Of Dalliance and Celebrities
"The girls will bring their work and sing beneath a twisted thorn,
Montague and Allingham, each in his generation, deal gently with young love. I'll tell you
about that poetic corn.
Or stray with sweethearts down the path among the growing corn."
Growing up, attending school in Ballyshannon in the 1930s, we had apartheid of the sexes.
The girls went to the Sisters of Mercy convent school, the boys to the De La Salle
Brothers' school on the Rock.
'Twas the same on Sundays at Mass. Males sat on the right side of the chapel, females on
the left. Married women might sit with their husbands, but many remained with their sisters
on the left. Of course, when viewed from the Lord's point of view from behind the altar
rail, the women were on His right, and the men on His left. Which would you rather choose?
Myself, I think the women had the better of it. But, right or left, Convent or Brothers'
school, we youngsters had one heck of a time trying to demistify the difference in the
Biology was a word in the dictionary, and not everybody owned a dictionary. The subject was
never once mentioned in a classroom.
Botany had something to do with flowers, and was for girls. What boy would be sissy enough
to bother about the colour or the shape or the scent of petals on a dandelion? You knew
pollen made you sneeze, and if you were an omadhaun you went and whacked the heads off
dandelions till you almost sneezed your own head off.
Sex was never mentioned. Gender was what applied to nouns in the Irish language. But,
living in a small town surrounded by country, there was no mystery about animal copulation.
Two dogs on the street might have to be separated with a pail of water. Taking a mare to a
stallion and a cow to a bull were normal activities in the countryside. Cocks and hens did
it. But what did humans do? One evening we found out.
About ten or twelve of us were playing football in Erne Park, above Cassidy's on the
Belleek road, on the way to "Camlin groves". It was a beautiful summer's day that lingered
beyond eight or nine o'clock, well past our usual time for going home.
One of us suddenly spotted two figures away up on the brow of the hill where the road
reached its highest point before winding down to Camlin gates. A courting couple lay close
together behind a stone wall, their bicycles beside them, oblivious to the world, the world
consisting of ten pairs of eyes drawing closer and closer, and glued to their every
Then, disaster! Somebody sneezed. The dandelions had struck again!
The poor girl gave a yelp, the young man pulled away, and with a ferocious curse, "I'll
lave the skin of your backsides tripping you with kicks", he started after us.
And he would have, too. But first he had to cover up his own rump, and while he futtered
and foozled with his galluses, hopping mad from one foot to the other, pulling his trousers
up and trying to run at the same time, we got away.
Our education was almost complete. Now we knew how animals did it, and, God forgive me, how
Protestants did it, because that's what the young couple were, but what did Catholics do?
Again to avoid asymmetry I should tell you we did have one husband who "dug with the same
foot" as most of us, that is, he was a Catholic, who fancied himself a gay Lothario,
somewhat a contradiction in terms in the 1990s, what you might call an unconscious Irish
bull. His behaviour, like T. S. Elliott's mice, "was not good, and his manners not nice",
but that did not stop him running up a string of conquests, each one more audacious than
The good women of the town had a lot of sympathy for his long-suffering wife. Was she fully
conscious of what was going on, and, if not, how would she react when she found out?
Came the day of your man's last public flouting of the conventions. His latest young miss
was just that wee bit too brazen. For her daily outing she took to strolling past his house
with a proprietorial air, just like a peacock flaunting its feathers.
Was the wife conscious of this? You bet! She had it timed to the split second. A computer
couldn't do it better.
On a warm Monday afternoon along came the young rival, clickety clack, clickety clack, high
heels slapping on the pavement. Up went a bedroom window, out came an arm with a chamber
pot at the end, and down came the contents, solids and all, ruining a perfectly good
shampoo and set, and drenching blouse, skirt, and the young hussy to boot.
The story was told, and retold, over tea that evening, by every good wife in town, with
relish, and an obvious message in tone and inflection for their individual husbands. Women
had their own way of laying down the law, and a very effective way it was too.
