“Well, in one of them houses when I was small lived an O’Connor man, we used to call him ‘Lead (as in bullets) Pat Arse O’Connor’ ’cause he had a kind of a foundry there.
“He was able to fix and repair lead and tin saucepans and buckets and vessels. He had a caravan alongside the house. One of his daughters was doing a line with **** ***** nearby for a while. They stayed for six or eight months and then moved on somewhere else.”
That’s an excerpt from notes I took down many years ago from an old parishioner, Paddy Murphy. He was recalling the 1930s in this area.
Looking through all the bits and pieces he gave me, I was thinking about loneliness and isolation in rural Ireland then and now.
Around this time of the year in 2008, I spent a week in Ethiopia and my most abiding memory of that time was the countryside teeming with people. Everywhere you looked, on hills, valleys, roads — everywhere, people were to seen. Walking cross-country for water, for firewood, with animals, with children — the countryside was alive with people.
I imagine that even 90 or 100 years ago ‘twas a bit like that here too. Cars weren’t heard of so walking and cycling were the main, indeed, only means of transport. People met each other, stopped to talk to each other and the words ‘hurry’ and ‘rush’ hadn’t yet been invented!
Strange thing is, there are more people living now in many rural areas than heretofore but you don’t see or meet ‘em as much.
Paddy Murphy was born in 1920 and died two years ago. He lived through historic and tumultuous times — War of Independence, Civil War, Economic War and the Second World War. I used to love talking to him as he, unlike me, knew both my father and grandfather well.
My grandfather died in 1951 and the day of his funeral in August of that year, Paddy recalled going down to ‘Mrs Dick’ in Ballinakilla about a reap and binder. Ellie Mc Auliffe was of the family in Bartlemy that had the rights to collect the tolls at both September Fairs in Bartlemy — a nice ‘alternative income’.
In 1909, a neighbour and relation of mine, Richard ‘Dick’ Arnold married in to Ballinakilla ‘a cliamhain isteach’ as they say, he married young Ellie. Dick Arnold died at a young age in 1927 and his widow ‘til she died nearly 40 years later was known only as ‘Mrs Dick’!
Talking of the Fairs, people used the Fair Days each September as kind of ‘calendars’, Paddy told me people would remember births, deaths and marriages as happening so many days or weeks or months before or after the first or second Fair.
Established in the 1600s or 1700s, the local Fairs were social milestones in people’s simple lives. Though the Fair would always start early in the day one local man claimed he’d never miss attending, despite whatever amount of work he had to do.
Bill’ Dandy’ Barry used to say that one September morning in 1920 ‘he had two acres of oats cut with a scythe before he set off for the Fair’ — and they said ‘twould be a mighty man that would knock an acre of oats in a day! Then again, I suppose tall tales and exaggeration were the ‘social media’ of the times!
An old man told me one time about a mare running in a race here in Bartlemy. She was winning by the proverbial mile; well, just as she was coming to the finishing post didn’t she throw herself down the ground and the jockey hopped off. The mare in a flash gave birth to a foal, up jumped both mare and jockey and won the race! What’s more, he told me, wasn’t that mare back pulling a plough the following day!
I remember myself, as a schoolboy in the 1970s, being above at Pad Roche’s house in the village one night waiting for a funeral to come from Cork Airport to the Church. The flight was late and the funeral was late and Pad recalled a wake he attended half a century or more before, where prayers were scarce, drink plentiful and ‘stories’ abounded.
Mourners, he said, tried to outdo each other with tales of ghosts, huge dogs, giant vegetables and other matters that would have easily got into any Guinness Book of Records if such had then existed.
Looking through the notes from Paddy Murphy, he was great to recall such and such a fella ‘doing a line’ with such a girl and why ‘twas broken off. Sometimes ‘twas money or land or lack of either and more times things that looked great by moonlight above under the ‘big Ash Tree’ took on a different complexion when the sun came up over the horizon!
Ninety years ago, road bowling -with no tar on the roads, was popular around here. “Johnny Smeltzer from Mountain Lodge was a mighty bowler,” Paddy recalled as he spoke of horse and dog racing, and of course local sports meeting were very popular. “And,” he added, “there’d always be a fight over the tug-o-war”, with someone claiming the others were lying on the rope or, if they were near a ditch, had it tied to a tree!
He recalled the pace of life was slower, easier, and everyone seemed content with as little or as much as they had. I can recall even 50 years ago how we ‘shared’ machinery. The potato digger we had was a ‘joint venture’ between the Arnolds and Barrys of Ballard. Similarly, the land-roller was owned by ourselves and the Barrys of Ballyda.
About ten years ago, Paddy asked me about the old reaper and binder we had at home. I told him we still have it, outside in the Kitchen Garden now with years, rusting away and overgrown by nettles. He knew when my grandfather bought it, where, and how much he paid for it — back around 1937, I think.
He remembered the crowds at Mass every Sunday and a time when the village had two pubs and three shops and, when a Mission would come, woe betide any able-bodied Catholic who was absent! Imagine crowds crossing fields —like in Ethiopia, on their way and from school in their bare feet. Children this time of the year picking apples and blackberries on the way home or maybe picking and eating a turnip from a drill in a field. Back then there was little talk of hygiene or health and safety, but sure, where’s there muck there’s luck and dirt never killed anyone.
I laugh when I think of Johnny and Jerry Roche, who died in the ’70s. They had a shop way back in the ’20s and ’30s. There was bread on the table and they spotted a mouse nibbling at a loaf. Up the boys crept silently — bang, wallop and Jerry sandwiched the mouse dead ‘tween the loaves. The entrails were scraped off and a few minutes later a knock on the door. “Ah yes, Pad, we have the two fresh loaves of Simcox’s bread here for you, that’s right, tuppence a loaf.”
Many travellers of different kinds were regular visitors long ago. I suppose the ‘foundry’ Paddy talked about was some kind of device whereby he was able to melt down lead, and brass and metal and then do repairs with the molten material.
When I was very small, Dan Driscoll used call. He was from East Cork and called every year with his wife Nellie, or ‘Curly’ Nellie as we called her. Dan was an old fashioned, gifted tin-smith.
My mother would have buckets without rims or handles broken or missing and with a few basic tools Dan would make them like new. While he’d be doing his work, Nellie might come in for tea and give Mam Holy Pictures or small rosary beads.
Nellie had mop of black curly hair and was always asking Mam if ‘she could take the small foxy boy away’ with her!
Pad Fitzgerald used to call also on his bicycle. He’d buy the old hens and take them somewhere — we knew not where. Woods Van and the Mother’s Pride van called every week. We had a mixed farm than so setting and spraying and cutting corn, harvesting beet, dipping sheep and rearing pigs all meant different people calling — working, selling and buying. Everyone had time for a chat and the work still got done.