‘I flew to Chicago to buy Mrs Claus’: The families lighting up Christmas
These Dubliners are raising festive spirits and funds with their elaborately lit homes
Liam Tilly in his Christmas jumper outside his house on Bath Avenue in Sandymount, Dublin. Photograph: Bryan James Brophy
Liam Tilly is not going mad for Christmas this year. He has ordered only three turkeys: one each for two of his sons, and one for himself. Each one will be around 26-30lbs.
He’ll strip and clean the turkeys himself, just as he’s been doing for the past half-century. The man he’s buying them from could clean them for him, “but it’s not the same”.
It is clear as soon as your car turns onto his street, Bath Avenue in Sandymount, Dublin, that Christmas is a serious business in the Tilly household. At about 4.30pm on a drizzly Friday evening in December, the house is lit up like the Las Vegas strip. There are plastic reindeer in the front garden, at least two Santas on motorbikes, more suspended on wires overhead, and a neat line of lifesize ones, along with a few snowmen and reindeer, lined up by the front door. Inside his front window, there is a note written in a childish scrawl: “Dear Mr Tilly, You are very good to do the lights for all the people that live in Ringsend thank you from Kayla age 8.”
“Mr Tilly’s Christmas Lights” have become a Dublin institution. It started gradually after his wife, Rita, died 24 years ago, at just 58, and he decided to do something to cheer everyone up. “I saw them around. I saw other people with them, and I said I could do that. I had small ones in the window,” he says.
His son, also called Liam, who has dropped by to see his dad on his way to his job as a chef with the Respond Housing Agency, says that, from there: “it grew organically. One went outside, and then the other went outside. Now it’s an obsession.”
Over the past nine years, Mr Tilly’s Lights have raised more than €100,000 for Our Lady’s Hospice and Care Services, including €17,500 last year. “I won’t beat that this year. But even if I only made €6,000, I’d keep going. Christmas is everything to me.”
The weather hasn’t been on his side this year. “Brutal,” Liam senior says. “But the rugby crowd are brilliant.” The electricity bill is “around €500”, but The Bath Pub down the street pays it for him, and last year, it donated the same again towards the charity.
At 84, Liam senior still wires all the lights himself. He moves with the agility of a much younger man. When the photographer asks if he can take a picture, he says he’ll just run upstairs to get himself a Christmas jumper, and then he literally runs.
“Christmas has always been super in our house,” the younger Liam says, when his father is upstairs. “There was new pyjamas got, a stocking at the end of the bed. We had less, but we were so well looked after.”
In the old days, Liam senior would get the turkeys in Smithfield market “from some farmer out of the back of his car”. He’d bring them into work – he worked in the ESB on Poolbeg Street – put them up on a hoist during his tea break. “And during my dinner hour, I’d clean the turkeys out. The bosses would walk through the workshop, and they’d say ‘My God, Tilly, what are you up to? Carry on, carry on.’ I got my work done, so they were happy.”
Does he have a memory of one best Christmas? “No such thing as one best. They were all great. Myself and my wife used to go to midnight Mass. And when we’d come back, I used to dress up as Santy, walk to the end of the road, and start ringing the bell, and all the mammies would run in and wake the kids and say ‘Look, here’s Santy’.”
The Saturday before I visit, the real Santa Claus was here to officially turn on his lights, he says. “I had two police here, a Harley Davidson with Santy on the back, and another seven Harleys behind it. If you’d been here,” he tells the photographer, “you’d have got photo of the year.”
“I think it’s amazing. I come every year. He’s really good. Everyone is really happy when he turns them on. It’s like Christmas starts,” says Grace.
Queen of Christmas
Liam Tilly is doing his bit to keep Sandymount and Ringsend lit, but some would say it’s Crumlin that holds the title of Christmas capital of Ireland. And it is Josie Leonard who is Crumlin’s unofficial queen of Christmas.
There are few lengths to which she won’t go to ensure she has the most unique array of lights in Dublin. She once flew to Chicago just to buy a Mrs Claus. “You probably saw her outside on the roof,” she says, sitting in the kitchen of her house on Rathdrum Road.
