Summertime Days and Nights
Reference to the difficulties encountered in lighting fires on icy- cold winter mornings
(see last week's Number) naturally leads to the question: What did you do when summer
Exactly the same thing. A fire had to be lit, in kitchen range or on open hearth, to do the
cooking, to boil water--for shaving, for washing dishes, for cleaning clothes. That was a
constant no matter how hot the weather became, and occasionally we did have summer
heatwaves, or at least what we called heatwaves.
Nobody mentioned the exact degree of temperature to which the mercury climbed on those
occasions. In fact, the only barometric gauge I remember seeing when growing up in
Ballyshannon was that which hung on the street wall of a house on The Mall, Jim White's
house, if memory is correct. And whether the glass was rising or falling, presaging fine or
poor weather, where temperature was concerned the only scientific measurement was always
given in fahrenheit. Celsius was continental, something foreign, as was decimalization in
all its forms, including coinage. A penny equalled four farthings, or two halfpennies; a
threepenny bit was the equivalent of three pennies, a sixpence of six pennies, a shilling
of twelve pence; a florin was a two-shilling piece; a half crown was worth two shillings
and sixpence, and twenty shillings made a pound. There were ten-bob notes (ten shillings),
and fivers (five pounds). The five-shilling piece was a rarity, usually used for
presentation purposes, or to cross the hand of a newly introduced infant as a wish for its
future prosperity in life.
As children the only times we saw anything larger than sixpence was when we received our
First Communion and, some years later, made our Confirmation. Relatives would be remarkably
generous on such great days.
Instead of measuring weather in degrees, people had at their disposal a wonderful array of
words to describe a hot day. It could be warm, very warm, sticky warm, warmer than
yesterday, twice as warm as the day before, hot, really hot, boiling hot, blistering hot
and, finally, a real scorcher of a day. Given the natural pigmentation of a fair-haired
Celtic race, blistering hot wasn't an exaggeration. People's skin did blister if they
didn't take care. Then out came the camolin lotion, and cold cloths, and a variety of home
remedies ranging from sliced cucumber to God only knows what, to be applied to the
afflicted parts of the body. Sunburn was very hard on little ones, and wise mothers made
every effort to protect them when the sun's rays were at their hottest. In some severe
cases of sunburn, exhaustion and sleep might bring the only relief.
Air conditioning was undreamt of for residential purposes. There was, however, one form of
natural refrigeration that had been in existence for so many years that it was taken for
granted. This was the ice house down The Mall, some distance back from the Falls of
Assaroe. It was built into a sloping field. Its roof was covered with sodded earth which,
when seen from the roadway, gave it the appearance of a natural hump in the field. The lone
door faced towards the river. Inside, in darkness, ice was preserved from wintertime,
sawdust acting as a separation between its layers.
"So you could enjoy iced drinks?"
No way! That ice was too precious to go into drinks. And besides, what kind of an eejit
would put a chunk of ice into a glass of Irish whiskey? Excommunication would be too good
for anyone seen guilty of such an abomination!
The ice from The Mall served a much higher purpose, to line the wooden boxes in which
freshly netted salmon were shipped by train to the Dublin market, and even further away.
On hot summer days, in the absence of ice, a concoction known as a shandy was served as a
thirst quencher in place of stout. Generally it was a mixture of beer and lemonade or other
soft drink, a soft drink in Ireland for some reason being known as "a mineral". In later
years my friend, Eamon O Faolain, a colleague on the Dáil official reporting staff,
enjoyed his shandy when enduring a Dublin heatwave. It was a taste I found strange.
The only other refrigeration locally was that used in the cold storage rooms of the town's
butcher shops, such as Tony Campbell's in the Purt, Cassidy's at the foot of Main Street,
and a third such establishment at the top of the town.
"Surely it wasn't all that bad. You must have had ice cream!"
