We Irish have gift of the gab... here’s some great examples!

John Arnold shares some stories about the wit of Irish country folk
We Irish have gift of the gab... here’s some great examples!

SOCIAL OCCASION: Farmers and dealers inspect new potatoes at the Macroom Show in 1929. John Arnold shares some stories here about the wit of Irish country folk whenever they gathered together

I NEVER knew my father’s father Batt Arnold as he died in 1951 - six years before I was born. I’ve never seen a picture of him - no wedding photograph, nothing at all.

Considering that his son Dan, my father, was an enthusiastic photographer who developed his own ‘snaps’ in a darkroom under the stairs, that seems strange.

By all accounts, Batt Arnold was a fastidious and serious man who always avoided self-praise, in the same manner he made sure no-one ever took a picture of him!

His sister Mary married John Barry and my grandfather married Nora Barry - a sister of John’s. For years, I presumed it was a ‘double wedding’ where both couples said ‘I do’ on the one day - such an arrangement would have been very handy and made the purchase of a new bed in either house unnecessary!

Such was not the case, however, as there was a year between the two weddings, both couples marrying before Lent in 1908 and 1909.

A neighbour told me about 30 years ago that ‘you have the same walk and the ‘gaach’ of your grandfather’ - inclined to move with a bit of an ambling step going from one side to the other!

Well, on Bartlemy Fair Days on the 4th and 9th of September long ago, our place was a gathering spot for cousins, in-laws and fifth cousins from all over East Cork. They’d come by pony and trap or horse and butt, leave their mode of transport in our haggard and then walk up to the Fair Field near Bartlemy Cross.

One evening, after the Fair was over, my grandfather returned home to find about ten ponies, horses, mules and jennets all munching contentedly from the bench of hay in the hay shed. Like the Prodigal Son’s brother returning home from a hard day’s work, hearing all the cip o’the reel coming from the house, my grandfather reputedly said sternly: “Tis bad enough to have to give hay to yere horses, not to mind giving civility to yere women!”

Now no-one ever said he was tight or mean, but he certainly didn’t seem to be a man inclined to go in for any kind of extravagance.

Paddy Murphy of Killamurren, Bartlemy, was born in 1920 - just seven years after my father. Paddy had a wonderful memory up until his death in his nineties a few years ago. He recalled the day of my grandfather’s burial in 1951.

After the funeral, he called to Mrs. Ellen Arnold - always known as ‘Mrs Dick’, though her husband Richard had died back in 1927. The purpose of Paddy’s visit was to purchase a reaper-and-binder that Mrs Dick had advertised for sale.

She had also gone to the funeral in Rathcormac, but wasn’t back. Only Johnny Ahern who worked on her farm was present - and he had no authority to ‘do a deal’ on the piece of machinery.

Paddy went up to the public house in Bartlemy Cross and had a few pints ‘in memory of the dead’. Back then, farm labourers worked on nearly every farm in rural Ireland - a biggish farm might have work for two or three labourers. Paddy was telling me about a certain farm worker who was changing ‘jobs’ - normally their employment was just from year to year and every March they could be reemployed or given their ‘marching orders’.

Anyway, this labourer was on his way to a farmer in a different parish. The new employer wanted ‘references’ from the farmer who was giving him the road. In a pre-phone era, he wrote to previous employer asking for references and a detailed account of the reliability and work ethos of the man in question. 

After two days he got this reply in the Post: “He is a small man of low stature with an eye like a pig as he looks behind him, he comes when he likes, he goes when he likes, and when he comes he does what he likes. He brings sheep and takes sheep and he takes more sheep than he brings!”

Make of that what you will now!

Another story I heard from Paddy was about a local man who ‘took’ a shop in Fermoy - in other words, he rented out the premises which was a general grocery and small hardware shop. He was absent on business elsewhere for a few days and, as they say, ‘while the cat’s away the mice will play’.

In his absence, a few local ‘fly-boys visited the shop one day. Two of the group engaged the girls working there in deep conversation while their comrades literally helped themselves.

On his return, the ‘shopkeeper’ was examining his supplies. Before he had left he had killed, cured and salted a pig and put the bacon pieces in a barrel of brine. On peering into the barrel, all he observed was the pig’s head and the four crubeens and declared: “Well, whatever way you got out of that barrel - you didn’t walk out of it anyway.”

They had a great way with words long ago, hadn’t they?

I heard of a true story concerning a distant relative of my own. This particular man didn’t make a great fist of farming and also did a bit of contracting - working for other farmers - but that was no better a success for him. In his older years he went to reside with a family member upon whom he relied for to be ‘fed and found’.

One Sunday, around Easter time, they had a fine plump goose for the dinner. Later that evening in a local hostelry my relation was asked about the midday meal. “We had a goose,” says he. “What was it like?” someone enquired. “Well, all I got were the walking parts and the talking parts and I needn’t tell you the bearer had a pick of it too!”

There was a topping priest’s housekeeper long ago. Like Moll in John B Keane’s play of the same name, this particular housekeeper was monarch of all she surveyed.

Now, the priest had very few complaints as she cooked and cleaned and scrubbed and the place was like a new pin. He had his suspicions though that she might be taking a few bob -or more - from the collection every Sunday. She never left anyone count it only herself and then took it to the bank Monday morning. The Parish Priest was fairly sure this practise was going on for years, but he had no proof.

They had Confirmation one year and the Bishop came to the house for the dinner. Well, the housekeeper put on a mighty spread - you wouldn’t see the see the like of it in any top class hotel in Cork city or Dublin town. The Bishop was well and truly impressed. The year after, didn’t the Bishop’s housekeeper retire. He wrote to the Parish Priest asking would his housekeeper come and do the housekeeping duties in the Bishop’s Place. He couldn’t say ‘No’ - and the housekeeper was mad for road. She was to start before Easter.

The week before the changeover, the Bishop’s Secretary sent a letter to the Parish Priest confirming the arrangements and terms of employment and also looking for references! This put the priest in a bit of a pucker as he didn’t want to lie to the Bishop or tell him up front about his suspicions. He reflected long and hard on the matter.

Eventually, he sat down at his writing desk and wrote as follows “My Dear Lord Bishop, as regards the housekeeper you propose to employ, all I can say, my Lord, is that she has done me for 20 years and she’ll probably do you for at least the next 15 years!”

I’m only saying what was heard, I only heard what was said, and what was said, I’m afraid, was mainly lies!

More in this section

Sponsored Content

Echo 130Echo 130

Podcast: 1000 Cork songs 
Singer/songwriter Jimmy Crowley talks to John Dolan

Listen Here

Add Echolive.ie to your home screen - easy access to Cork news, views, sport and more