My father-in-law, Geoff Cronin was a raconteur with a encyclopedic memory spanning his 93 years. He sadly died in 2017 but not before he had been persuaded to commit these memories of his childhood and young adulthood in Waterford in the 1920s to the 1940s.
The books are now out of print, but I know he would love to know that his stories are still being enjoyed, and so I am repeating the original series of his books that I posted in 2017. I hope those who have already read will enjoy again and that new readers will discover the wonderful colour of life in Ireland nearly 100 years ago.
The Devil Finds Work 1936
It was the week before midsummer’s day and the farm yard was baking in the early afternoon sun.
The town boy cycled slowly through the big yard gate and freewheeled down the sloping yard, past the cattle pens on one side and the big hay-shed on the other, through the arch under the corn loft and stopped by the dairy. Here he dismounted and dropped his sweet can on the steps of the dairy. It was a new, shiny can with a wire handle and although carefully washed by his mother, it still smelled of the boiled sweets which it originally contained. Now, however, it was used for the daily collection of six pints of milk from the farm.
Sweet cans were very much part of life in those days. Boiled sweets were made in Hartreys Sweet Factory at the apple market in Waterford and they were packed in tin cans holding five or six pounds weight for dispatch to the shops. Shopkeepers would sell the can when empty for sixpence or might even give one free to a good customer. In any event, they were in common use in the country for carrying milk, water from the well, blackberries, mushrooms, cockles from the beach, butter, nails for building, lugworms for fishing and anything else you could think of.
Now the town boy sat by his can on the steps of the dairy facing the back door of the house where the scotch cattle dog dozed in the shade. The dog hadn’t moved for he knew the boy well and was used to seeing him come to the dairy and wait there for Kevin, the farmer’s young son.
The boy did not dream of approaching the back door to “call” for his friend because inside that kitchen dwelt Katty, the housekeeper, and she ruled with an iron hand. She had big feet with boots like a man, an apron made from a cotton flour bag and her hair, which fascinated the boy, was plaited at either side of her head and the plaits were then coiled up over her ears like black headphones. Her heavy unsmiling mouth showed a front tooth missing and her voice was like the crack of a whip.
Katty, a faithful retainer of the family, was regarded by the boys as a “murderous oul’ bitch”, in private of course, but the truth was that she catered for a family of nine plus four farm hands, saw to the calves, made the butter, cured the bacon and baked the bread and, as a kind of recreation, she looked after the fowl, her pride and joy.
With the work load she had, Katty was quick to grab any bit of help she could and Kevin was constantly being “nailed” to carry buckets to the calves or feed the dogs or turn the handle of the butter churn or bring in water from the pump or any one of a hundred other chores which so often kept him from joining his pal.
The town boy resented her, for he was hungry for company and loved everything about the huge farm and the fun he and Kevin had when they got together. For a town boy it was heaven – peeping in at the massive bull, diving from the top of the hay in the shed into the loose hay below, dipping apples into the cream bucket in the dairy and harpooning imaginary whales with hay pikes. It was the kind of magic which only ten-year-olds can weave.
As the town boy sat there, thinking of what he and Kevin might do and wondering how soon his pal might appear, two of the farm hands walked by on their way out to the fields and their rough voices cut through his thoughts. “…an’ when I was puttin’ out the cows this mornin’ there was a big vixen standin’ at the orchard gate lookin’ in at the hens in the haggert,” said Mossy.
“Jazes boy,” said Stephen, “I’d say she have cubs above in the corrig and with the rabbits gone scarce there now she’ll be down after Katty’s hens any minute.”
“Begod, Mossy, ye’re right,” said the other man, “I’ll tell Katty to tie the dog in the haggert for a few nights an’ maybe the boss would give you the gun in the mornin’ when ye’re goin’ for the cows.”
The two men passed the boy, engrossed in their talk, and paid him no heed, but he pondered their conversation and all that it entailed and marvelled at the thought that one hungry fox could cause so many problems in the farm.
When Kevin appeared, it was an hour to milking time and they set off up to the big hay shed chatting like a pair of magpies.
