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. I hope those who have already read these stories will enjoy again and that new readers will discover the wonderful colour of life in Ireland nearly 100 years ago.
The Price Of A Habit – 1937
Birth and death are common events in the life of a farm and people of the land tend to be stoical about such matters. In the 1930s, farming where I lived was at a low ebb. Things were very tough on the land and you had to be tough in every respect to make any kind of living on a farm.
A farmer’s wife had no soft options then. She worked in the house, lucky if she had water laid on, managed the family, the small yard animals, the dairy, the fowl and all produce from those areas. To her, a shilling was a shilling and if anyone knew the value of it in real terms, she surely did.
So it was, when her husband died and the priest and the doctor were gone, the woman tackled the pony and drove into town to complete the funeral arrangements. She stabled the pony in Dower’s yard at the Car Stand and made her way up John St. to the far end of the Apple Market.
In the corner of the Market Square was Davey Power’s Undertaking Establishment and Coffin Shop and, when he had sympathised with the widow, a price for the coffin of her choice was negotiated.
This done, she said, “Well now, Mr. Power, what are you going to charge me for a decent habit (shroud) to bury him in?”
“Five shillin’s,” he answered.
“Is that the best you can do, now, Mr. Power,” she said, “and me buyin’ the coffin an’ all?”
“That would be the very best I could do, ma’am, for a good decent habit, “he replied, “an’ you won’t do better.”
“Thanks, Mr. Power,” she said, “but I’m goin’ up the town and I think I’ll do a lot better. I’ll call in to ye on me way back.”
Davy Power was “crabbed”, as they say in Waterford, and sorely annoyed that his price should even be questioned.
After leaving the undertaker the woman went up Michael Street, round the corner to Patrick Street and into Veale’s Drapery Shop where she purchased a habit of reasonable quality for three shillings and sixpence. She straightened her hat while waiting for her change, put the parcel containing the habit in her basket and set off again for the undertaker’s.
As she turned the corner of the Apple Market she saw Davy standing outside the door of his shop, where it was nice and sunny, and she passed by the open hall doors where women were sweeping out their hallways and continuing with the brush across the pavement. There would be an audience for what followed!
Davy took the offensive as the woman drew near.
“Well ma’am,” he said loudly, “were you able to get a cheap habit up the town?”
“Well,” she echoed, just as loudly, “I got a very good habit in Veale’s for three and sixpence an’ it’s every bit as good as what you offered me for five shillin’s.”
With that she handed him the parcel and turned on her heel. He would be out later to coffin the man.
Davy tore the parcel open and shook the garment out of its folds and looked at it, disdain on every line of his face.
“Alright, ma’am,” he called after her, “but I must tell you this, his arse will be out through that in a week!”
Asked why he had never married, a country bachelor replied – “Why would I give away one half of me dinner to get the other half cooked?”
©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.