Of Books and Libraries, the Mailman and the Breadman
Books are peculiar things. You either like them, or you don't. If the latter, you can
still make a living from them as a critic. If the former, you have probably grown up with
them. A house without books in it is a strange place indeed.
In a country such as Ireland which had a one hundred per cent literacy rate, rare and poor
was the house that didn't possess at least one shelf that carried a few prized volumes. But
in Ballyshannon, for all that it boasted of having two weekly newspapers, there was, in the
1930s, no public library. Subscription libraries, yes, but the County Council had not seen
fit to spend ratepayers' money on a branch public library, no matter how small.
Mrs. Croal, the newsagent on Main Street, had the first subscription library in town.
Patrons paid so much per book per week for borrowing privileges, and during a period when
nobody had money to throw around everyone made sure they finished their reading in time to
avoid the extra cost of an overdue fine.
For years my pocket money was sixpence a week, and thruppence of that went to Mrs. Croal, or
her son Patsy, for that week's book. That left a penny for the Sunday collection at Mass,
with tuppence left over, creating a deficit of another tuppence if I wanted to go to the
Rock Cinema for the Sunday matinee.
In its own way, Mrs. Croal's subscription library provided a life-time benefit. One read
fast to avoid paying the overdue fine or, worse, having to return the book without
finishing it and never knowing the ending of the story.
The first book I took out had three hundred and fifty pages--the title long forgotten--and
at ten or eleven years of age I had to read long into the night, by shrouded candle light,
when the rest of the household had gone to sleep, in order to finish it by the following
Saturday. I did, and was so proud of my accomplishment. As a spur to speed-reading there
was nothing to match the dreaded overdue fine.
The Croals on Main Street were a branch of our next-door neighbour Croals. Patsy, who
devoted a lifetime to his widowed mother, was to bring much fame to his hometown as
producer of The Ballyshannon Players, winners of many drama festival awards in both
three-act and one-act categories.
Patsy had a fine baritone voice. His singing of a Stephen Foster melody at an early concert
lives in gentle, soft refrain in memory's ear. He succeeded magnificently as producer for
the Players, and the name P. J. Croal on any playbill or program was a guarantee of a
well-staged performance. One memorable highlight was his prize-winning entry of Lady
Gregory's "Spreading the News" at the Bundoran Drama Festival, adjudicator Tomas MacAnna, a
production that, with speed of movement, captured the whole essence of the rapidity with
which rumour in a small community is converted into accepted gospel, with hilarious
It was in Mrs. Croal's library that I first discovered Zane Grey, P. G. Wodehouse, the
"William" books, and had freedom to indulge in an early passion for detective stories and
words in general.
Later, another subscription library was opened in our own street, the Purt, by Mrs. Rogers,
the mother of Frank, whom the reader has already met. And, free enterprise being what it
is, and was, to my great joy the cost there was only tuppence per book per week. A
reduction of thirty-three and one-third per cent in weekly expenditure on reading was not
to be overlooked, and my patronage was soon transferred.
Mrs. Rogers had three daughters, Lucy, Gretta, and Patti, and also cared for two young
relatives, Dennis Lee and his sister Peggy. Her husband was curate in Breslin's pub, and
she herself kept lodgers and served lunches to noontime guests. Her cooking was superb.
Coming up to Christmastime she and her daughters filled their kitchen with the delicious
smell of home-baked cakes, a whole table full of them, and all of them having to be
decorated with almond icing, white icing, red berries, green holly, and wavy round
ribbons, all made of coloured icing squeezed through special holders that required
considerable pressure to operate, and a delicate touch to execute in freehand. Privileged
visitors, of whom I was lucky to be one, were invited to participate, to add at least one
twirl or swirl to the intricate decoration. For a small boy it was a supreme test to force
the icing from its tin tunnel and not spoil the design when doing it. Afterwards, of
course, there were spoons and bowls, with various left-over slatherings of icing on them,
to be washed up, and what better way to wash them than to have a small boy first lick them
Is it Mrs. Rogers's library or her Christmas cakes I remember best? If you have ever been a
small boy, you know the answer without being told.