In the shed they climbed the ladder to the top of the first bench of hay and scrambled up the rest of the way to the top. There they could touch the hot iron roof and they lay down on their bellies and peeped down into the haggert where the hens were picking about the place and clucking quietly among themselves. They were coming in from the orchard in twos and threes now, as feeding time approached and soon Katty would be along with her bucket of scraps and a scoop of grain to feed them and talk to them like children.
Suddenly the town boy sat up, his eyes dancing.
“D’ye know what I heard a man telling my father last night?”
“What,” said Kevin.
“Well,” giggled the boy, “he said that if you got a hen and put her head under her wing and swung her from side to side seven times the hen would go fast asleep.”
Kevin hooted with laughter and so did his pal and they rolled around in the hay till they were out of breath. As they sat up facing each other and the laughter was about to erupt again,
Kevin said, “Hey, I wonder if it works?”
There was a silence for just a moment, then the pair slid down to the first bench and dived to the bottom.
It took a bit of running before they caught the hen and she squawked loudly as Kevin held her up. Then the town boy grabbed her head, lifted her wing, pushed her head under and lowered the wing to enclose the head. Kevin held her in front of him like a rugby ball, a hand on each wing.
“Come on,” hissed the town boy, “swing her.” Kevin did so and they counted together as the bird was swung side to side, three, four, five, six, seven. Kevin stopped. The bird was limp in his hands.
“Look at her legs hangin’ down,” said the town boy, wonder in his voice. “Jazes Kevin, she’s asleep. It works.”
Kevin laid the hen down on its belly and they both looked at it. It didn’t move.
“Oh Jazes,” said Kevin, “maybe she’s smothered.”
The town boy poked the hen and she rolled on her side. He gently touched the wing and out slid the hen’s head. Her eyes opened and she fluttered up with a loud squawk and ran off down the haggert. The two sat on the ground in silence, their boy’s minds racing with the enormity of their discovery…and the possibilities it opened up, and, as they looked at each other, the town boy reached out and took his pal by the sleeve,
“What d’ye say, Kevin,” he grinned, “if we catch all the hens and put ’em to sleep all around the haggert before Katty comes up to feed ’em?”
“Oh Jazes,” said Kevin, his eyes widening, “she’ll think they’re dead or something.” They laughed as they herded a bunch of hens into an empty stall and closed the door. One by one they brought the sleeping hens out and laid them about the haggert, all on their sides with the head underneath so that they couldn’t wake up.
They had just put out number fourteen when they heard Katty starting up from the kitchen with her bucket. They barely had time to get to the top of the hay in the shed before she arrived. They peeped down to watch from the safety of their hiding place.
The hens who were not asleep heard Katty too and started to run towards her as she headed up into the haggert. They reminded the town boy of the men who took part in the fathers’ race at the school sports.
Katty was crooning her usual “chook, chook, chook,” as she rounded the corner, her hand in the bucket to scatter the food. She looked up, stopped and dropped the bucket, her mouth open as she gazed around at the scene of carnage.
“Aw Jesus, God,” she wailed, “me lovely hens, God curse an’ blast that hoor’s melt of a fox. He’s after eatin’ the heads off all me lovely hens.
Donny, Donny, come boy,” she yelled, summoning the big cattle dog.
“Mikey, get the gun quick,” she howled, “the fox is in the haggert. Help, help,” she cried at the top of her voice, “the fox, the fox.”
Everyone seemed to arrive together: the dog and Mikey, Mossy, and Simon who were on their way in for the milking when they heard the shouting. They were all looking at Katty, her face tear stained and her eyes blazing.
“Can’t ye see what’s after happenin’,” she bawled, “lookit me hens, will ye. Can’t ye go and get the bastard fox and don’t be standin’ there,” and she bent down to pick up the nearest “body”.
The hen fluttered awake and ran off squawking. The colour drained from Katty’s face as she touched the next corpse which also woke. The men began to titter as Katty gave the next one a savage kick, causing it a rude awakening. And on she went, wielding her big boots in a service of resurrection while her audience howled with laughter and ribbed her unmercifully.
Katty glowered at them all, picked up her bucket, wiped her nose with the tail of her apron and started back towards the house. The laughter tapered off and Mossy ventured, “Shure, I’d say this was only the young fellas that done it for divilment, Katty.”