The kitchen is the only room downstairs in which there is currently enough room to sit. Every surface of the sitting room next door is heaving with lights, figures and elaborate decorations. Across the hall, one entire room is dedicated to Santa figures and soft toys. There’s a large Dora the Explorer in a Christmas costume, antique dolls, a Mickey Mouse Santa, and a vaguely obscene naked Mr and Mrs Claus in a bath.
But it’s Mrs Claus on the roof who is Josie’s pride and joy. “I saw her in the gardens in America and then I went to Chicago to get her. She didn’t cost that much once I got there. I forget how much. But she did have to be rewired when she got home.”
What did people say when she got on the plane with Mrs Claus? “Nothing. She was coming to Ireland, one way or the other. Whether she had to walk or what.” Did she need her own seat? “I put her on the floor in front of me, I think.”
Her daughter-in-law, Kim, who helps out with her PR and communications, says “it wasn’t as strict then”.
Some of the other figures have come from England, “Blackpool and other places,” Josie adds. She isn’t into inflatables any more: everything has to be blow-mould plastic now. “I have a powerful thing for next year, don’t I Kim? I can’t tell you what it is.”
How many does she have altogether? “I haven’t a clue. I have a shed out there that’s 17ft by 20ft, and that’s packed to the rafters.”
What’s the bill like? “I haven’t a clue about that either, because the husband never tells me. It’s the one bill he never complains about.”
She bought her first lights nearly 30 years ago, and she’s been doing it “properly” for about 20 years now. It started with a sleigh and two reindeer. “The next year, I added Santy and a snowman. I went into Roche’s and bought them after Christmas.”
Are you competitive about your lights, I ask. “Oh yeah,” she says. “No, she’s not,” Kim interjects.
“No, I’m not,” Josie agrees, “but I like to try to get something new every year.” This year’s addition is the illuminated Ho Ho Ho sign outside. Her son, Patrick, made another sign with her name on it too.
It takes about a week to get it all set up, says Kim. “The first weekend, everything comes out of the shed. It all has to get tested. Then we do the front garden and the roof, and the inside gets done last.”
Patrick – or “the King”, as Josie calls him – does all the wiring, having taken over recently from his dad. He also goes outside in a Santa suit every evening from 7pm to 8.30pm. This is a family business, even the grandchildren are roped in to put on elf costumes and give out lollies.
“Christmas growing up, I always loved it,” says Josie. “There was nine of us. We didn’t have a lot, but my mam, Lord have mercy on her, used to do the house out of Hector Grey’s.”
She does it because “I like everyone to be happy rather than sad. There’s too much sadness in the world.”
They’ve had visitors from Korea, and Kim got a message over Facebook from some people in Afghanistan last year. A crowd from Cabra comes over every year in a hired minibus, Kim says, and they dance and sing outside.
Paddy comes in from work, and she asks him about the electricity bill. “It’s around €400-€600,” he says.
“Is that all?” Josie and Kim ask, in unison.
“You’d expect it to be more. I think it is more, and he’s not saying it,” says Josie, sounding a bit disappointed. “I get given out to if I use the dryer.”
Are you running out of space, I ask. “Yes,” says Kim, who also lives here, with Patrick and her two daughters. “Josie doesn’t think she is, but we do.”
Josie gestures at Kim. “She got her feet under my table, and took my king. But gave me two princesses,” she says, slagging Kim.
Then the king himself, son Patrick, arrives, ready to get into his Santa suit. “There’s the man of the moment. There’s my king,” Josie says.
For the past six years, they’ve been raising money for charity, and they change the charity ever year. Last year, they raised €4,000, and they’d like to beat that this year. They’re raising funds for “a local lad, Ryan Carberry, with multiple sclerosis,” Kim says. The charity element started when they pitched in to help out Ciaran Byrne, who lives across the street.
Byrne’s house is a comparatively low-key affair, although it might not look it on any other street, in any other suburb. He has been lighting up for charity since shortly after his wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2000. What kind of reaction do you get, I ask.
“Ah, it’s alright. It’s not as good as Josie’s. Josie puts it up on everything. Although this year, I’m on Pagebook or whatever you call it, I believe.”
