More of the Street with Seven Pubs
"The kindly spot, the friendly town, where everyone is known,
Next door to Tommy O'Donnell's shop was Maguire's, the chemist. Connie Maguire was a slim
man, grey haired, a perpetually aged fiftyish looking man, with a perpetual hacking
cigarette cough that sometimes left him gasping for breath.
And not a face in all the place but partly seems my own"
In those days everyone smoked, or snuffed, the latter normally being practised by the
women. A pinch of snuff held delicately between thumb and middle finger, and sniffed
alternatively through left and right nostril, seemed to give them much comfort, and if that
was a bad habit it was a small one and hurt only themselves.
Smoking was another matter. That lung cancer was caused by cigarette smoke was unknown or,
if known, was never publicised. Woodbines, Gold Flake, Players Medium, and Craven A were
the popular brands. Woodbines were the cheapest, and could be bought for mere pennies in
packets holding as few as five. They were what most schoolboys experimented with before
graduating to more costly brands.
Cigarette smokers predominated, but there was also a fair share of pipe smokers to be
found. One of the most popular brands of tobacco was Mick McQuaid, which came in plugs that
had to be sliced by penknife and rolled in the palm of the hand before being inserted in the
bowl of the pipe. The pipe itself could be anything from a "dudeen", a cheap, white clay
pipe, the stem of which was easily broken, to Petersen's Plum pipes that only rich, or what
passed for rich people, could afford. Connie Maguire, however, was and remained a cigarette
Being a chemist in a small town was a reputable and demanding profession. In addition to
selling the usual run of patent medicines and making up doctors' prescriptions, in the
absence of a vet, an animal doctor, the chemist was also consulted by farmers whose
livestock fell ill. When someone in our street suffered an accident, a gashed hand, a
badly bruised leg, it was to the chemist's shop they went, and Connie would bathe, clean,
disinfect, and bandage the wound.
When one of our cats was savaged by a dog and suffered a broken back, naturally it was to
Mr. Maguire I turned for advice on how to put it out of its misery, and it was he who
supplied the chloroform and instructions on how to use it.
A white line on my left wrist is a daily reminder of Connie Maguire's care in dressing a
rather severe slash from a wood chisel, and is also a reminder that I was the most inept,
completely hopeless, absolutely unteachable student that Mr. Stewart, the woodworking
instructor in the Ballyshannon Technical School, ever had in a night class. I lasted two
nights, a record which may still stand.
Connie Maguire's lasting claim to fame lay in his cough bottle. There was, of course, the
normal range of patent medicines available to treat the normal range of coughs and colds,
flu, and bronchial conditions that regularly accompanied the onslaught of winter and the
exceptionally cold spells that might be encountered in spring or early autumn. But when
none of these proved effective there was only one sure and certain remedy--to ask Connie
for "a cough bottle". If it wasn't a busy day, he would step into the back of his premises
from whence he would emerge, ten minutes later, with a clear glass bottle containing a dark
mysterious liquid of his own blending, with appropriate instructions on when and how much
to take of the stuff.
Never, not once, was a cold or a cough, no matter how severe, known not to be cured by
Connie's cough bottle. In the sometimes damp climate of a Donegal town, situated only four
miles from the open Atlantic, next parish Newfoundland, that cough bottle was a lifesaver
and life preserver, and it cost only two shillings.
A son and daughter followed him into the profession, and there may be grandchildren in it
now. Whether the secret of his concoction lives on, I simply do not know.
Reference to Connie Maguire triggers another memory, perhaps chemically, to McClelland,
the other chemist in town, a bald-headed, abrupt, brusque, no nonsense type of individual,
who had his shop over the bridge on the north side of town, at the point of the triangle
severing Castle Street from Main Street. His no nonsense approach to customers was limned
in the oft-quoted catch phrase, "Come in, come on; have you got a bottle? If not, call back
tomorrow." No doubt he was a kindly man, but his public persona struck something akin to
terror in the hearts of youngsters who had occasion to be his clients, having been brought
to him by their parents. For McClelland, in addition to being a chemist, was the town
dentist. The sound of his old fashioned drill still causes grown men to shudder at the
recollection of it.
When Mr. McClelland said, "Open your mouth", you opened it, and if a tooth had to come out,
out it came. But, with all that, or despite all that, he had surprisingly gentle hands, and
when treating older patients he would, on occasion, massage a rotten tooth from its
moorings using only his bare fingers.
