The Holly Bough: A Cork tradition that has travelled the world

Many Irish emigrants won’t be able to make it home for Christmas again this year… So dutiful friends and family have been busy sending them reminders of home. For Corkonians, these care packages must include a copy of the Holly Bough – along with a box of Barry’s Tea and a cut of spiced beef.

The Holly Bough has been a Christmastime tradition in Cork for over a hundred years. While it’s unclear how much of its 50,000+ circulation ends up abroad, it’s estimated to be in the thousands. The figures are hard to pin down because most copies are bought by locals before being sent overseas.

A first edition hidden in an Ottawa attic

The Holly Bough’s connection with the diaspora is nothing new. For a long time it has had customers and contributors based abroad. In fact, the only copy of the publication’s very first issue is in Canada.

Back in 2001, when Features Editor of The Echo, John Dolan, was asked to edit the Holly Bough, he said: “What on earth is that?”

Dolan, who is originally from England, had no idea he was taking over a Cork institution. But luckily, he had time to do his research and speak with former editors. (This year’s edition was his 20th.)

However, nobody could tell him when the Holly Bough was started. The oldest copy in Cork City Library dated back to 1924. But there was nothing to indicate that this was the first one. So Dolan put out a call for information in his very first issue as editor.

A few weeks later, he received a letter from Hugh Connolly – who was originally from Quaker Road in Cork city. He said he had a copy of the first edition in his attic in Ottawa and it dated all the way back to 1897.

It had been passed down through his family over the years. His mother, Helena, got it from her father, Paddy Jones. And when Hugh himself emigrated to Canada in 1970, he took it with him.

While he wasn’t willing to relinquish this precious family heirloom, he did send photocopies. The first Holly Bough was published by the Cork Weekly News and cost just 1p. Dolan was also delighted to see that the original cover was red – just like it is today.

There is no doubt that this was the first issue as it expressed the desire to become an annual and came complete with a mission statement:

“And as the Holly Bough shakes its bright leaves, and flutters its gay adornments, and looks proud in its novel dressing, it seems to say, my masters, I will play a part in merry-making of the season, and with quip and jest and storytelling, make the time pass, quickly, pleasantly, well.”

Carrying children’s puzzles, stories and entertainment, this first edition is still very much in tune with the Holly Bough’s content and aims today.

Since sharing this first edition, Hugh Connolly has passed away. But Dolan has remained in touch with his grandson in preparation for the magazine’s upcoming 125th anniversary.

4 Holly Bough covers from left to right 1941, 1950, 1956 and1935

A favourite among the diaspora

Copies of the Holly Bough have been sent abroad for decades and several shops in London stocked it too.

“I’m sure the tradition of sending it abroad is as old as the Holly Bough itself,” said Dolan. “But I don’t have any evidence of that”.

However, the 1924 edition demonstrates the magazine’s long standing connection with the diaspora. It features a full page story entitled ‘Christmas in South Africa by a West Cork Man’.

“What is it like to have Christmas in mid-summer instead of mid-winter?” writes the anonymous author. “Come with me to South Africa and we shall find out”.

With great care, he describes the crowded streets in Cape Town and the atmosphere in Durban “where the air is very sultry and clammy and distant thunder is rumbling”.

When he became editor, Dolan recognised the Holly Bough’s popularity among the Irish abroad. So when it came to updating the magazine, he put them at the centre of his plans.

The old printing press had a limit of just 60 pages. So as soon as this was upgraded, he upped the page count. In 2004, it increased to 80 pages and this year it has a record 164.

As well as more content, the new press also allowed for colour photos. So around 15 years ago, Dolan began asking readers to send in pictures of the Holly Bough abroad.

Since then, the Holly Bough has been to all the world’s major landmarks. It’s been snapped underwater in the Maldives and paragliding in the mountains of Nepal. It even made an appearance in Antarctica.

“I always get a big kick when people send it from weddings,” said Dolan. “Packed along with the suits. It’s part of the wedding line up… It’s part of the family.”

A selection of images of Cork diaspora including families, friends, and troops, holding their Christmas Holly Bough

Next year, for the Holly Bough’s 125th anniversary, Dolan plans to check if there are any US states or countries that the magazine hasn’t visited yet. And, if there is, he’ll be requesting readers in those locations to send in photos.

With these new updates, the Holly Bough’s circulation doubled. Today, contributions continue to flow in from all over the world. Across eight pages, this year’s gallery features photos of Cork people with their 2020 Holly Bough everywhere from Germany and Lebanon, through to Ethiopia and Singapore. There’s whole pages dedicated to Ireland, Australia and the US too.

The captions include tales of mothers, brothers, cousins and friends sending copies abroad. Elizabeth Kavanagh is pictured in New South Wales where her childhood friend and neighbour, Kathleen, has sent her a copy of the Holly Bough for the past 59 years.

A more recent addition to the layout is a message board called ‘Connecting Cork at Christmas’. This year, it includes Christmas messages to Cork people living in England, Australia, Canada and the US. There’s incoming greetings from emigrants in Chicago, London, Calgary, Massachusetts and Geelong too.

The recipe to the Holly Bough’s success

As print media declines around the world, the Holly Bough has bucked the trend with steady sales. In fact, last year’s edition enjoyed a small spike.

So why has its popularity endured? Dolan believes it’s down to a range of factors, including nostalgia, tradition, quality and its local focus.

“Christmas is a great time for traditions. We tend to do the same things that our parents did – and their parents did,” he said. “There’s a Corkness to it too.”

The Holly Bough is written for Cork people by Cork people – and the reaction to this can be overwhelmingly enthusiastic. According to Dolan, the magazine receives so many contributions that they could fill three Holly Boughs every year.

2021’s edition was released on November 1st and the very next day the office received its first crossword competition entry. One of this year’s photo gallery contributors even describes how her father covers the magazine in plastic and places it at his parents headstone in Kilcully graveyard.

Dolan believes there is demand for this kind of hyper local content elsewhere. Despite the fact that every Holly Bough story has a Cork connection, it sells throughout Ireland and is particularly popular in Kerry and Waterford. He believes “every town and city in the world should have their own Holly Bough”.

What’s in this year’s Holly Bough?

Every year, the Holly Bough features short stories, poems, photographs, puzzles and historical articles about Cork.

The 2021 edition features the tales of Charlotte Grace O’Brien, who ran an Emigrant Boarding House in Cobh, and a Corkman who was scalped as he ventured the Wild West back in 1874.

There’s also articles by local man, Pat Poland, who has contributed content for the past 58 years and a photo of The Tank Field – back when it actually had a tank in it. You can find out more on its website.

Want to hear more stories about Corkonians and other Irish people who have emigrated? Book your tickets to visit EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum.

Photos from Echo Live.