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 Art Of Making Snares 1934
When I was a boy, seventy years ago, rabbits were as plentiful in the countryside as seagulls at the seaside. They were a valuable source of food for poor people – at a time when work was scarce and badly paid and Social Welfare was non-existent. If you didn’t have work you went hungry, or depended on the charity of neighbours, unless you had a bit of land on which to grow things to eat or to sell.
The famous Mrs. Beeton’s instructions in her cookery book on how to make rabbit stew began with “First catch your rabbit”, and the methods for so doing were varied. To hunt them with dogs, you needed two, first a terrier to flush them out of the thickets, and then a fast dog to take them on the run. The latter would be a whippet, or a lurcher, which was a cross between a greyhound and a collie, or indeed any kind of mongrel that could run faster than a rabbit. If you had money, you could buy a ferret (Ten Shillings) and a run of purse-nets for sixpence each, or a hank of netting twine and make the nets yourself. Gin traps were often used too, but most people felt they were a cruel method. Last on the list was a snare, made by twisting together several strands of fine brass wire, and making a lasso. This would be set in the path used by a rabbit, and secured with stout string to a peg driven into the ground beside the rabbit run. When the rabbit ran down his path, his head went through the noose and he was held fast until the owner of the snare came at dawn and put him in his bag.
Making the snare was a vital part of the operation and as a boy fond of hunting I longed to know exactly how to make them. I had visions of catching rabbits for the pot or maybe even selling them for sixpence each as some of the locals did.
In my quest for this vital knowledge, I met with Jack, a casual farm worker who had nine children. It was well known that they practically lived on rabbits, and that Jack was the expert on anything to do with hunting, including making snares. He took me with him a few times into the depths of the local woodlands, where he marked some likely rabbit runs suitable for laying snares. On one of these occasions a rabbit jumped out of a grass clump and had run about fifteen yards when Jack, without hesitation threw his stick and knocked him stone dead. On the way back, I asked Jack if he could teach me how to make a snare. I wasn’t prepared for his answer.
“If you’re going to first Mass in Crooke next Sunday, bring a coil of wire and a few eyelets with you, and I’ll show you. The shop that sells the wire has the eyelets as well.”
I agreed, and promised to meet him but wasn’t quite clear on exactly the how and where. Anyway, I got the wire for sixpence and the eyelets for tuppence, I put the lot in my back pocket where my jacket would cover it, and got the bus to Mass at 8 a.m. that Sunday with my family.
There was no sign of Jack in the chapel yard when my family and I arrived and as we entered the chapel I mentally wrote off the whole thing, telling myself that adults didn’t always keep their promises.
The stairs to the gallery, where my family always sat, had a landing, where a stained glass window was set into the wall. It was there that I found Jack, ensconced on the deep window ledge with the sun shining in on his back.
The stained glass window & ledge
He beckoned me to sit beside him. I hung back a bit as the rest of my family went on up to the gallery. Once they were out of sight of us I sat in on the ledge with him and whispered “What about the snares?” He smiled and said “At the first stand up,” and put his finger to his lips.
I knew what he meant, but I doubt, dear reader, that you will, so perhaps I should explain. The men at that time went to Mass on a Sunday largely because their women folk insisted, or had to be ferried there, or because the priest would find out if they didn’t, or because of what people might think. Anyway, it was a chance to meet other locals and have a chat before, after, and sometimes, during Mass. In general, they were quite removed from the liturgy, and hence the gospel was known as “the first stand up”, followed by “the little sit down”, and when the priest entered the pulpit for the sermon, that was “the big sit down” and could last for half an hour. But I digress!
Now, I handed the wire and the eyelets to Jack and he uncoiled a couple of feet of the wire. Then he took a three-inch nail out of one jacket pocket, and a round stone, the size of a goose egg, out of the other one. Next he took an eyelet and slipped it onto the nail, the point of which he stuck quietly into the window sill. He held the nail upright and as the congregation shuffled to its feet with the usual coughing and general noise, Jack hit the nail with the stone, driving it well into the wood. The sound was just like an iron-shod heel striking one of the metal brackets which secured the pews.
Jack then looped coils of wire around the eyelet on the nail whispering “Four strands for a rabbit, five for a hare, and six for a fox. Remember that.”
The loops of wire were about a foot long and having snapped the wire, a second nail was inserted in the free end, and I was told to twist it. I did so and in minutes, I had a miniature wire rope with an eyelet at one end. Both nails were withdrawn and the small end put through the eyelet to make a perfect noose. At the “big sit down”, the performance was repeated, and by the time the sermon was over, I had two perfect snares, which I hid under my jacket for the bus trip home.
I caught many a fine rabbit with those two snares and many others which I made with my new-found know-how, and I never forgot Jack and his kindness in showing a little boy the tricks of the trade.
Jack disappeared soon afterwards, and I heard that he had “taken the boat”, and gone to England to provide for his family. Oddly enough, I remember best the smell of his pipe, which he smoked whenever he had the price of a plug of tobacco.
The mighty hunter. Circa 1930
Description of a guy who had a prominent chin:
“He has a chin fit to poke a cat from under a bed!”
©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.