This was my father-in-law’s second book published in 2008 and I will leave Geoff to tell you more about it.
In this book I have tried to provide a flashback on Waterford of the thirties, in the early days of Radio, Cinema and before Television. Asphalt had not yet been laid on the quayside or the main street, and at night the principal streets were dimly lit by gaslight. Side streets were pitch black, as were alleyways, and the district court had cases against cyclists who were fined two shillings and sixpence for having no light on their bike. The weekly papers reported offences of No Dog Licence; Drunk & Disorderly and cases of Land Disputes & Cattle Trespass.
Interspersed among the facts & folklore you will find the tall stories, observations and old sayings which make up the fabric of oral tradition in the ancient city of Waterford.
They arrived at the old limekiln at the Corrig end of Woodstown beach on the last day of May. The old man, gaunt and grey, his wife, small and swarthy, their son, Jimmy who had his own small black pony, his brother Mick whose curly black hair came down on his forehead and their young sister whose name I never found out.
They paid me little heed as they set up camp, fixing a tarpaulin across the opening under the kiln, which was like a fair sized cave and anchoring it along the ground with a row of stones just leaving a corner loose for entry. Next, they spread about six inches of clean straw on the floor of their cave, which was quite dry and presto a place to sleep was created in less than twenty minutes.
What fascinated me was the fact that nobody was giving orders. There were no arguments or discussions about what to do next. It all just happened.
Next, the old man set up a site on which to build a fire, convenient to the cave. Pieces of driftwood were collected from the beach and the mother filled a can with fresh water from the stream nearby. Before I could take in all that was happening I found myself being asked. “Would you like a cup of Tea?”
I accepted the invitation and joined this family drinking tea around an open fire on a fine May evening.
The fact that these people were ‘Tinkers’, ‘Gypsies’ or ‘Itinerants’, didn’t seem to matter and I fell easily into conversation with Mick who was around my own age. He told me that his brother’s black pony was called Jenny and she pulled the smaller of their two carts for Jimmy. Their main means of transport, a light, sprung cart was drawn by the larger brown mare, called Peg and while Jimmy would find grazing for the small pony it was Mick’s job to look after the mare and if I came back before dark, I could help him.
My home was only a quarter of a mile up the beach from the camp and I cycled back there in the last hour of daylight to find Mick fitting a makeshift rope bridle on the mare. Next thing he took hold of her mane and swung up on her back.
“Follow me.” He shouted as he took off at a gallop up the lane to the road. Here he took the road towards a lonely byroad, more than a mile away. I followed on my bike and eventually caught up at a place called Drumrusk where Mick unceremoniously turned the mare loose and said.
“We’ll go back now, she’ll be OK there till morning and we’ll come up and get her then,” he gave a satisfied nod. “She can graze the longacre.”
I learned later that the longacre meant the grass verges on the roadside. Riding cross-bar, the bike took us back to the camp and I went home, promising to come back at dawn to bring back the mare. We found her a mile further up the by-road and I made it back to the house just in time for the bus to school.
June saw the beginning of the summer holidays from school and I was able to spend some time at the matmakers’ camp. Incidentally, the reason they were called matmakers was simply because they made and sold mats made from the Maran grass which grew on the sandy upside of the beach. They cut this grass with a sickle and left it to dry for a day or two. Then they made a long plait about two inches wide, which they stitched into a circle with hemp thread. When the circle was about two feet wide the free end was cut, tapered and bound into the edge of the circle and there you had a mat to sell. Sometimes they made oval shapes and as the Maran grass dried it showed different shades of green and brown, adding to the character of the mat and its saleability.
A lot of the mat work was done by the mother while the father made brooms out of bunches of the Maran grass, fixed to the end of straight sticks of elder, which grew by the stream near the camp. They were easy to cut and skin and they dried to a golden colour once the bark was removed. He also collected bean tins, fruit tins and the like and these he made into drinking mugs, pint and half pint measures and such. Some tins were cut into strips which in turn were rolled into tight cylinders and served as rivets to fix mug and jug handles to their respective tins.
Old Clothes were collected too and the buttons cut off and sorted by size while the materials were sorted and washed clean and tied in bundles to be sold to workshops, garages and also by bulk to the rag merchants in town. There was a good price to be had for clean sorted rags and also the buttons. Jimmy ‘did his own business’ but also collected hay for the ponies and sometimes a bucket of oats or a few mangolds or turnips which they loved. Mick’s speciality was collecting empty stout bottles – a penny for the half pint size and twopence for the pint bottle – which could be sold over the counter at the local shop. There was no pub in Woodstown in the thirties and men used to cycle to Killea or Callaghane pubs where they could buy a few bottles of stout. These would be brought to the beach and when empty were often discarded so the weekends often yielded a bonanza for Mick and his willing helper.
The staple diet of the family was rabbits and they were plentiful in the dunes along the beach, but the old man knew his tides – when the mackerel were in; when the herring were coming etc – and regularly went to Passage and Dunmore of an evening and returned with fish for the family supper. They never seemed to be short of food but nevertheless my friend Mick was always hungry and anytime we went hunting or tickling trout together he advised me to bring a bit of grub. And so I often raided our pantry at home to meet his needs. He taught me many things, including how to ride the mare bareback and to make a bridle for her and finally I was able to ride her back to the camp at the dawn of day. I will always remember one day when Mick and I took the mare to the village blacksmith to have a shoe put on. I held her while Mick did the business with the smith.
“How much for a bishop?” asked Mick.
“Sixpence, fitted,” said the smith, “and you do the rummaging.”
“Right,” said Mick and motioned me to a pile of cast-off shoes in a corner of the yard.
“I’ll show you,” he said, picking out a thin old shoe from the pile.
“We want another thin one that size,” he said, and I soon had a suitable one.
“The smith will weld the two of those together and they’ll do the mare just fine,” he said.
“That’s a Bishop.”
And it came to pass.
I could fill a book with all the things I learned from that travelling family and I only realized much later in life that for the few months I spent in their company, I had in reality attended a university of survival.
One morning in August, I went up to the camp only to find it empty. They were gone – just… gone.
I felt lost for a week or two and then it was back to school time and though my life took many twists and turns from that day to this I will always remember the matmakers with affection and gratitude.
Twenty odd years later I met Jimmy in Waterford – he had given up travelling and had a job locally. He told me that Mick had gone to work in England laying aircraft runways and had been killed during an air attack. I never saw Jimmy again.
* * *
It was on the occasion when the farmers of Ireland had organised a “Monster” march through O’Connell Street, in Dublin, to protest about something which is now forgotten.
Crowds of people had lined the streets to witness the spectacle and many of the onlookers shouted encouragement and sometimes derision at the marchers.
One Dublin wit surprised the rest when he called out “Ye never had luck since ye poisoned the rabbits!”
* * *
A boatman telling about one of his clients:
“That man was never on a boat in his life and he came to me to go fishing and wasn’t he wearing a pair of Cadbury thrills and polished shoes.”
About Geoff Cronin – 1923 – 2017
There were few jobs that Geoff could not turn his hands to, and over the years he mastered an impressive number of professional undertakings. Master baker and confectioner, mobile cinema operator, salesman, band leader, senior executive and master wood turner, storyteller and writer.
Geoff Cronin published his first book in 2005 at age 82. The Colour of Life is a collection of stories of life in Waterford during his childhood and early adulthood in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. This was followed by two further books that related tales of further adventures in Waterford and Dublin.
Thank you for dropping in today and you can read the previous book The Colour of Life in this directory: