Workmanship par Excellence
Recent numbers in this series have turned into a mini social history touching on life and
customs in an Ireland fast-fading from living contact and, more particularly, contact with
everyday life in a small provincial town on the historic meares of Tír Chonaill, now
popularly styled Donegal.
There are not that many seventy and eighty-year olds left whose firsthand recollections of
time, place, people and events can be tapped, and fewer still who have the health and
energy to write down personal accounts of what it was like to live in a town such as
Ballyshannon some fifty and sixty years ago. It is my good fortune to be one of the latter,
and to have the ability to share with people world-wide memories of the mundane, the
trivial, the underpinning rhythm of our lives in that earlier era.
Washing clothes, lighting fires, fetching fresh spring water, these are not the stuff of
greatness. But they were the stuff of everyday life, of real people living in a largely
pre-technical age that, to future generations, may seem positively primitive.
Using wet slack (coal dust) to bank a fire, Rickett's Blue to whiten a wash, tin pails to
carry well water, may still be commonplace in certain areas, but what cannot be experienced
afresh is the newness that we experienced when hearing our first radio broadcasts, when we
saw our first aeroplane, when we watched our first coastal steamer being piloted up the
estuary by Major "Mickey" Myles to dock safely at the pier below Assaroe. These were major
events in our lives.
A more recent technological advance is now more than half a century old, our first shock at
hearing our own voices recorded on magnetic tape and replayed aloud on a massive Grundig
tape machine. Dermot Taheny of Sligo, brother-in-law to my brother Barry, brought one such
machine into the old "Vindicator" office, hid it under a table, somehow placed its
microphone out of view, and proceeded to record the ordinary conversation of Mother, Dad,
and myself. When he rewound the huge twelve-inch reel and replayed our voices, boy, what a
surprise! Little did I know then that I would use a recording machine to transcribe
politicians' speeches from shorthand reports, for almost forty years.
We were grown men and women by the time we saw our first television broadcasts.
Yet, for all the apparent progress in such fields scientific, the work of local people
could bear comparison with any in the world. I give two examples.
It was local artisans from Belleek and surrounding areas who produced the world famous
china ware to which the local pottery gave its name. I am writing of a time when the
fixing, glazing, and decoration of individual pieces required exercise of the highest
skills of individuals who devoted their entire lives to the work, when the delicate tracery
of interwoven lines demanded a steady hand and sharp eye, and when the judicious
application of colour depended on the artistic sense of lowly paid employees who were
completely ignorant of the value of their labour. The finest translucent pieces of Belleek
ware of that era are now recognized for their true worth, collectors' items, easily
recognized when compared with machine pressed and mass produced pottery.
Thanks to my colleague and friend, the late Hugh Daly, reporter for the "Donegal Democrat"
when it was locally owned in the hands of the Downey family, I was once treated to a tour
of the pottery, one not usually given to touring visitors.
Hugh had been an employee of the pottery before turning to journalism, and was warmly
greeted by those he had left behind on the production line. Because Hugh made the
introductions I was at once accepted as his friend, and they took great trouble to
demonstrate the various stages involved in producing a perfect piece. I shall not forget
the high standards they enforced. The slightest flaw led to instant rejection and breakage
lest even the most lowly saucer with a flaw in it elude final scrutiny and find its way to
What a joy it was to receive an e-mail in June, 1997, from the grandson of one of the
artists who painted Belleek china in an even earlier age.
From Texas, Hugh Flynn Jr. told how his grandfather, also named Hugh, was just such an
artist. And he provided a further link to the tales in "The Kindly Spot" by mentioning
that his grandfather married Ann Rogan of the renowned Rogan family of rod makers and fly
tiers in Ballyshannon.
Hugh's own father, yes, also named Hugh, who was born in Ballyshannon in 1917, now lives
in Virginia and is historian to the Virginia branch of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. He
is one of the few remaining living links with the times of which I write.
Mention of Hugh Daly prompts me to record that he followed in the footsteps of another
reporter from Belleek who had also worked for the "Democrat". This was Josie Dolan. I
remember Josie's effect on the officers stationed at Finner Camp when we were reporting an
Army sports day. It was one of the easiest jobs we ever had. When the officers laid eyes on
the good-looking Josie, all of a sudden every possible facility was placed at our disposal,
a reporters' table miraculously appeared out of thin air, and the results of each event
were communicated to us in miraculous time. For some reason, neither Hugh nor I ever had
the same effect in succeeding years when Josie had given up her newspaper reporting career.
