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 Financier and The Farmer’s Wife 1936
Smullian was a Jew who lived in Parnell Street when I was a boy. His wife was by way of being a very good singer and featured in the Wallace Grand Opera Society which had been thriving there in my father’s time.
Smullian had a brass plate on the outside of his front door which glittered and said “J. SMULLIAN. FINANCIER”. In fact, he had a money lending business and he also bought and sold “job” lots of groceries and salvage from marine claims which arose in the port from time to time – there was a considerable cargo trade in and out of Waterford Port in those years.
The money-borrowing clients, mostly poor people, would not necessarily be in the market to buy salvage goods from Smullian, but he was well known among the farming people of the outlying areas who came to town once a week to sell their butter and eggs and were always on the lookout for a bargain of any kind.
Cute farmers, and the equally cute wives of these cute farmers, were known to have dealings with Mr. Smullian from time to time, and it was generally agreed that “he’d have the odd bargain, alright”.
One such lady from the agricultural community dropped in to Smullian’s office about mid-day on a Saturday, after selling her butter in High Street Market. It was a casual visit to see if he had anything interesting to sell, or rather to see if he had anything at all useful at an interesting price.
Smullian treated his client with the utmost deference, he informed her that he had a consignment of Dutch matches, which he fully recommended and she could have a packet of twelve boxes for ninepence, saving a massive 33⅓ percent on shop prices. She looked at the open sample box carefully. She knew, of course, that anything coming from a foreign place could be suspect, but they had good strong stems and fat round heads and she plunged.
“Ninepence it is” she said counting out three coppers and a sixpenny bit and she put the packet in her basket, covering it carefully with newspaper so that “nobody would know her business”.
Now, threepence may not sound much of a saving to you, my dear reader, but you should know that at that time, potatoes sold for sixpence a stone (14 pounds), a seat in the cinema was fourpence, and you could buy five Woodbine cigarettes for two pence, or four apples for a penny. So, a woman who saved threepence on one transaction, could well feel pleased with herself.
This particular lady was well pleased as she drove home to her little farmhouse with her husband in their pony and trap. She had already decided to buy another dozen boxes of these matches next Saturday, and that would see her through the winter months. She had also decided to say nothing to her neighbour ’till the week after, when maybe they’d be all gone.
Eight o’clock mass that Sunday morning was in a cold church, two and a half miles drive from the farm, and it was near ten o’clock by the time they got home, and she knelt at the hearth to light the fire and put on the kettle for the tea. “Himself” was coming in after unyoking the pony when he heard his wife fervently cursing on her knees by the hearth.
“The divil blast that bloody Jewman for a swindlin’ bastard” she ranted.
“Hauld on there girl” said himself, “what’s wrong at all?”
“These God cursed Dutch matches won’t light,” she said, tears of rage and shame rolling down her face, for she had boasted of her bargain to her husband on the way home.
He picked up the box and tried to strike one. No good – another, the head crumpled – one more, not a spark. He put down the box, smiled indulgently at her, and said “you were codded girl” and handed her his own box of “decent” matches.
She lit the fire, got the breakfast, and life proceeded in the house. After the breakfast, she took the dozen packets of Dutch matches and placed them carefully on the chimney-breast, beside the picture of the Sacred Heart, and thought about next Saturday and her anger simmered.
When next Saturday came, she went to town as usual and on arrival she marched with resolute step to the door with the brass place which said J. Smullian, Financier. She went in and rapped on the little office counter.
As Smullian appeared, greeting her graciously, she slammed down the matches, which incidentally had dried off to perfection after spending the week on the chimney piece.
“Them matches are useless,” she snapped. “They won’t light and I wants me ninepence back, and I may say you have a neck to be coddin’ decent people out of their hard earned money.”
“Just a minute Ma’am” he said, totally ignoring the insult. “Let me see.” He took up the nearest box and opened it taking out a match. He looked at it carefully, and then, lifting up his knee in front of him, he reached behind and swished the match swiftly along the underside of his buttock, the friction causing the match to light perfectly. He blew it out and took out another, and repeated the process, and again it lit. As he extinguished the third match, he closed the packet and moved it towards her with a smile.
“There’s nothing whatever wrong with these matches, dear lady,” he said “They light perfectly.”
She reddened with anger and replied “It’s all very well for you to say that Mr. Smullian, but where the hell do ye think I’m going to find a Jewman’s arse at seven o’clock in the morning when I want to light a fire?”
I leave it to you to guess whether or not she recovered her ninepence!
Mikey was a very short man who rode a very old, very high bike. He was described by one of his colleagues as being –
“Like a cat up on a pair of scissors.”
©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.