“Well,” said Katty, quietly, “we’ll see about that.” She was standing by the dairy now, looking at the town boy’s bike and his sweet can, Then she headed for the kitchen door, calling over her shoulder, “’Tis milking time, get in the cows.”
The two culprits had cleared out fast when the first hen woke, slipped out on the yard side of the hayshed, down the back avenue into the meadow beyond where they laughed and rolled about in the grass, mimicking Katty in her distress, and hooting with laughter till their sides were sore. Afterwards they went on down the strand where they re-enacted whole charade, taking it in turns to be Katty and using piles of seaweed as the sleeping hens. Finally they headed back towards the farm, flushed and tired.
The milking was over and they could see the cows on the hill road going back to the fields. The town boy knew it was time to collect his can of milk an’ get home for tea and Kevin had decided to get back into the house through the orchard door before Katty got back from the dairy. It was her practice to supervise the milking, see the various churns and cans filled correctly and separate the cream before tea time.
The town boy eased his way through the wicket gate behind the calf house and peeped round the corner. His milk can was filled and ready on the trestle table by the dairy door. He could hear Katty inside washing the separator cups and laying them out to dry on the butter table. He walked quietly to his bike and wheeled it over to the table. He reached out quickly, gripped the wire handle of the can for a quick lift and an even quicker getaway. For some unknown reason, however, the handle came adrift at one side and six pints of milk hit him on the chest, soaking him clear to the soles of his feet. In the process he fell over and the bike landed on top of him.
He looked up to find Katty standing over him, reaching down to lift the bike and, as he stole a sidelong glance at her face, he could see the gap in her teeth. She was actually smiling!
“Mossy,” she commanded, “bring up a clean sack here, the poor little townie fella is afther drowndin’ himself with the milk.” Mossy obeyed and helped the lad up, wiping him vigorously with a rough, musty grain sack.
“Aw, begod,” he said, “ye’ll hafta learn how to lift a can of milk if ye’re to live in the country.” He laughed as the boy began to squelch about in the milk filled shoes, trying to pull the wet clothes out from his body. Katty was laughing too and Simon and Mikey came on the scene and gave the boy a cruel, country ribbing.
Quite suddenly, Katty said, “that’ll do ye now, get on about yeer bisiness the lot of ye,” and, to the boy, “come in here, child, till I fix that can and fill it for ye.”
With that, she took a pliers from the pocket of her apron and deftly closed the loop at the end of the handle and clipped it in place.
“Get on yer bike now, and I’ll hand ye the can in case ye’d spill it again,” she said. The town boy did as he was bid.
“Thanks, Katty,” he said quietly, very close to tears now and, as he looked at her, he thought her hard features softened a little as she said, “Go on now boy and I hope yer mother won’t be too hard on ye.”
He cycled slowly out the gate and as he freewheeled towards home he kept getting this picture of Katty taking the pliers from her apron pocket. He was in sight of his own gate when it dawned on him.
“The bloody oul bitch, “he whispered to himself, “she did it on me. There was nothing wrong with that can at all. She doctored the handle on purpose” …and he still had his mother to face!
What followed when the town boy got home is best forgotten. Suffice it to say that words like ‘Amadan’ and ‘butterfingers’ were used and his brother gave him a proper roasting particularly since an examination of the can revealed no fault in the handle. The boy went to bed sore and sorry for himself.
In the farmhouse tea time came and as the table filled up Simon asked Mossy if he had remembered to leave the alarm clock in the haggert to wake the hens in the morning.
Laughter exploded and Mikey capped Simon by saying that today should be known as the Day of the Headless Hens. More laughter ensued which Katty ignored and, as she began to cut more cake bread, she conjured up for them the misfortunes of the little town boy.
Mossy chimed in with “Begod ’twas funny alright when he stood up and the milk spurted up out of his shoes.” Kevin laughed as loudly as the rest, though he felt a twinge of uneasiness he could not quite explain.
Kevin went to bed early that night, partly because he was tired, but also to keep out of Katty’s way, just in case of repercussions.
