' board room on the first floor above.

The main accommodation block had the Master's quarters at the centre, with male and female wings to each side. At the rear, a range of single-storey utility rooms such as bakehouse and washhouse connected through to the infirmary and idiots' wards via a central spine containing the chapel and dining-hall.

During the famine in the mid-1840s, a 40-bed fever hospital was erected at the east of the site. A dispensary was located on the roadside to the east of the workhouse.

At the 1901 census, the population of the Union was 19,131.


The fever hospital survives as part of Mourne District Hospital which opened in 1927.






[Top of Page] [The Workhouse in Ireland] [Unions List] [Unions Map] [Home Page]

For a huge selection of books about workhouses,
family history, social history, and local history across the UK.

Visit the Workhouse Bookshop!
(Any purchases you make also help support this site!)

Riots at Kilkeel 9th. Feb.1814