Facebook, I say. “Yeah. I didn’t know the man was doing that [when he took the photographs]. The following day, everyone was telling me they saw it up there. Josie put me on her page too.” But he gets a steady trickle of visitors, either before or after they visit Josie’s Lights.
He did it for three or four years after his wife’s diagnosis, and then he gave all the lights and figures away. His wife died in 2011.
Two years later, in 2013, his newborn grandson was diagnosed with a rare and life-limiting illness. “He has cri du chat, the cry of the cat, as they say in France. There’s no cure for it. He’s fed through a peg. He’s five now. They said he’d live 10 or 12 days, and he’s still going strong. He can walk a little bit. He’s in a wheelchair, and he plays football on a Saturday using one of those walking frames.”
He can say a few words, and he makes a sign with his hand, like he’s using a walking stick, for his granddad, Ciaran. “He’s cute as a fox.”
So, four years ago, Ciaran went out and bought lots of new lights, and started to fundraise again for his grandson. This year, he’s trying to raise €860 for a special blender for Ciaran’s food. There’s a box outside into which people can put donations. “Only once did anyone ever try to take the box. A car pulled up outside and some fellas got out and tried to get the box, but they couldn’t get it. It’s screwed at the bottom, and screwed to the back and everything. They never got it. I went out after them, of course I did.”
His dog, China, looks mild-mannered, but she’s a ferocious guard dog, he says. “If you came here, and I wasn’t here, she’d take lumps out of you.”
On the other side of Clogher Road in Crumlin, Valerie and James Geraghty have been lighting up the house for Christmas for almost as long as Josie Leonard.
Christmas has always been a very big deal for the family, but they’re expecting a quiet one this year. “It’s going to be dead. We’ll only have about 16 here on Christmas night. Maybe 20, if we’re lucky.”
They don’t cook turkey for everyone, they add. “They all have dinner in their own house. And then they’ll come over, and we’ll have goujons and sausages and onion rings.”
She counts off the visitors. “We’ll have my daughter, who’s 26, and my son, who’s 15. Six or eight of his friends said they’re coming too.”
Her other son is in Australia, so he won’t make it. But Valerie’s niece, Elaine – who I just met outside her own house, with her new baby, Ria – will be over. “And her dad. And Elaine’s sister. My other sister and her two sons. My neighbour.”
Still, it’s nothing to how it used to be. “Going back 10 years ago, there’d be 60-70 people here Christmas night. You wouldn’t get standing room. We’d put all the kids upstairs. We’d have 12 or 14 seats in the kitchen. The men would stand along the countertops, the women would sit down, and the older ones would be out here.” Inevitably, the karaoke machine would come out. Val does a mean Tammy Wynette’s Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad.
She is the youngest of 13 which, she admits, might not be unrelated to her enthusiasm for Christmas. Her own mother died 15 years ago, six weeks after Val and James’s youngest son was born. He was her 60th grandchild, and there were already dozens of great grandchildren. If she was still alive, she’d have 85 great grandchildren by now, and numerous great-greats.
Every Christmas morning, “all 13 of us – I’ve six older brothers and six older sisters – would be in my ma’s with all our husbands and kids, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends. There would be easily 90 people there. All the kids out in the garden. All the lads in the sitting room, the women would be, more or less, in the kitchen, my ma would be in the armchair. The men would have a few drinks; the women wouldn’t drink during the day.”
At three o’clock, everyone would go to their own house to eat Christmas dinner. By six, they’d be out visiting again, over to a brother, then another sister, “and then back here until midnight, and then around to another sister from midnight until 3 in the morning. Christmas is everything. It’s all about family.”
Christmas is about giving back too, she says. She and her daughter, Natalie, put parcels together for St Vincent de Paul. One evening recently, a little boy came to look at the lights going up with his mother. Valerie got the feeling he might not be getting much this year, so she asked him to come back the next day, and gave him a selection box.
“There’s a real community around here still,” she says. They wave away a question about how Crumlin sometimes gets a bad press. That’s not the Crumlin they know.
“Everyone knows everyone. Even when he’s out doing the lights, and people are passing, they’ll stop and they’ll come in and get a photo. That’s what it’s all about.”