ballyshannon, donegal, irish newspapers online, ireland, irish history, irish literature, irish famine - Linking Canada and Ireland - Linking Canada and Ireland

Page 12 of 18
Everyday Living

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 the day.

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.

"What else?"

No electric washing machines.

"Go on!"

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.

"Dammit !"

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 angels' bibs.

The Friendly Town Navigation
First Page | Previous Page | Next Page | Last Page


Home | About | Canadian Vindicator | Literature | Gallery | History