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.
James the Landlord – 1939
When I lived in Woodstown in the 1930s our house was on the edge of a sandy beach which stretched for half a mile in either direction and our landlord, James, lived in the cottage next door.
James was a lean, old, guy in his late eighties. He had a full head of curly hair, a square foxy beard and spent a lot of his days chopping firewood from a huge stock of logs in his front yard. In his young days James had been a stone mason and his wife had been the cook in the “big house” which now stood deserted on the wooded estate nearby.
There was an eight foot high storm wall which ran the length of our house – and the cottage next door. This protected both properties from the sea when the tides ran high. In the winter we had to barricade the french windows at the back of the house and I clearly remember going to sleep to the regular thump of waves crashing against that wall. In the summer holidays those french windows were always open and we could just walk out, pop over the wall and be on the beach, or in the sea if the tide was a high one.
James the Landlord, collecting cockles
On a fine evening, after she had listened to the nine o’clock news on our battery radio, my mother would stroll out to the storm wall for a quiet smoke and a chat with James. He would also have heard the news and it would be discussed in detail, as well as the weather forecast. James knew how to turn on the radio and how to connect the batteries but he had no clear idea of how it worked or what “airwaves” were. The Irish broadcasting station was “Athlone”, the BBC was just “The English Station” and the whole apparatus was popularly known as “The Wireless”.
On one occasion James’s wireless broke down and when the local bus arrived he handed it to the bus driver with instructions to bring it to the wireless man in town and ask him how much to fix it. On his return the bus driver reported that it would cost thirty shillings to fix it – it needed a new valve. James was shocked at the cost and told the bus driver to enquire “what would he charge just to fix Athlone!”! After much argy-bargy he capitulated, paid the thirty bob and the wireless was returned “as good as new!”
I recall the time when King George V of England was ill and dying and there were hourly bulletins from Buckingham Palace regarding his condition. Mother and James were in conversation about it:
“Well James,” she said. “What do you think about the news?”
“Ah ma’am they’re bulletin about it all day,” he replied, “and I think meself that the poor bloody bugger is shagged.”
He was right you know and the king died next day.
When the war came and the German propaganda machine came into play the infamous James Joyce, or Lord Haw Haw as he was known, could be heard coming through the BBC line and contradicting everything the English announcer would say. Because of the varying strength of the signals, each station would come and go amid bursts of crackling interference. James thought their contests were very entertaining and he would refer to the announcers as The German and The Englishman.
One evening the contest had been hot & heavy and James described it to my mother as follows:
“The Englishman came on the wire and he commenced giving out the news and the next thing was The German got up behind him and shoved him off the wire. Then, after a while, The Englishman got strong and managed to get back up on the wire and you couldn’t hear The German at all, except in fits and starts. But then, after The German got a rest, he got up on the wire along with The Englishman and they started shouting at each other and there was a fierce struggle and be the ’tarnal didn’t The Englishman get the better of The German and pushed him off altogether. Then The German got right wicked and commenced shovellin’ gravel up agin the wire for pure spite. After that we got the rest of the English news and there was no sign of Lord Haw Haw, but begod it was a right battle between the two of ’em.”
Incidentally, the “gravel” was radio interference which occurred when the station was being “jammed” and there was a conflict of signals.
James told my mother on another occasion that he was giving up listening to the weather forecast from Athlone and was changing his allegiance to The Englishman because he was “giving out much better weather!”
At an earlier stage I began getting slightly envious of James because he owned three goats which provided him with milk. He also had two dogs, Mikey and Barney, who used to come running when I played the mouth organ and they would sit down in front of me and howl unmercifully.
I had a dog of my own, a female named Jack, which I had acquired from a man called Larry who was famous for having a wooden leg. Incidentally, for a fee of a penny Larry would hand you his stick and let you hit his leg with it. This went on for some time until one kid hit him an unmerciful whack on the wrong leg! Needless to say, the air turned blue on that occasion and the culprit’s parentage was called into question in no uncertain manner and this ended the “penny a whack” game.
Now, I couldn’t wait to have my own goat and I got a kid through the generosity of a pal I used to meet on the school bus. He told me to call to his parents’ farm and I could take one of the kid goats recently born there. I gladly accepted and having walked the two miles to his place I then had to carry the kid back to my home in my arms. There is an old saying “Even a hen is heavy if you carry it far enough!” – and I really learned the truth of that by the time I got home.
With the aid of a baby’s bottle I fed the kid until it was strong enough to join James’s “herd” as they went out to graze. I called her Dora and she would follow me about like a dog. When in time she had kids herself and was giving milk I only had to whistle and she would come to be milked.
Woodstown 1937 – Left to Right James (The Landlord), Two workers at the Barron Estate, Billy Gough – worker at the Salmon Weir next door to our home.
But to return to James – he was an expert carpenter, though that was not his trade. He was also a great gardener and a mine of information on all kinds of plants and vegetables. He had a large garden which supplied him with vegetables all year round and he tilled it himself until he was in his late ninety’s. As a boy, I hung around him a lot and he would help me with small carpentry jobs and advise me how to handle and feed my ferret, show me how to dig lugworms for fishing, how to milk a goat, or to harvest a can of cockles on a Friday to be eaten in lieu of fish. In short, he was the source of information about anything except new fangled contraptions like the wireless!
One day I found him in the garden, sitting on an old worn bench in a sunny corner and he was chewing on an onion. I was amazed and asked him why a raw onion? He said “you should eat everything that grows and comes in season – that’s why the lord put it there.”
James’ brother Patsy lived with him and he seemed very odd to me. It was said that he was a bit daft, to put it mildly. Apparently he had at one time farmed a smallholding in Rosduff, a nearby townsland, and he had kept pigs.
An apochryphal story told against Patsy related how when pig-feed went up in price he decided that, since pigs had no intelligence, he would simply reduce the rations to the irreducible minimum and maybe even train them to do without food altogether. The story goes that he almost had them trained when for some strange reason they died!
Our house on Woodstown Beach was a double-fronted villa type building, standing in its own grounds, and the rent was thirty pounds a year. On one occasion, when my father was paying the rent, James asked him if he would consider buying the property. The asking price was three hundred pounds and my father thought that this was exorbitant and didn’t buy. Such were the economies of the 1930s! Today’s value on the same house would be a hundred and fifty thousand, at a conservative estimate.
Well, we lived there until 1942 when we returned to the city to live over the shop at 12 John’s Street. I donated Dora the goat to James for the enhancement of his “herd” and I believe she lived a long and happy life there. James lived to be over a hundred and was still chopping his own firewood until a few days before his death.
Front view of our home at Woodstown early 1930s.NB. The slats across the lower part of the window were to keep the local goats, which belonged to James the Landlord, from parking on the lower window sill.
My childhood in Woodstown was nothing short of idyllic and I have many happy memories of my time there. One thing I will never forget is the thrill of stepping out the french windows, over the wall and onto the beach in the early morning, when it had been swept clean by the tide, and running along with sheer exuberance knowing that mine were the only footprints on the beach.
©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.