He woke next morning to her usual call, “Come on, Kevin, breakfast!” He stepped out of bed, straight down on a sharp pebble. The pain was savage and he hopped about holding his foot, only to land on another pebble. He yelled in pain, hopping and jumping about and landing on a pebble every other time. Eventually he got out on to the landing, crying with pain and trying to hold both aching feet at once. Katty came up the stairs two at a time, shouting as she came.
“What in God’s name are ye doin’ Kevin?” She got to the landing and the tearful lad pointed to the bedroom floor, littered with pebbles.
“They fell out of yer pockets when you were undressing I suppose, come on now, stop yer bawlin’ and dress yerself,” and, as she went downstairs, her final words came faintly, “maybe somebody put ’em there for a joke.”
“Some friggin’ joke,” said Kevin, trying to put a foot under him. It hurt!
The whole breakfast table had heard the story by the time Kevin appeared and everybody laughed and poked fun at him about it. He didn’t rightly know which hurt most, his pride or his feet, and when he saw Katty absently fishing three pebbles out of her apron pocket with the comment “them little stones seem to be everywhere today” he almost choked as he realised the truth of what had happened.
It was a very chastened town boy who arrived at the dairy step that afternoon and he was joined by an equally quiet, almost sullen, Kevin and they wandered up to the hayshed discussing their respective tales of woe and wondering what else was to come. They both agreed that they had tangled with a force much greater than their own and with far, far more expertise and finesse.
“Jazes boy,” said Kevin,” we should never have done that with the poor oul’ hens.”
“I know,” said the town boy, “Katty loves every one of ’em like they were children.”
“And did ye see the state she got into when she thought they were dead?” Said Kevin. “’Twas like hell at a wake.” The town boy nodded, and they fell silent, sitting in the hay. They never heard Katty coming into the shed till she spoke.
“Come on you two,” she said, “in to the kitchen. I want to talk to ye.”
They followed her in, eyeing each other fearfully. She closed the door behind them and the two sat together on the big furrim behind the table, backs to the wall, looking small and nervous.
Katty picked up a huge knife and quickly cut two long slices off a fresh soda cake and spread them with salty butter and newly made gooseberry jam. Next she poured two mugs of tea and laced them with plenty of milk and three spoons of sugar each. She began to talk quietly and as she talked she moved the feast towards the two boys.
“I was wonderin’, said she slowly, “if ye’d agree with somethin’ I read there a while ago about practical jokes. It was this fella was sayin’ that practical jokes are great fun for everybody, except the one havin’ the joke played on him. What would ye say to that now?”
“I’d say ’twas the truth,” said the town boy.
“An I’d say the man was right too,” said Kevin without hesitation.
“Well,” said Katty, “I was thinkin’ the same meself. Now, let ye ate up and drink up and be out of my kitchen in five minutes.”
The boys needed no second invitation, but grabbed the delicious bread and sucked up the sweet tea gratefully and exchanged a meaningful glance over the top of the steaming mugs.
Katty turned her back and pretended to poke the fire.
A small farmer engaged to be married to a very plain looking, but wealthy, girl was asked if he couldn’t have got a prettier prospect. He replied –
“Well, I reckoned that a bit of money never spoiled a good lookin’ girl.”
©Geoff Cronin 2005
About Geoff Cronin
I was born at tea time at number 12 John Street, Waterford on September 23rd 1923. My father was Richard Cronin and my mother was Claire Spencer of John Street Waterford. They were married in St John’s Church in 1919.
Things are moving so fast in this day and age – and people are so absorbed, and necessarily so, with here and now – that things of the past tend to get buried deeper and deeper. Also, people’s memories seem to be shorter now and they cannot remember the little things – day to day pictures which make up the larger canvas of life.
It seems to me that soon there may be little or no detailed knowledge of what life was really like in the 1930s in a town – sorry, I should have said City, in accordance with its ancient charter – like Waterford. So I shall attempt to provide some of these little cameos as much for the fun of telling as for the benefit of posterity.
Thank you for visiting today and I hope you have enjoyed this glimpse of Waterford in the 1930s courtesy of Geoff Cronin. As always your feedback is very welcome. thanks Sally.