Archaeologists painstakingly sift and brush through the midden heaps of past civilizations,
seeking clues to trace the evolution of societies long vanished from the face of the earth.
A shard of pottery, the faintest trace of residue in a food container, the husks of dried
seed, a piece of fabric, the slightest remnants of everyday living can breathe life into
our conceptions of earlier peoples and the pattern of their lives.
Ancient burial sites often provide a treasure trove of such clues. Egypt has its
hieroglyphics and chamber paintings depicting the daily pursuits of Pharaoh and slave.
Translations of lost tongues and early alphabets teach early systems of accounting, how to
make papyrus, a reed boat, a clay brick.
The art of weaving garments from the feathers of birds, and an intricate numbering system
have been discovered during archaeological studies in Central and South America. Recently
discovered examples help to show us life in past ages.
One feature that recurs in our efforts to learn more about our past is the discovery of
gaps in our evolution. Not all societies progressed in an orderly fashion. Sudden turns,
abrupt switches, natural upheavals often led to abandonment of old ways and the adoption of
new ones. Nowhere is this more evident than in the progress of technology. In the twentieth
century of our present era, that progress has exploded, relegating to the ashbin of the
history of our times much of the everyday life we knew when growing up in Ireland a mere
fifty or sixty years ago.
Take the elemental act of cooking. Fossil fuel, coal and coke, or turf, in open fire,
grate, or cast iron oven, was used to cook and to heat in every kitchen in the land, in
town and country alike.
The city coalman who climbed five stories of stairs to deliver a bag of coal to an Upper
Gardiner Street flat in Dublin had his counterpart in Edward Doherty, he of the broad
back, draped with sacking, on which he carried coal to the coal houses in the backyards
of his customers in the Purt, Main Street, Back Street, Mall and College Lane. A burly man,
an honest working man, in time he became a Town Commissioner.
As a young man he had worked for Frank Morgan, who has already figured in earlier stories
in "The Kindly Spot",
and eventually he branched out on his own, a sturdy example of local enterprise.
In winter time, lighting an early morning fire was a daily ritual. First, the ashes of the
previous night had to be removed. Then a bed of paper, torn and twisted into grate-length
strips, was laid down, followed by a layer of kindling. The kindling was provided by wooden
boxes which had been used for packing all sorts of commodities, butter, tea, oranges
(pre-War), all of which were chopped into small sticks. There was an axe for this purpose
in every house. On top of the lot was placed the lumps of coal.
Coal lumps came in many sizes, and the bigger ones had to be broken up before being placed
in a fireplace. The back head of the axe was generally used for this purpose. It was a
messy job, normally given to youngsters as a household chore. When held in one hand on a
concrete floor and struck with the axe, a coal lump would shatter into smaller shapes and
sizes, littering the floor with coal dust, not to mention hands, occasionally faces, and
the odd time sending a tiny speck flying into an open eye.
Finally a wooden match was struck, the paper set alight and, as the paper burned, it lit
the kindling, and as the kindling burned it lit the coal--if everting went well. If set too
hurriedly, the paper might not ignite the wood, or the wood not give sufficient heat to
cause the coal to burst into flame, and the entire process would have to be started all
over again from scratch. On a cold and frosty morning this was anything but a good start to
You can imagine the relief with which housewives in particular greeted the advent of
electric ranges, or cookers as they were called. Nowadays very little cooking is done
over an open hearth or on a cast iron stove.
"How tough was it back then?"
Oh, it was tough. Very tough. There were no electric kettles.
No electric washing machines.
No electric washers or dryers.
"Next you'll be telling me there were no electric irons!"
There were no electric irons.
Doing the weekly laundry was a huge job. Everything was washed by hand, using pot after
pot of hot water. The more difficult items were even put in a big pot of water and boiled.
On washday the smell of Lifebuoy soap hung over the town. Each cake of soap was big, too
big to be easily handled until cut into slices. When clothes were boiled, a slice of soap
was added to the pot.
Next came the rinsing, a bag of Rickett's Blue being squeezed into the cold water in which
whites were rinsed. Then came the hanging of the clothes to dry on clothes lines in the
backyard. It was a weekly ritual.
One of the trick questions put to aspiring military intelligence candidates during World
War II was based on this ritual. Shown an aerial photograph of an unidentified town, they
were asked: "What day of the week was this photo taken?"
The answer, of course, was Monday, the weekly washday throughout the land when every
backyard could be seen with towels and sheets flying from clotheslines.
Finally came the ironing. Poor mothers. The irons were brutes of things, heated by placing
an inner slab of iron into the heart of a glowing grate or range. Retrieving it and
inserting it into the bed of the iron was a tricky business. It was heavy, red hot, and
burnt fingers and knuckles were all too common.
To this day I can hear the ejaculation that greeted such accidents.
In later years a commercial laundry was built at the foot of The Mall, across the road from
the pier, with Inis Saimer off to the side. Dirty shirts and soiled linen were dropped off
at the Misses Kelly's ladies clothing and haberdashery on Main Street at the Mall corner,
on Mondays, and picked up on Saturdays in time to distribute heavily starched, glistening
white shirts for wear to Sunday Mass or Church service.
The laundry gave much needed employment and, following a Donegal tradition extending over
thousands of years, provided a nickname for one of its customers, who was known to its
female employees only as "Old Dirty Tail". A very prominent citizen, it is doubtful if he
himself ever became aware of it.
Edward Doherty's name has crept into the telling of this tale. Five thousand years ago, his
picture would have decorated the tomb of some dignitary in a far-off clime, along with
cattle drovers, bakers, watchmen, and all the other artisans and craftsmen with whom he
had lived his life, all fixed in time.
Fixed in cyberspace now is this humble coal merchant from Ballyshannon. He was a simple man.
An honest man. A direct man.
How he became a Town Commissioner is a story he told himself.
For years that body's affairs had been administered by an official known as the Donegal
County Manager. At the time that position was held by Mr. Sean D. MacLochlainn. For years
nobody had sought office. A distinct lack of civic responsibility was all too evident.
Eventually a small group of citizens decided it was high time residents had some say in
their own governance, and put their names forward in the next local government elections.
When the writs closed it suddenly became apparent that the number of candidates exactly
equalled the number of seats that constituted the Town Commission. All were duly acclaimed
and appointed. No election campaign was necessary.
In later years, when asked how he first became a Town Commissioner, Edward replied: "I
just walked in."
Simple. Honest. Direct.
If St. Patrick ever runs across me in Heaven and asks in wonderment: "How did you get here?"
I hope I can give the same answer: "I just walked in!"
One can always hope. I just don't want to end up shovelling coal below, or washing baby
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