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Amusement in a Simpler Age

For anyone born in the television age with its weekly diet of sitcoms and comedy specials upon which sponsors spend vast sums of money in the hope of regaining even vaster sums, it is difficult to envision a time when people made their own amusement, often without the expenditure of a single penny. One such time was the era between the end of the First World War and the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1921. It lay squarely in the period euphemistically referred to as "The Troubles", when winning back independence from a colonial power and the subsequent civil strife brought terrible death and destruction, grief and mourning to many families in all parts of Ireland.

How did people cope with such a crisis-ridden experience? This was long before the advent of modern mass psychosis when whole populations are found to be suffering angst and stress, and their behavioural patterns are studied and compared with those of mice reared in laboratories where they are subjected to unnatural living conditions, and fed or starved as the parameters of each individual study dictate.

The answer may be so obvious as that people didn't know they were "coping". They behaved just as they always had. Each community, each grouping, contained a natural jester, a joker who could see the funny side of life and who, more often than not, brought it to the fore by playing practical jokes. Hallowe'en brought an annual outburst of such antics, but practical jokes were not confined just to one particular date in the year. Take the example of "the baby on the road".

It may be necessary to provide the setting. Motor cars in the early 1920s were still a rarity in most country areas, indeed, even in large towns. Songs were written about them. One music-hall favourite carried this plaint by a would-be beau:

Oh, Flo, why do you go
Riding alone in your motor car?
People will say you're peculiar,
Singular, and so you are!
There's room for two,
Just me and you,
In your elegant motor car.
There also the well known "Johnson's Motor Car" with its recurrent:
"You could hear the din
Going through Glenfin,
Of Johnson's motor car."
In short, not too many people owned motor cars, and those who did usually reserved their use for weekend outings with family or friends. In most cases the cars were open-topped. I suppose salesmen might call it "natural air conditioning". In any event, there were not too many of them, and their appearance on Sundays was still somewhat of a spectacle.

Now it so happened that in the Purt the old "Vindicator" office of Pa McAdam was blessed with a gateway, and outside the gateway was placed, at least on Sundays, a wooden bench. There local people congregated to pass the time of day and have a bit of crack, usually gossip about the week's news, the comings and goings that swirled around the life of any Irish town.

The Purt, the street itself, was the main route from the hinterland of Fermanagh and other northern counties to Bundoran, the most popular seaside resort in the northwest, so whatever constituted holiday or excursion traffic had to pass through it, sometimes flying by at a ferocious speed, thirty miles an hour, if not more.

"Sure they'd put the heart across you", said one good woman who narrowly avoided being hit by one of the maybe five cars an hour that streamed through the Purt on a busy Sunday afternoon.

"They won't stop for man or beast", said another, ignoring the absence of livestock of any kind.

"Well, now," said one of "Vindicator" bench congregation, "let's see about that."

Off he went, and returned in a little while carrying a life-size baby doll which he placed in the middle of the road, with a ball next to it.

When the next car came whizzing around the bend where stood Meehan's hotel, out he rushed, arms waving, voice shouting, "Mind the baby! Look out for the baby!"

As the car came to a sudden stop, he picked up the baby, briefly showing its face to the shocked driver and his passengers, and carried it tenderly back to the sidewalk.

Meanwhile there was a loud chorus from the bench about "mad drivers" and "eejits in automobiles careering around the country without a thought for man, woman, or child."

For the rest of that afternoon, and for a couple of Sundays thereafter, "the baby on the road" brought all motor cars to a halt, much to the amusement of the McAdam benchers and attendant coterie. That doll was the first effective traffic regulator in my home town.

As I have indicated, people made their own amusement back then, and their laughing was honest laughter, not the canned and taped artificial braying on which so many present-day television series depend.

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