Before the cattle marts took over the selling of livestock and farm produce, that important aspect of farming took place on fair days. The main street or the square of the town would become a heaving mass of people, animals, carts and stalls. The marts offered a point for disease control, and traceability that eventually became the norm. But before that, to pass through a town on a fair day was to witness rural Ireland in full flow. Fairs were busy, messy, and lively occasions, and very much looked forward to by both the shop keeping and farming communities. There was a May Fair, an August Fair and another around December 8. Not only were animals bought and sold, but friends met, couples exchanged glances; clothes and boots were bought, and glasses of porter sealed a deal.
Fair days were landmark occasions in the busy farming year, and their importance is a constant reference point in an unusual and revealing book (Two Cigarettes Coming down the Boreen ), by Pauline Bermingham Scully who recorded the stories of 39 people living in south Galway from the 1930s. *
The late Eamonn Linnane, who worked on the Tulira estate, also sold a few cattle now and again. But that is where he met his wife. She came over pretending to look at his cattle, but in fact to check him out.
More dramatically Martin Coen was promised a £1 if he would take a lively bull for an elderly farmer to see if he could sell him at the Ardrahan fair on December 8. The bull was frisky, and needed a firm hand to hold it. Martin was a strong young man, and well able to control the young bull.
The big buyer at the time was a man called Martin Ayden. He bought the bull, and asked Martin to hold on to him til he was back later. But it was December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and Martin had to go to Mass at Labane.
‘O blast to hell,’ Ayden said, ‘what go to Mass, and leave the bullock in the middle of the street to me?’
Martin said he had no choice. He had to go to Mass.
‘Lookit’, said Ayden in an amused way, and intimating that all churches were the same, advised him to ‘go down to that place down there to the Protestant church. They’ll be all the one yet’. Martin, who had never heard such talk, left him with the bull.
‘Times were tough, times were good, we were happy’ is a constant statement made as people went about their lives. There was no secondary school in the area. Most people left at 14 years of age, and either worked on the farm or took up employment whenever they could. Many emigrated. And many got up to mischief. Young Tom Hannon and his friend stole apples. He tied his long trousers at his ankles, and as he climbed the trees stored the apples down his trousers. Delighted with themselves, they hid their ill gotten gains in a barn to enjoy at their leisure. But going back into town they noticed several guards in the vicinity. Thinking they were looking for them they panicked, and spent a miserable few days expecting to be picked up at any moment.
Mary Kate Larkin remembered the old hall at Kileeneen where there were dances. ‘Two or three lads there playing the fiddle, the melodeon, dancing till 5 o’clock in the morning and the dust driven out of the floor. Oh ‘twas great, ‘twas great. We thought ‘twas great anyhow.’
Mary met her future husband at that dance. ‘He cycled me home. Men cycled miles dropping women home. Honest to God they were great. We met every Sunday and that was it’.
‘For the honeymoon we went to Limerick for two nights, that was it. We went down on the bus, and back on the bus again. I was delighted with it’.
‘That was great’
Most families were large. There were often 12 in families. Most houses had only two bedrooms, a sitting room, and a kitchen. ‘There’d be five or six I suppose in every bed. And no one took one bit of notice.’
Mary had five children, and her daughter Geraldine entered the convent. As did many girls. One consistent sadness in these stories is that nuns were so seldom allowed home again. Mary’s sister had also joined the convent when she was a young girl. But her father had died 19 years before her sister was allowed home again. Frank McHugh wept when he spoke about his sister Ann, whom he had only seen once since she joined the Sisters of Charity, and was sent to America.
Molly Murphy (nee Coen ) remembers her mother who was left a widow with seven children, the eldest was only 12 years old. ‘But she was a marvellous woman. She never complained, she managed to work indoors and outdoors, sent us to school and helped us through lessons, it’s amazing what she was able to do. She used to card wool - sheep’s wool and knit jumpers, she was great at crochet and she made lots of dresses for us. We were never short of anything. She was a great woman for gardening so we had lots of vegetables. We had a nice, happy life, we were never short of anything.
‘At Christmas we didn’t have as many toys as they have now, that’s for certain. We were delighted with a few little things, very much delighted to go to visit the neighbours the next house, there was three of four houses near us, we’d get a drop of wine or a drop of a mineral or something and a bit of sweet cake, and sure we thought that was great.’
Because the conversations were recorded, and written as the people spoke, there is a natural flow and a rhythm about the stories. The life of a community unfolds before the reader in an intimate and honest manner. A lot has changed in the past 70 years or so, and life is better now. But a lot has been lost too. A beautiful book.
NOTES: Two Cigarettes Coming down the Boreen - Oral Narratives from a South Galway Community, by Pauline Bermingham Scully, published by Arlen House, on sale at €15 . The two cigarettes refered to in the title, are the glow of cigarettes smoked by two young men approaching a house on a dark night.
The author will sign copies of her book in Easons tomorrow Friday December 19 at 5pm.