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Community Service in the 1930s

In pre-television days, people spent a lot of their time outdoors, and to occupy that time they resorted to many activities that were woven into the fabric of daily living, seemingly destined to be a part of life that had a permanence all its own. One such activity was a direct consequence of the economic situation of the country pre-World War II.

Leaving the rights and wrongs of government policy to be argued by political parties, a policy to wage an economic war with the old foe, England, what was manifest in the 1930s throughout counties such as Donegal and Leitrim was a lack of permanent employment. This was especially evident in towns, and Ballyshannon was no exception. To be "on the dole" was a fairly normal occurrence for unskilled workers, the vast majority of whom left school at the statutory leaving age of fourteen years, and who had precious little opportunity to improve their lot thereafter.

Emigration was the only choice open to those who found themselves in such a situation, and within a couple of years former schoolmates started leaving, some to Scotland, some to England, and a lucky few to America to join relatives who had established themselves there and could ease their way into gainful employment. Army life also beckoned, both Irish and British, more particularly after the outbreak of war in September 1939.

The enlargement of Finner Camp, the army base halfway between Ballyshannon and Bundoran, was a direct outgrowth of the war, and was particularly directed toward training the newly established F.C.A. (Forsa Cosanta Aitiul), a regional and local defence corps. It provided employment and a steady supply of young men with some money in their pockets, a bonanza for young ladies whose local beaux had nothing to offer except recurring reliance on dole money.

Wages in the 1930s were low, woefully so in some cases. To give a flavour of the times, consider the price of a man's suit. Burton's, one of the leading men's furnishers in the Six Counties and in Britain, proudly laid claim to the title "the thirty shilling tailors". That was what a suit cost, thirty bob, and good quality at that. Dennis Guiney, the Talbot Street retailer in Dublin, went one better, selling young men's suits for twenty- one shillings. These were Japanese-made suits, and like most things exported by Japan during the 1920s and 1930s were shoddily made. In a way, the Japanese garment makers were the progenitors of the built-in obsolescence which has become such a cardinal feature of present-day manufacturing of cars, television sets, shoes--take your choice and buyer beware.

Thirty shilling weekly was considered a normal wage for those lucky enough to have steady work as shop assistants, mechanics, lorry drivers, clerks, printers, and pub curates, and the scale went downward for hotel workers, secretaries, labourers, road workers, and the like.

Competition for employment as county council road workers was fierce, and more often than not such employment was a gift in the hands of local politicians. Support for a political party determined who got work and who didn't.

Those who didn't get work had time on their hands. What was there to do when so many shared their fate? Misery loves company, so to congregate was a natural outcome.

In larger cities and towns this gave rise to the all too prevalent spectacle of youths standing in groups at street corners, sharing fags (cigarettes) when they could, chatting and not chatting as their mood determined, watching the passing parade of pedestrians, cyclists, cars, buses, lorries and carts, and prone to pass loud judgments on whatever or whomever attracted their attention.

"Look at the style of that, and Johnny idle!"--this on a married woman flaunting her finery.

"Cop a look at that car. His ould father couldn't afford an ass let alone a car!"

They were called corner boys, and youngsters, when scolded, were often told "and stop behaving like a corner boy!"

Corner boys as such didn't do anything, something which marked them apart from our home-grown variety in Ballyshannon. Ours had an occupation, and an odd one it was.

Their meeting place wasn't a street corner. It was at the Bridge End, actually at the spot where an iron railing fronted Ferguson's public house, which faced all traffic coming and going across the bridge and was a vantage point from which to track all traffic, vehicular and pedestrian, entering the bridge from the East and West Ports. All movement, in all directions, could be monitored, and formed the topic of conversation. What wasn't discussed at the Bridge End wasn't worth discussing. And what was, formed the gossip de jour.

Leaning against Ferguson's, spending their time as best they could, they did perform one valuable service for their fellow townspeople, as captured in the following vignette.

One morning an irate lady passerby who heard a most unkindly comment, rounded on them.

"What are yiz doing here anyway, all day? You should be off looking for work, the lot of ye!"

Still leaning against Ferguson's, unfazed by the criticism, from one of the group came a reply quick as a wink.

"Ma'am, we're doing it. We're working all day. We're holding up the Bridge End!"

The laugh that followed carries echoes to this day. It was a bon mot for the ages.

Most of those who were participants have long since passed away. But the Bridge End still stands, solid testimony to the community service they rendered, day in, day out, to their townsfolk in my home town in the 1930s.

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