SANTA CLAUS COMES TO GALWAY
by Tom Kenny
St. Nicholas of Myra is the patron saint of archers, sailors, merchants, repentant thieves, brewers, pawnbrokers, unmarried people, students and of children. He is also the patron saint of Galway, and our oldest church, St. Nicholas Collegiate is named after him. He was a legendary giver of gifts, particularly to the poor. He would hand coins in through windows or open doors, and if they were closed, sometimes he would put them down the chimney. This was the origin of the tradition of Santa coming down the chimney bearing gifts. The tradition was good for business for chimney sweeps, it would be difficult to explain soot marks on the floor on Christmas morning.
Gradually, St. Nicholas evolved into Santa Claus and became associated with bringing toys to children. In 1926, a local paper suggested that the tradition of Santa Claus would probably never die, as the time-honoured image of Father Christmas was as popular as ever in shop windows, in a variety of postures, always with a beaming face, kindly eyes and snow-white beard, he was the centre of admiring hordes of children at every window in which he appears in Galway.
Santa Claus appeared in person in Galway for the first time in 1950 in Leonard Martin’s shop in Mainguard Street. The idea of him appearing in a shop was such a novelty at the time that the mayor came especially to formally welcome him to town and to shake hands. Jack Kerr, a war veteran, took on the role of Santa. Martin’s was a hardware and fancy goods shop for most of the year but at Christmas, it became a toyshop exclusively.
Another fancy goods shop that became a magical place at Christmas was Glynns on William Street where Santa also began to appear every December. You went up the wide staircase to a kind of ‘toy heaven’, a feast for the imagination of any child. It was usually noisy with the loud chatter of excited kids and of course, there was always Santa’s Cave with himself waiting to be told what you wanted and which chimney he was to go down. Then, he would present you with a kind of lucky bag and warn you to be good for your mother and to go to bed early. Occasionally, he got someone to take your photograph. It was magic.
Other shops that sold toys in Galway at the time were The Bargain Stores in Shop Street with Mrs. Creaven behind the counter, Hugh Duffy’s shop in Mainguard St. and O’Gorman’s on Shop St.
In the 1920’s, R.J. Hunter set up a toy factory on Earl’s Island. They specialized in hobby horses (said to be equal to the famous Austrian-made horses), but they also manufactured dolls, teddy bears and many other types of toys. They were always very busy at this time of the year. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was also a small toy factory in at the back of The Merlin Bar which was set up by Harry O’Brien. They made wooden toys like forts, castles and train sets.
So today, we have two photographs of Santa with young Galwegians. The first was taken in 1950 in Leonard Martin’s and shows Michael Brennan (left) and John Gilligan (right) standing on a counter while Gerry Smith in the foreground is far more interested in getting a gift from Santa than he is in the camera. On the left is Anne Lee, Michael Brennan’s aunt.
Our second image was taken in Glynns in 1957 and shows Santa with Stephen Higgins, Christy Higgins and Martin Faherty.
I would like to wish all of our readers a very happy and a healthy Christmas. Nollaig shona daoibh go léir!