Photos by Conal Thomas

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Noeleen Cummins calls out from behind the main bar. “You’re lucky you weren’t here for the language earlier,” she says.

Hammer in hand, she walks over to a small wooden alcove where, ladder propped up, her sister Anne Hayden untangles a string of lights. It’s Thursday at 3pm and day three of the project for the sisters.

They won’t be done decorating before Sunday, says Declan Cummins, Noeleen’s husband, co-owner of the Strawberry Hall pub in Chapelizod.

His wife begs to differ. “Today and Friday, we’ll be done,” says Noeleen.

“There is no way they’ll be done by Friday,” says Declan.

Part of the reason for that is that each year, more and more boxes appear.

In the run-up to Christmas, most publicans content themselves with a tree and perhaps some glowing lights strewn along windowsills or the bar.

Some go further and plaster their windows with white paint or unexplained Bart Simpson heads.

But the Strawberry Hall – it’s slight remoteness on a small road by the River Liffey surrounded by green in Chapelizod making it a destination – is different.

Soon, the calls will start from people asking whether the lights and decorations are up yet, says Noeleen. “They are worse than children.”

On the Saturday night before, a crowd had dropped in. “They’d driven 70 or 80 miles to see the Christmas decorations,” says Hayden. “Declan said ‘You’ll have to come back.’”

It started in 1960 with Mother Cummins, Declan’s mum.

The pub has belonged to the family since 1927, and its Christmas decorations were taken in charge by Declan in 1974.

“I did it for 33 years,” he says. “I used to work through the night. At 1am, I’d finish working behind the bar and work right through til 9am the following morning.”

Covered in green-gold leaf-shaped tinsel and lit by hundreds of multi-coloured LED lights, the pub’s ceiling remains hidden until late January, when the decorations come down.

“Can’t get that anymore,” says Cummins, pointing to the 1980s tinsel, carefully placed and repacked each year.

Right of the pub’s main entrance, by the window, there are 10 Santas, 5 cardboard heads, 2 stickers, 2 felt dolls and a large, plastic Claus, blue sack at the ready, one foot already down the chimney.

Further down, at the circa-1950 bagatelle table, another plastic Santa rings his bell. Next to him, another Santa stares across the room to rows of Santa-themed cushions on wooden benches. This is day three.

“This here will be Santa’s grotto. You won’t see any of that,” says Cummins, standing in a small nook to the bar’s right, its walls covered in photographs.

The tap-tap-tap of a hammer sounds from left of the bar. “They won’t be done by Friday,” he says.

“Well now, we did a couple of hours on Tuesday and Wednesday,” says Noeleen Cummins. “So they’ll be up today and Friday.”

When husband Declan stopped decorating the pub about 10 years ago, Noeleen and sister Hayden, nearly identical with cropped blonde hair, inherited his mantle.

He started this nutty shit,” Hayden says. “Like, the bigger the better. If you’re looking for refined and whatever … ”

“You wouldn’t be getting that,” says Noeleen.

“Tasteful? No, the bigger the better,” says Hayden.

Gold and red tinsel spills out of open boxes, each one carefully labelled. With the front section complete, the sisters move in to decorate a small room at the back of the pub.

They have a system. “When we start in our heads, we have a masterplan. Though it doesn’t always go to plan,” says Hayden.

They bag and tag the ornaments each year, says Noeleen. So that they’re ready for next year.

Decorations at the Strawberry Hall vary in age, some date back to the 1970s, some are from last week. “If we saw anything, something that would suit, we would certainly buy it,” says Hayden.

The latest addition – alongside Christmas-themed blankets, stockings, figurines, holly wreaths, candy canes – are small lantern-shaped candle holders.

The sisters are confident they’ll finish up by Friday evening.

They’d want to, says Noeleen. This is the Christmas calm before the festive storm. They’ll get the regulars and locals, but also those who have come for miles, arriving each year for what the sisters call “the squeeze”.

“It’s like a glue pot,” says Noeleen. “You come in and you can’t get out.”

“Orla’s grandson came in. He was four or five. I was over at the door fixing some decorations,” Hayden says.

“‘WOW!’” cries Noeleen, mimicking the five-year-old’s reaction seeing the decorations for the first time.

“Then a couple came in with their daughter,” says Hayden. “The daughter was 30 at this stage. ‘WOW!’”

Says Noeleen: “It was exactly the same reaction as the child.”

Cónal Thomas

Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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