Missing characters of old who added colour and spice to life in every village, town and city

Characters are getting very scarce in our present day society, so says John Arnold in his weekly column
Missing characters of old who added colour and spice to life in every village, town and city

Dave Ryan on the far right in Mrs Dooley's Bar, Bartlemy in the 1960's.

THERE was a namesake of mine lived in East Cork. Johnny Arnold was of the Clonmult Arnold family, his father being a schoolmaster in Clonmult and a native of Co. Waterford. As far as I know ‘our’ Arnolds are no relation of this branch of the clan, though, God knows, with a scarce surname like ours there’s bound to some rinsing there somewhere!

Anyway people told me stories about this Johnny Arnold - he was 70 when he died in 1964. Apparently he used often be in the vicinity of Main St. Midleton at Public House closing time. As someone sallied forth into the night air Johnny would approach them and ask the question (always the same question!); “Hi, what did the Israelites do when they came out of the Red Sea long ago?”

The bemused and puzzled person might answer, “I don’t know Johnny, maybe they ate their dinner or something”. Like a flash Johnny would reply to his own query, “They dried themselves!” and then he’d walk off laughing loudly!

Apparently this line of interrogation from Johnny went on for years. People played along with him of course and they never did know what the very wet Israelites did when they reached dry land until Johnny told them and off he went delighted with himself.

Undoubtedly Johnny Arnold was a local character, well known and loved in his native place. I’m afraid to say that these characters are getting very scarce in our present day society. The definition of the title ‘character’ is a difficult enough proposition. Nowadays political correctness is the norm and nearly demanded by most sectors of our so called ‘elite’. Eccentricity was often associated with characters like Johnny or the likes of Bernie Murphy in Cork City.

Being dubbed an eccentric is a wonderful compliment to anyone as it indicates a free spirit, one not afraid of holding personal beliefs and views not espoused by many.

‘Following the crowd’ whether in terms of embracing social media or ‘modern’ lifestyles is an easy option and the path taken by so many - tis easier to go with the flow rather than being individualistic. This kind of sanitisation of life has rendered us incapable of producing the characters of old. These men and women added colour and spice to life in every village, town and city but alas today the pace of life is so hectic that local characters and corner boys are now endangered species!

Growing up in the 1960’s I consider myself lucky, indeed, privileged to have met an array of people who brought humour and fun into the lives of so many. They never set out deliberately to be ‘different’ - they just were. Maybe life was simpler then, fewer distractions and our world revolved around our community where everyone knew everyone else. I never felt like I lived in the ‘valley of the squinting windows’ - yes we all lived in each other’s pockets and shadows but in a good way.

There’s a story told about two local bachelor brothers who lived at a Y junction on the road. They had land - originally they had a small hucksters shop, and like their neighbours they kept a few hens. Well a local merchant’s lorry rolled over one of their hens and she was killed dead there on the road in front of their own half door. A hen is a hen so the next Sunday after Mass in the village they made a formal complaint about the incident with the lorry and the hen and sought compensation of 2/6.

“And she was one of the best hens we had, she laid an egg, a big egg, every single day.”

The shopkeeper whose lorry had allegedly committed the foul fowl murder looked for proof of the said encounter.

“Where is the hen?” he enquired.

Quickly came the reply; “Sure we ate her for the dinner yesterday”

Case dismissed - talk about having your cake and eating it!

Nora Woods was in the kitchen of her family home and grocery shop at Bartlemy Cross one morning. She was filling the kettle from the tap in the kitchen sink when suddenly the water stopped, not a drop more came forth. She was puzzled but just then heard all the commotion outside at the Cross. There was water, water everywhere gushing down the road. Dave Ryan who took the churns of milk to the Creamery in Castlelyons with his tractor and trailer lived up the Tallow Road. Dave was never a man for top class mechanical order in a machine he owned. The night before he parked his tractor and trailer in readiness to leave it run down the road for a ‘jump start’ the following morning. When Dave sat up on the tractor off he went at speed. Now Dave’s steering and sense of direction were never the best. As he sped down to the Cross he crashed into the Village Water Pump and blew it clear away thus leaving every house near the village without water!

Dave was a real larger than life character. 

A native of Kilworth he came to Bartlemy in the 1950’s to ‘follow’ a Threshing machine going from farm to farm. Soon he bought his own tractor and trailer and collected the churns of milk from about forty farmers in Watergrasshill, Bartlemy and Castlelyons. He married a local woman Eily Hankard who lived in the village with her mother.

Knowing that Dave was rather aisy going and a careless driver Mrs Hankard would always urge Dave to bless himself with Holy Water as he left the house for his work each morning in order to protect him. One wet morning as Dave was leaving Mrs Hankard implored Dave to do the Sacred Ablutions. Looking out the door Dave replied; ‘No need for it today, there’s buckets of it falling from the sky!’.

When he came to our parish Dave considered going to hurling and football games as a ‘pure waste of time’ but lo and behold, he got ‘addicted’ and before long he was head over heels involved in our local Club, Bride Rovers. He served as a Club Officer and selector for various teams.

It was with the juveniles he really excelled. ‘Twas no bother for Dave to pack ten of us into his not-too-roadworthy station wagon type car and head off to an under 14 match in Glenville, Castlelyons, Ballynoe, Dungourney or Castlemartyr.

Dave and our Club Chairman at the time David John Barry got me interested in the GAA. I’d say they knew - and I knew too, that I was never going to be a player but the GAA is ‘a broad church’ and there’s a role for everyone.

Often with no brakes and a boiling radiator and twine keeping the doors closed we’d head off to matches. Amazingly we never had a serious crash - in fairness i’d say the Holy Water saved us many a time!

Dave was real character and became imbued with the spirit of ‘the little village’ in terms of his involvement with the GAA. Fifty years ago Cork beat Clare in the Munster Hurling Final above in Thurles - my first ever Munster Final. Pad O’Connor drove Dave to that game with me and Dan Dooley in the back seat. On the way to Thurles - we left after half 9 Mass in Bartlemy, we stopped at a small rural pub somewhere near Holycross as Dave liked a pint. We ate our ham sandwiches and drank our lemonade there. I asked the woman behind the bar about going to the toilet. She pointed to the back door ‘Over there across the yard’. I’ll never forget that short journey across the back yard as there was a hen with one leg and a sheep with one eye out there – I can still see them!

Cork won the game against Clare easily and then we had a short trip to the Athletic Grounds for a game against London which Cork won handily.

Dave was in Dublin that September when Kilkenny bate us in the All Ireland. That was his last ‘campaign’ as he died suddenly the following February. They don’t make ‘em like Dave anymore. Lads I could write a book about my friend and mentor Dave Ryan.

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