In later years Paddy O'Neill, Frank's nephew, opened a newsagent's shop at the Bridge End
and he, too, ran a subscription library, but that was in another era outside the ambit of
What does flow from within its ambit is the Irish entrancement with words, noted with
supreme insouciance by a columnist in "The Irish Times" who was later to win world
recognition as Myles na gCopaleen, Flann O'Brien, and Brian O'Nuallain, all three being one
and the same man. His three-month old column of January 11, 1941, contrasted the
Irish-speaking peasant's--his description--use of 4,000 words with a mere 400 attributed to
an English-speaking person, as follows:
"The plight of the English speaker with his wretched box of 400 vocal heads may be imagined
when I say that a really good Irish speaker could blurt out the whole 400 in one cosmic
grunt. In Donegal there are native speakers who know so many million words that it is a
matter of pride with them never to use the same word twice in a lifetime. Their life
(not to say their language) becomes very complex at the century mark; but there you are".
Myles himself never reached the century mark, not did he need to. Five decades onwards his
humour and his own delight in words are as fresh as when they first appeared in treasured
clippings of his newspaper column, preserved courtesy of an old friend and fellow exile,
the late Lorcán Ó hUiginn, ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.
As to the accuracy of his observation, O'Nuallain knew whereof he wrote, he himself having
the Irish and the blas.
If supporting evidence be required it can be found in the obituary of Red Hugh O'Donnell,
who died at Siamancas, two leagues from Valledolid, in Spain, in 1602, see pages 2297-2298
of the "Annals of the Four Masters", where one eulogic sentence contains 298 words,
including four lines of poetry, veritably a cosmic grunt, and it not the longest to be
found in that treasured work.
There is one incident that, however far removed in time and distance from my childhood
years on the banks of the Erne, merits inclusion in this volume. It began in an apartment
block on the banks of the Rideau River in Ottawa, the capital of Canada, in 1991.
On October 14 of that year the notion took me--the construction is Irish--to find out the
earliest written reference to the Falls of Assaroe. What better source, if available, than
O'Donovan's translation of "Annála Rioghachta Éireann", and what better place to begin
looking for it in than the National Library of Canada, two miles to the west, on Wellington
Street, on the banks of the Ottawa River? The National Library of Canada did have the work
I sought, and my heart soared like a hawk as I eagerly began my search, only to be stymied
at the very beginning of its manifold pages.
The title page I give in full:
The Kingdom of Ireland
By the Four Masters
The Earliest Period to the year 1171
Edited from Mss. in the Library
of the Royal Irish Academy and
of Trinity College, Dublin,
with a translation and copious notes
By JOHN O'DONOVAN, Esq. M.R.I.A.
Barrister at Law
The volume had stood in library stacks, unopened, uncut, unread, for all of the intervening
142 years. At some stage throughout an unverifiable provenance its original binding had
been replaced with a serviceable and inelegant cover, but not even in the rebinding had
anyone cut any of its pages. Nor did I. It now reposes, thanks to Linda Hoad, in the Rare
Book Division of the library. Some believe it may have been one of the books whose covers
were damaged in the Great Fire of 1916 that burned down the House of Commons in Ottawa.
"An brathair bocht", poor Brother Michael O'Clery, chief of the Four Masters, transcribed
much of his material at Drowes, a river two miles west of Bundoran, beginning on January
22, 1632, and ending on Sunday, August 10, 1636, just over four and a half years later. The
Drowes, the Erne, the Rideau and the Ottawa, four rivers, one story, and it not
The subscription libraries run by Mrs. Croal and Mrs. Rogers in those far off days are
still producing results in strange and wonderful ways.
Another newsagent's shop on Main Street was Miss Sweeney's, just a hop, step and a jump
across an intersection above Croal's. Miss Sweeney ran an eclectic establishment, the
closest parallel being a North American drug store. You could buy almost anything in it,
never mind newspapers and magazines. Mother delighted in retelling the story of the fair
day she was in it when a lady from the country came bustling in, "I'm in a rush, Miss
Sweeney. I want a mouse trap. I've got to catch a bus in five minutes!"
Zane Grey's westerns bring back memories of Ballyshannon's version of the Pony Express.
Twice daily postal delivery, once on Saturdays, was part and parcel of everyday life. As
regular as clockwork, Red Mac, the postman, otherwise Mr. McIntyre of Ballinacarrick, made
his rounds of the Purt, the Rock, the Little Rock, and out by Portnasun--surely he didn't
cover the whole town!--morning and afternoon. The only variant was Saturday when delivery
took place at noon.