The second example of workmanship par excellence was to be found in another product.
Constant readers of "A Home Page with an Irish Flavour" may recall that this subject was
canvassed in an earlier and separate one-week special number prior to publication of "The
Friendly Town". Because it belongs in the larger work, it is now reproduced as a permanent
Bespoke tailoring. Mention it in the 1990s and it conjures up images of Savile Row, Rome,
Naples, and émigré master tailors lured from their homelands to a few cities on the North
American continent where their craft normally dies off within one generation.
Hand-made suits. Expensive, man! Big bucks! "He's got it made." Yeah, he literally got it
made for him. Cut to perfection. Measured to an eighth of an inch. Draped to every contour
of body, arm, shoulder, back, leg.
We're talking CEO. External Affairs. Embassy Row. Prime Ministership.
Whoa! Back to earth. Back to my school days. Back to Mr. McGinley sitting cross-legged on
his tailor's bench in his downstairs workroom, in his own home at the top of Main Street,
Ballyshannon. Co. Donegal, Ireland, more than fifty years ago.
Bolts of cloth, shimmering stuff for linings, trays of buttons of every conceivable size,
shape and colour, spools of thread, needles--big, small, smaller--scissors sharp as razors,
the light from the rear window falling over his shoulder onto the fabric he was sewing, a
stillness broken only by the rustle of a thread being eased along a hem. That was Mr.
McGinley's tailoring establishment. The sound of a dropped thimble or piece of marking
chalk would shatter the quietness like gunshot.
I was fourteen the first time Mr. McGinley measured me for a suit. It was only my second
long pants suit. The transition from short pants to "longers" usually occurred around the
early teens in those years, and my first pair had been off-the-rack, bought in Alfie
McGonigle's drapery. For the next fourteen years all my suits, all three of them, were
bespoke tailoring, McGinley style.
Style? In Donegal in the 1940's? You bet. Mr. McGinley could emulate any men's styling then
in vogue in New York, Glasgow, or London, and the reason was simple. He was a master
Emigrants returning from far-off places might carry with them the latest product. For a
time, wide trouser legs were de rigueur, 22", 24", 26". Not bell-bottoms. Ye gods, no! And
Oxford bags belonged to an even earlier pre-war era.
Double or single breasted, shoulder drape, width of lapel, roll of collar, pleated or
straight pant top, number of pockets, slant of pockets, single vent or double vented
jackets, whatever the customer desired Mr. McGinley could provide. For my Dad he made brief
pockets for the inside of his jackets. For me, too. Until I went back to store-bought
suits, the thought never struck me that all jackets didn't have them.
Large pockets inside and below the waist, designed to hold a sketch pad or reporter's
notebook, and held in place by a specially inserted lining ribbon.
All trousers had turned up cuffs. The idea of cuffless pants for civilians had not come
Three-button sleeves? Four-button sleeves? The choice was yours.
The time taken? Two weeks at most, and that involved two fittings. A third was never
necessary. Mr. McGinley got it right the first time. Took pride in his work. And well he
A lifetime of buying department store suits since then makes me realize the sheer luxury we
took for granted. Who trains these people? I've had pants with one leg longer than the
other, and the long one still short. I've had sleeves with bunched lining, cavalierly
ironed back when pointed out, only to slide down and hang out within weeks. I've had
misplaced jacket buttons, and been asked, "But how often do you button your jacket?" I
don't give a damn if I button it only once in ten years, I still want the button aligned to
the button hole!
The very thought of such experiences makes me angrified--Satchel Paige had it right--and
makes my blood boil.
Only the memory of Mr. McGinley can calm me down long enough to word process this tribute
to a tailor whose bespoke suits clad generations of my former townspeople.
As a closing note, Irish pottery is still a major export to Canada and the United States.
For the past number of years a young lady from Derrygonnelly, Co. Fermanagh, Leane
McGinley, has toured china stores throughout both countries, signing and authenticating
pieces of Belleek ware for purchasers who dutifully form queues and, in the process, regard
themselves as privileged customers. Such enterprise has rewarded both parties handsomely.
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