The award for the best line of the lot went to one wiseacre witness who cracked, "I tell
you, boys, there was no sham about thon poo! It was the real McCoy!"
"Adieu to evening dances, where merry neighbours meet,
And the fiddle says to boys and girls "get up and shake your feet!"
Ballyshannon, for the size of it, produced a number of young people who won renown for
their home town in two fields, step-dancing and track.
Mae Gillespie, daughter of Johnny and Mrs. Gillespie of the Market Yard, became an
all-Ireland champion step-dancer, and went on to found the Gillespie School of Dancing,
whose pupils won prizes at Feiseanna for years and years.
If memory serves correctly, she herself was a pupil of Mr. McDonagh, the music and dancing
master who lived on the Rock.
Her father was the local rate collector for years and years, and knew every man, woman,
and their parents, in two baronies. He was a thoughtful man, not given to hasty actions,
or to harsh actions if they could at all be avoided. If someone beset with temporary
difficulty needed a little time to come up with the rate money, he always had the one
stock reply, "I'll consider it", and with the passage of years earned the nickname
In after years I spent hours listening to that man talk, sitting down in the old
"Vindicator" office in the Purt, and it was during those hours I learned the art of
patience. Everybody has a story to tell, and he had hundreds. No matter what urgency
might be wanting attention, a poster to print or a leader to write, he was never cut
short, and somewhere along the way others like Johnny discovered a receptive listener.
Marshie Deacon was also one who loved to sit and chat and, although forty years separated
us in age, my undivided attention to their yarns created a rapport that seemed to draw out
more and more stories of their days and their times.
Johnny was a Peace Commissioner too, and mixed up among other personal papers is a copy of
my mother's birth certificate, certified by Johnny in his official capacity. He was proud
of his daughter's great talent, and rightly so.
Paul Dolan was our other great achiever, although his best years came after leaving town
for Dublin. From the time he was only a slip of a lad, slender, and all legs, Paul Dolan
could run. Whether in the school field up around the Brothers' school on the Rock, or
later at St. Eunan's College annual sports days in Letterkenny, Paul could out-run us
A racehorse at full gallop is poetry in motion; Paul Dolan in full stride was like a bird
in flight, his feet barely touching the ground. That speed and that grace earned him his
name, "Cosa", which in Irish means "feet", flying feet that were later to represent Ireland
at international competitions.
By then he was living in Dublin, and was one of the first Irish runners encouraged by
Morton, the Dublin optician who laid the groundwork for putting Ireland on the
international track and field map. Ron Delaney and Eamon Coughlan won greater acclaim,
although Penn State claimed the former, but Cosa's feet, in Cosa's time could, in this
Donegal man's view, leave them both standing.
Another schoolboy friend who made his mark in step-dancing was C. C. Maguire, son of
Connie Maguire, the chemist in the Purt, who, when his dancing days were done, followed
his father into the profession as owner of Maguire's Pharmacy on Main Street, the family
home having been destroyed by fire quite some years ago.
Mae Gillespie, Paul Dolan, and C. C. Maguire had magic in their feet that touched the
hearts of all who saw them.
Marshie Deacon's name has crept in, and is always associated in my mind with what I call
"Marshie's Lament". Marshie was a house painter, and a sign painter, and did good work. He
had a cast in one eye, but with the other he could transfix you. In other words, he looked
directly at you whenever he was talking, and what he said was always a direct truth. He,
too, wore a cap. When we became friends he was in his sixties, and he had to take his time
climbing up and down ladders when plying his trade.
A slow spoken, quiet speaking man, he loved to reminisce about his youth. He was a
bachelor, but you always got the impression he had been a fast-moving bachelor in his day.
Indeed he had, because the one great lament of his later years was the loss of his
motor-bike. It had been his pride and joy, and roaming out to Bundoran, with a lassie on
the pillion or in the side-car, was what he missed most.
