“A Star Danced And Under That Was I Born
In our brave new modern Ireland, where taboos are falling like ninepins, it will take a strong leap of the imagination to conceive of a time – not that long ago – when an august body originally calling itself the Committee on evil literature decided what the citizens of the newly independent free state could and could not read.
In the first half of the 20th century, in the townland of Garrynapeaka near picturesque Gougane Barra, about three miles west of the village of Ballingeary in West Cork, lived a quiet and harmless couple called Timothy Buckley (known to all as ‘The Tailor’ ) and his wife Anastasia (known as ‘Ansty’ ).
They had two sons Paddy and Jackie. Their simple rural lifestyle was unremarkable for the time and no different from thousands of other couples eking out an existence in wartime rural Ireland. The Tailor had been apprenticed as a tailor in his younger days hence his nickname, and had one withered leg and moved around with the aid of a walking stick. Born in 1862, he was a native of Kilgarvan in Co Kerry just over the mountains from Gougane Barra. He was the seventh son of a seventh son, although he never claimed to possess any magical powers. He had a modicum of education and was able to read and write, but his wife Ansty was completely illiterate. They lived in a small ‘two-up, two-down’ house on an acre of land in Garrynapeaka.
In those days before radio and television, their home was an ‘open house’. There was always a welcome for visitors who called in the evenings and those assembled there entertained each other with song and story, while Ansty kept them refreshed with ‘a tea or occasionally something stronger. As Eric Cross, a frequent visitor to their home, and who eventually published their stories, put it, “Ansty’s world is very limited and personal. Bantry and Macroom come within the compass of it. Cork is a strain upon her imagination. Beyond Cork lie the rest of the world, and Heaven and Hell.”
The Tailor and Ansty’s conversation was often very earthy with frequent ribald comments about sexual relations that no doubt was offensive to those of a sensitive disposition, but Cross thought their conversation was hilarious. Cork writer Frank O’Connor, in his introduction to the book, explains that this earthiness was quite normal in the Irish-speaking Ireland of previous centuries and that it was only when English became widely spoken and we became more ‘respectable’ that we became more puritanical in outlook. Ansty’s comments about her husband could be withering, though he took little notice of them. For example “Wisha! When I got up this morning, very early entirely, to let out the cow, and himself still shno-o-o-ring away in the bed like an ould pig, or a gintleman.” Or another example – “Hmph! You – sitting there with your bottom in the ashes discussing ‘feelosophy’ and the rain slashin’ in at the door!” On meeting a stranger, Ansty lost no time in establishing whether he was married and if so how many children he had.
Upon publication of the Tailor and Antsy in 1942, its contents became the occasion for a heated debate in the Irish senate. Great exception was taken to a conversation cross noted in which the Tailor related how when he “was standing to the cow” and a strange lady passed by when: “‘I declare to God didn’t she ask me if it was a bull or a cow…’ “‘A bull or a cow! Glory be! Asked if it was a bull or a cow!’ echoed Ansty “‘And she wasn’t a young woman either, and she was married by the ring on her finger…’ “‘Married – and asked “Was it a bull or a cow?”’ Ansty is stunned with amazement.” The lady’s ignorance of the animal’s gender left the Tailor aghast: “Thon amon dieul! But I swear that the world’s gone to alabastery. It’s queerer it’s getting every day. Would you believe it that there are people nowadays who don’t know wheat from barley and yet eat bread, and can’t tell the difference between a a cock and a hen and eat eggs like this one, and her – ‘Is it a cow or a bull?’ “Ansty meantime goes about her chores and returns after a few minutes saying: ‘Wisha! A married woman who didn’t know the difference between a bull and a cow! No wonder the world is queer!’”
The learned senators in Seanad Éireann became very animated about the book during a debate on the Censorship of Publications Bill in November and December 1942. War might have been raging in Europe with thousands dying daily, but the ladies and gentlemen in the Senate had weightier matters to consider. They were concerned about the morals of the Irish race and the untold damage that would be caused if this book were not banned .
Here are a few examples of the exchanges in the Senate . Mr. Kehoe: “And a finer collection of ‘smut’ than The Tailor and Ansty, I have never read. Again, I say, that anyone who reads The Tailor and Ansty will come away profoundly saddened that such filth should be imposed on an unsuspecting people,.. .If books of the type of The Tailor and Ansty are allowed to go through the country unchecked, the result will certainly be deleterious – I do not say disastrous.”
Professor Magennis: “The Tailor and Ansty, a low, vulgar, blasphemous work,.. . This sex-ridden, sex-besotted Tailor speaks of no subject whatsoever without spewing the foulness of his mind concerning sexual relations.”
So what were these foul passages that so threatened to corrupt the morals of the Irish race? Perhaps this paragraph concerning the Tailor’s observations on a film he was brought to see in the Astoria Cinema in Cork: “Very soon the hero and the heroine were engaged in a shy love scene. ‘Hould her! Hould her! You’d think by the shaping of her that she did not like it, but I tell you that they are all that way in the beginning. It is a way they have of letting on that they don’t like it, when all the time they like it as a donkey likes strawberries.’ “The hero disappointed the Tailor. He was altogether too shy and diffident, and the Tailor lost patience with him.
‘Thon amon dieul! Man, if I was 20 years younger, I’d come up there and give you lessons.’”
Ten thousand wives
Then again perhaps the Tailor’s musings about King Solomon and his ten thousand wives offended the sensibilities of the learned senators. Ansty retorts: “‘Ten thousand wives! Hould you ould divil! It’s your beads you ought to be telling instead of your jokes. “‘I’ve reckoned it up, and no matter how frolicsome a man might be it would take him nearly on thirty years of nights, without having any holiday at all, to get his conjugal rights from the lot of them.’ Continued next page
“‘Thirty years of nights? Without a holiday? Glory be!’ Ansty ponders, bewildered by the powers of reckoning. ‘Thirty years of nights, and he a king? ... .King!’ she spits with contempt. ‘King, am bostha! That wasn’t a king. He must have been an ould tomcat!’”
Not only was the book banned but, the assembled arbitors of Irish morality even succeeded in having the quotations from the book struck from the official record of the house in case they were used by pornographers.
As Frank O’Connor said in the introduction: “And that prize collection of half-wits ordered the quotations to be struck from the record. It wasn’t until 1963 that the matter was reconsidered, and a revamped Censorship Appeals Board discovered that the book was not obscene at all. . The book Cross published is now regarded as one of the classics of modern Irish literature, especially since it was turned into a play starring the great Eamonn Kelly as the Tailor.
But by then both the Tailor, who died in 1945 and Ansty, who died two years later, were buried in the graveyard at Gougane Barra, under a stone designed by their friend Seamus Murphy, the well-known sculptor and writer. Frank O’Connor wrote the short epitaph that adorns the stone - A Star Danced And Under That Was I Born.
*Eric Cross (1905 – 1980 ) was an Irish writer, born in Newry, County Down, who published the bones of what was to become The Tailor and Antsy, in The Bell in 1942. .
It was a collection of stories and sayings from an old country tailor called Timothy Buckley and his wife Anastasia that Cross had recorded. A frequent visitor to their home during the war years he lived in a caravan in nearby Gougane Barra. Cross was one of the contributors of spoken essays to the RTÉ Radio series Sunday Miscellany. Silence is Golden, a selection of stories and essays by Eric Cross, appeared in 1978. He died in 1980.