Yes, we had ice cream, but it was a rare treat. Miss Ettie Stephens' confectionary and ice
cream parlour on Main Street was the only place where such a delight could be found when I
was small. Later, Paddy O'Neill began making and selling ice cream in his general
newsagent's shop at the Bridge End. But, pre-War, Miss Ettie was the only ice cream
To paraphrase Henry Ford, the automobile mass production pioneer, you could have any
flavour you liked--as long as it was vanilla. That was it. But it could be dressed up by
adding cherries or bananas. In wartime the cherries and the bananas disappeared.
At first you could buy ice cream only in sliders. These were, in effect, ice cream
sandwiches. A thin wafer was placed in the bottom of a rectangular receptacle, ice cream
spooned over it, and a second wafer placed on top and pressed down. The completed sandwich
was then slid or pushed out of its container.
The depth of ice cream in sliders varied with their price, a tuppenny slider being thin
indeed, a fourpenny slider giving full satisfaction to most people, and a sixpenny slider
being reserved for swains attempting to impress "the objects of their affections". Even so,
sometimes a cold shoulder was all they received in return.
Cones did not make their appearance until considerably later, and when they did they soon
sent sliders to join a growing list of memories of the way things were when we were growing
There was, however, one glorious relief from the parching hot days of summer, one wonderful
elixir that didn't cost a single penny.
When there wasn't a whiff of a breeze stirring through windows opened wide, when even the
cats lay on their sides without stirring, when the fumes from the hot metal pot on the
Intertype machine put a sheen on faces to match the shine of the molten lead, when tap
water was tepid and tasted of lead, when the engine-room stove was roasting red hot, and
the linotype slugs were melting on top, to be poured into a mould and recast as ingots,
when the very street was deserted, not a soul to be seen, it was then that we were
despatched, tin pails in hand, to fetch water from Neely's well.
Readers of an earlier work, "The Kindly Spot", will be familiar with its location. For
present purposes, suffice to say that Neely's well lay about half to three quarters of a
mile distant, at the end of the Purt, past Neely's Brook and through Neely's gates, in a
field a hundred yards from Neely's garden.
That well was always well maintained. A live trout helped keep it clean. And its water was
Going there was no great chore. Returning with our tin pails full of water, tin lids
covering them, was another matter. The thin tin handles were agony on our fingers, and even
when we wrapped them with hankies they seemed to cut almost into the flesh. The road back
home was our own Via Dolorosa. "Ours"? Eddie Gallagher and I made up the "ours". Eddie at
that time was starting his career as a printer, a boy the same age as myself, learning his
trade. He followed a long line of apprentices going back through my grandfather's time,
each and everyone responding to the name of "Buckshot", no matter what their given names
may have been. In later years he earned his own distinctive nickname.
No two travellers returning from Arctic waters could have received a heartier welcome
whenever we would stagger home, hands smarting from carrying our precious cargoes. Mick
Slevin, my uncle John, and Eddie would share one pail, the other going upstairs to the
kitchen for family and cats.
That was almost sixty years ago. Now people have refrigerators, ice cube makers, frozen
drinks, air conditioning, and some have swimming pools to help them through "the lazy,
hazy days of summer". But the ice-cold water from Neely's well was, in its day, a life
saver. Its taste is as fresh on memory's tongue as when first we lugged it home to the
"Vindicator" office in the Purt of Ballyshannon.
Nightime heat was another travail. Temperatures did not cool down to any great extent. As a
result, people put off going to bed and often went for late night walks.
Once beyond the town limits, on dark nights it wasn't uncommon to see something red
approaching at face level. I mean on really dark nights. It was the lit cigarette in the
mouth of someone else unable to sleep and out for a late stroll.
If you were lucky, your midnight perambulation would tire you sufficiently that you could
drift off to sleep. Other people had to offer up their discomfort with the resignation that
"what can't be cured, must be endured."
It's such bliss to sleep nowadays through hot summer nights in air- conditioned comfort.
If only I had a drink of cold, cold, fresh, clear water from Neely's well!
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