Mr. Maguire and Mr. McClelland were an indispensable part of our lives, and we were
privileged to be served by them. Helen Maguire, Connie's younger daughter, was a particular
friend to the sick and the elderly. When my own mother lay dying in the Rock Hospital, she
gave her a little bedside alarm clock that ticked away her final hours. It doesn't tick any
more, but it remains one of my most cherished possessions. The fact that she once thought I
could write also remains a precious memory.
Our street, East Port, contained roughly seventy houses, among them seven pubs. There was
Ferguson's at the Bridge End, Breslin's, where Mr. Rogers, Frank's father, presided as
curate-- it was later bought by Mick Melly--O'Neill's, McCarvill's, Flanagan's, Meehan's,
and one at the end adjacent to Neely's Brook. At about the time of the construction of the
Erne Scheme, the hydro-electric project which dammed the Erne and left "the Sixteen Arches",
the bridge linking the Purt to the rest of the town, standing on dry ground, something like
a transplanted London Bridge rebuilt in an American desert, an eighth pub was opened.
By comparison the West Port was almost as dry as the self- same desert, containing just two
premises "licensed for the sale of spirits, wine and tobacco", the Commercial Hotel owned
by Bernard Sweeny, which stood adjacent to the Bridge End, and his father's public house
situated further along the street at the foot of the Wee Rock. The Sweenys were an old
established family, and the hotel was a thriving business, well patronized by commercial
travellers, known to some as "hungry goats". Bernard also owned the bookie shop facing
Maguire's, the chemist, and a second bookie shop in the city of Sligo, some twenty miles
In addition to running the hotel, the bar and the bookie shops, Bernard also acted as
unofficial banker to many a small neighbouring business experiencing cashflow difficulties,
and never charged one penny for his services. A publican by trade, although he wore dark
horn-rimmed glasses and looked like a chartered accountant he was no mean money lender. He
was, in honesty, a decent man.
The most enterprising of the publicans in the Purt was, no doubt about it, Frank O'Neill.
Frank was a Tyrone man, an "import" to town. He owned the public house beside Tommy
O'Donnell's shop, almost opposite our house, and his family consisted of his wife, Agnes,
two sons, Joseph and Owen Roe, and a daughter.
When the Second World War broke out, Frank's business acumen found its proper outlet.
Outside town, half way between Ballyshannon and Bundoran, lay Finner Camp, an army post
that served as a training ground for hundreds of young men recruited to serve in the FCA,
Forsa Cosanta Aitiul, the Irish name for a local defence force, pledged to defend the
neutrality of the state and resist any invasion, whether threatened by the old foe,
England, as indeed once was contemplated by Churchill, or by Germany, Italy, or Japan.
When America entered the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, it too was
added to the list, with de Valera and Roosevelt exchanging a few pleasantries on the issue
through the American ambassador in Dublin, David Gray, who pressed and pressed for an end
to Ireland's neutrality and its entry into the war on the side of the Allies.
Such diplomatic pressures were best summed up in one memorable exchange in Sweeny's hotel
where a U.S serviceman, on leave, was holding forth on the superiority of all things
American. As long as he was buying the drinks, his audience were content to listen, and
indicate agreement in varying degrees according to the number of rounds each had enjoyed at
the G.I.'s expense. But when, carried away, the Yank began to temper his boasts with a few
disparaging remarks about Irish neutrality, and hinted at an alleged lack of manliness on
the part of "you Irish", and followed this up with an insulting, "When will you get the
courage to play your part?" the answer came like a shot from a Kildoney fisherman, "When
the Japanese attack Ballyshannon the same as they did Pearl Harbour, then we'll go to war.
And we won't need any of you Yanks to help beat the bejaysus out of them either!"
No more free drinks were offered by the visitor from overseas that night.
It was during "The Emergency", as the Second World War was known in Ireland, that Frank
O'Neill seized his opportunity to make a few extra pennies and pounds. He secured a job,
on contract, to help run the Camp commissary, and by dint of sheer determination turned it
into a profitable enterprise, so profitable that he was able to take on the assistance of a
nephew, Paddy O'Neill, another Tyrone man, who was later to settle down, marry, and open a
newsagent's and barber's shop at the very centre of the Bridge End, directly facing the
Town Clock on the tower of the Northern Bank.
Due to very strict petrol rationing, Frank and Paddy had to make do with bicycles to get to
and from work, in all sorts of weather, and if they made money during the war, they surely
Frank was a rather gnarled looking man, with bushy eyebrows, white hair, and the clearest
of clear blue eyes. He had a Tyrone man's accent which sounded foreign to Donegal ears, and
his favourite expression was "It's a terra, a holy terra!", meaning a holy terror.