Mathematicians and statisticians, not always mutually inclusive, have calculated the miles
walked by various mailmen in the course of their working lives. Red Mac must be in the
front rank of those so numbered because, not only did he have to cover his route in town,
to get to work he had to walk two and a half miles or more from his home up in the townland
of Ballinacarick, to the post office, and back again after his work was finished in the
He had well earned his name. In addition to his red hair, the wind, the rain, the sun, and
the sheer exertion of his work marked his face with a permanent reddish tinge. He also
spent every spare hour outdoors tending to a large vegetable garden. It would be hard to
find a harder working individual than Mr. McIntyre, the postman. He had a quick pace to his
walk, and the loads he had to carry coming up to Christmas were prodigious.
But, sharp and quick as Red Mac was, there was none faster or quicker than Johnny McGuiness
and his horse-drawn postal dray. Whereas Red Mac always gave the impression of middle age,
Johnny was a young man, a happy-go-lucky character, with a laugh or a smile, a quip or a
joke, and a dash that was all his own. It was Johnny's job to collect the mail twice a day
from the G.N.R. railway station, which you should know by now was up past Neely's Lane, and
deliver it to the post office run by Mr. Gilmour, the ever-courteous postmaster, at the
corner of Castle Street and College Lane.
The flat, open dray was a light contraption, and the horse was a young animal. Johnny,
sitting on the dray with his legs dangling over the front, reins in hand, going up to the
station was sedateness itself. Clip clop, clip clop, at a trotting gait, Johnny and dray,
sure and steady, always reached the station well in time for the train's arrival.
But once the train came in and the mailbags were tossed onto the platform, what a
transformation took place.
Into action went Johnny. The bags were whisked onto the dray, and with a crack of his whip
he would be off to deliver his precious cargo.
From the station to the junction with the Belleek road the pace was fast. Then came the
slope down past Neely's demesne to the start of the Purt. The pace became faster. By the
time Johnny and dray hit the Purt, Ben Hur couldn't catch them.
With a ferocious clatter of hooves, sparks flying from the iron-rimmed wheels, Johnny as
often as not standing upright, feet spread to give him balance, would sweep down the Purt,
swerve onto the bridge, and climb half way up Castle Street before steepness of hill took
its toll and the horse stopped, with sides heaving, by the side door to the post office.
Johnny had a rapport with that horse. They were both young. They loved a fast gallop. Not
once did they fail to make sure the mail got through, and not once were they nicked by
stage robber's bullet or Indian arrow.
Then came the sorting of the mail, then came Red Mac, and that was how we enjoyed twice
daily mail delivery for years, and years, and years.
John James Lawn's was a horse of a different colour, a big dun with a soft look in its eye,
the patience of Job, and the strength to pull a much heavier van than the mailbag dray.
John James was the breadman. He worked for Jim White, who owned the Mall bakery, and he too
had his daily route, delivering bread to all the grocery shops, in town and out of it.
The bread van was a much more elaborate structure than the dray. Its back doors opened to
reveal long wooden trays resting on slats that stretched the length of each side of the
van. Loaves of freshly baked bread, pan loaves, plain loaves, Vienna turnovers, farrels,
white bread, brown bread, pastries, white iced buns, glazed and sticky and loaded with
sugar, lay on the trays which John James would pull out for inspection by his customers.
He was a big man, getting on in years, and he had the same patience as his horse. He had a
big man's voice, a Wallace Beery voice, gravelly and kind. "Take your time, M'am, make sure
of your choice". And the horse would stand still as a statue while the choice was made,
delivered to the shop counter, and paid for on the spot.
John James carried a great big leather satchel, always jangling with coins, into which he
put the money paid and out of which he took the pennies and shillings for change. Maybe
that was one of the secrets of Jim White's success, and it only dawns on me fifty years
later. Cash on the barrelhead and no waiting for accounts due could make an awful
difference to a balance sheet.
The horse and John James had been together so many years that often, by the time John
James came back out on the street, the van had moved on, and the horse was standing at
the next customer's premises waiting for him to catch up. That was all right if the
distance was short, but if John James had to walk half the length of the street to catch
up, he would give the big dun a bawling out. The horse would look him straight in the eye
and, when he was finished, give one toss of its head as much as to say, "You're as well
raving there as in your bed!"
John James always had a remedy for such shennanigans. At the next stop he would fasten a
feedbag around the horse's head and leave it munching quietly, certain in the knowledge
that it wouldn't move on again until the bag was removed.
With twice a day home mail delivery, and once a day bread delivery, thanks to shank's mare
and genuine horse power, we enjoyed a level of service in those halcyon days that our
children and grandchildren can only envy today.
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