"Do you know what I miss most?" he would ask, and I knew he was off again. "If only I had
the old Norton back, but with a speed regulator so it wouldn't go more than 35 miles an
hour. I couldn't handle it no more flat out." That was Marshie's Lament.
He was otherwise unflappable in his talk. Except for once. That was the day Dad got on a
ladder and painted a new sign over the front office windows, in old-time Gothic, in white
with slim green shading, The Donegal Vindicator, estd. 1889. It was a work of art. That
evening Marshie walked down to the Purt and stood across the street examining it. And even
Marshie had to concede that it was good, so good that he never once mentioned it in
conversation. His eloquent silence would have been appreciated by Michelangelo himself.
"No more on pleasant evening we'll saunter down the Mall,
When the trout is rising to the fly, the salmon to the fall."
The walk down to the handball alley lay along the Mall. Willie Allingham had lived on the
Mall, and the two Miss Allinghams who occupied the Allingham house in the first half of the
twentieth century were gentle folk, quiet, unassuming, reflecting the reserve that marked
much of their poet ancestor's work, Wordsworth's "emotion recollected in tranquility".
The Mall also led down to "the green-hilled harbour" which at one time was all a-bustle
with sailing ships, queueing to dock at the single pier with its narrow, dredged channel.
The little island of Inis Saimer lies a stone's throw from the pier.
At one side a concrete dancing platform had been laid down by civic-minded citizens hoping
to revive the open-air dances and ceilidhes of earlier generations. A walled coalyard
detracted somewhat from the general atmosphere of serenity, intruding a commercial note,
although muted, and silent for most of the year.
At the other side of the coalyard was the bay behind which lay the handball alley, a rocky
little bay, bare at low tide, carrying in its very stones the scent of dead weed, a sense
of decay, relieved only when rising tides crept in to cover all with smooth lapping water.
For young boys the bay had a special attraction, and an eerie one at that. Scrambling
across the slippery stones at low tide, they were drawn irresistibly to a hole in the
cliff, a man-made hole, hacked, blasted, and crowbarred out of the solid rock, the
entrance to a long abandoned copper mine. The mine shaft led directly into the hill, and
its floor was rocky and damp. Each tide washed over it, and each ebbing tide left it dank,
and clammy, and cold.
Years previously a barrier of iron bars had been put up between floor and ceiling to
prevent the foolhardy from trespassing into the darkness beyond. But what young boy,
intent on an exploration of discovery, was ever stopped by iron bars? With a squiggle, a
jiggle, a wriggle, and one last squeeze, you ended up looking out through those same iron
bars instead of in through them. And then--well, really nothing.
The copper miners must have lost the vein of ore, or their financing ran out. The end of
the tunnel marked the end of their endeavours, and they had to retreat, as did little boys
for ages afterwards. But that first time in, that quiver of excitement, that sense of
anticipation, that courage to overcome "I dare you"--whoever will forget it who made the
journey beyond the iron bars and lived to tell the tale? Indiana Jones, eat your heart
In addition to the two Miss Allinghams and E. P. Condon, God rest his tortured soul, the
Mall was also home to Jim White, a one-man dynamo, a businessman's businessman, and a
kindly one for all that. He was a smallish man, dark eyed, prematurely balding, in his
forties, and seemingly in perpetual motion from morning to night. His step was quick, and
his mind razor sharp. He owned the bakery on the Mall, and White's general provisioners,
also on the Mall. He had a young family, and he doted on them.
From his house to the bakery, from the bakery to the store, and from the store to his
house, stopping only for Church on Sundays, his mind was ever in a whirl. He oversaw good
labour relations, balance sheets, and the myriad minutiae of commercial enterprise,
without neglecting family and civic duties, until every minute of every hour was filled
with sixty seconds of activity.
Then, one day, his heart stopped, and three days later he became the richest man in the
I liked him. He was kind to children, and children remember kindness.
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