There came an anxious time in Irish-British-American relations about the third year of the
war when the possible seizure of Irish seaports by Britain began to be rumoured with
Patrols by the Army and the FCA along the border between the Six Counties and the
Twenty-Six Counties, i.e. between the British occupied six northeastern counties and the
neutral twenty-six counties of the rest of the country, were stepped up.
Tensions grew. Ballyshannon was only four miles from the border between the two. Belleek,
of pottery fame, was a border post.
Nobody knew what to expect, or when to expect it. And when it came it was Frank O'Neill,
cycling in like a whirlwind from Finner Camp, who announced it in breathless voice to my
father, "Jack! Jack! The whole Army's away out to Belleek in two lorries. It's a terra, a
The threatened invasion never came. The troops returned to barracks, and Churchill,
Roosevelt and Stalin went on about their business without tempting fate at the hands of
the Irish FCA deployed from Finner Camp, County Donegal, in 1943 A.D.
After the war Frank surprised one and all by buying outright the vacant house on his right,
the boarded up grocery store next to it, the vacant shop of Annie Connolly, long gone to
her reward and now gracing a heavenly choir, and the house and shop next to that again of
Daniel Quinn, himself even longer deceased than Annie Connolly and her husband.
He turned one into a restaurant, leased space in another to a young barber, and turned the
whole row into a thriving venture.
As he was to say in later years, and with some pride, "How many men do you know who bought
a whole street of houses"? Not many. If he were alive today he would leave Donald Trump and
Tony O'Reilly trotting after him, in the halfpenny place.
How did the Purt support nine public houses, one of them without running water? For some
the solution lay in sidelines. Frank O'Neill made his money largely on Finner Camp, and
many of the soldiers he met there tended to patronise his premises even though they were
not the closest to the Camp.
Barney Flanagan also had a second calling, operating the local unemployment insurance
office directly opposite his premises where he dispensed the dole to qualified applicants.
If one or two of the recipients chose to slake their thirsts in Flanagan's pub, they only
had to cross the street to reach it. Auctioneers and house sellers nowadays tend to place
great reliance on location when evaluating properties. Their accepted credo is that three
factors determine true value, location, location, and location. Flanagan's public house
qualified on all three grounds.
Barney was a small, rotund man, a friendly man. Mrs. Flanagan herself was not too tall. It
was a family trait. They were very good neighbours to us.
Bernard Sweeney had the hotel and bookie shop, Barney Flanagan the dole office, and Frank
O'Neill Finner Camp. The son of another publican doubled as a barber and taxi driver, and
Georgie McCarvill worked in a drapery store. Meehan's, at the top of the street, doubled as
a small hotel, and a daughter, Kathleen, had a confectionery shop, also at the Bridge End.
The Meehan family were goodness itself to everyone in trouble, and when sickness affected
my family I remember a Christmas dinner they provided for my brother Brian, my uncle and
myself, a kindness never to be forgotten.
There was a boarding house also in the Purt, kept by a Mr. Morrison, a beefy man who had
run somewhat to fat, a man who kept to himself and was but rarely seen standing at his
front door wearing, of course, the inevitable cap. It was there that young bachelor
imports, office clerks, court clerks, shop assistants and the like, lodged, sometimes for a
year or two, sometimes much longer, before finding a better job, leaving town, or marrying
and settling down. It was, like its proprietor, Morrison, a quiet establishment.
One of its more permanent residents was Joe Phillips, the local district court clerk. Joe
was an import, that is, a non-native, an intense type of character, determined to ensure
the last "t" and the last "i" in every summons and other legal document of record for which
he had responsibility, was punctiliously crossed and dotted. He was a stickler for
accuracy, and would painstakingly explain the absolute necessity of ensuring correctness of
form, and proper maintenance of files. He was a born bureaucrat, or civil servant, as went
the nomenclature of the times, terribly shy, and bent on doing the right thing.
The story is as old as Catullus. Somehow Joe fell victim one night to Bacchus, in Sweeny's
hotel, fell asleep in the gents, woke in the dark about four o'clock in the morning, and in
the pitch darkness was totally, if not teetotally, unaware of where he was or how he got
there. Panic set in, and he set to banging on the door and walls until every living
creature, man, woman, cat, dog, was wakened by the noise, and Bernard found his customer
of the previous night, flootered in the jakes. He was still shaking with remorse when he
made his way back to the hotel next day, to apologise, and apologise, and apologise again.
Sometime later Joe transferred to the Department of Justice in Dublin where his
industriousness and attention to detail won the approval of his superiors, and his career
was assured of success.
Keep out of lavatories in public houses is the moral of the story. They're dangerous
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