restricted access Listowel, 1950: Scenes from a North Kerry Childhood
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Listowel, 1950:
Scenes from a North Kerry Childhood

October Fair

Early in the day the best place to be is at the outskirts of the town. The arriving farmers, on the go since the inky hour of 4 am, trailing in from stark outlying parishes, their half-breed collies abandoned, tethered in some outhouse, howling in desolation. The women too left behind, alert at the hearth, in wrap-around aprons and turned-down wellington boots, ready-reckoning this year's price of bullocks and heifers, fixing crooks on cranes, adjusting heights of skillets and pots above the flames, mixing mash for hens, fattening geese and turkeys for the Christmas market. These women, the lighters of Sacred Heart lamps, the gatherers of rushes for Brigid's Crosses, the Holy Well guardians and custodians of tradition, carry stories of fairs that have come down through the female line from generation to generation. Women isolated in the hinterlands of Derra East and Derra West, Bunaghara and Kylebui. All those women in navy wrap-around bibs, with the turned-down wellingtons chaffing red rings around their collops, all inhabiting their various dawns on the hills outside Listowel.

And by now their men, owners of smallholdings in Kerry North, are driving through Knockanure, Ratoo, and Rathea. Demented men, cursing cattle that are bolting for every gap, flailing ashplants on the rump of any gaddy cow. Men who are converging on Listowel, dead set on getting in early, dead set on staking a claim to a prime pitch at the big October fair.

On the edge of town, ready for ambush, tanglers are poised. Trained by jobbers, these veterans are armed with insult; curt Northern dialects training the crosshairs of their sights on infiltrating lines; observing herds, targeting the men who drive them.

Only a desperate man would bring yon bag o' bones to the fair!

You'll be taking them back the long road again the night.

Those tanglers are market-day guerrillas. Those tanglers are snipers aiming to maim. Out in the pale light of dawn, incoming droves and drovers jostling and steaming into their deadly range. They shoot barbed comments, like dumdum bullets, rapid bursts to test resolve. 'Tis going to make a horrid hard winter the year. Beasts going hungry. More grass in a window box than any field. And then [End Page 9] they are gone. The flying column of morale-maimers and spirit-sappers evaporate into the grey air.

The Bunyan urchin is guzzling lemonade and devouring Thin Arrowroot biscuits in the shelter of a laneway, instead of watching his father's couple of scrawny cows. Those animals are arching their crusted tails in tandem, discharging spouts of olive green scour, slubbering the lot on Dolly Quigley's deck-scrubbed doorstep. Shortly she'll be out giving vent to her spinster's spleen.

In the Market Yard the first black man in creation—the only black man in creation—our annual medicine man, has laid out his apothecary; pills, powders, potions, guaranteed to cure whitlows, boils, sties, and carbuncles. Squeezing between the gawking crowds, I can see his traditional prop, a white saucer at the front of his table, ready for his party piece. I spot the usual penny smeared in brown sauce lodged at the center of the saucer. He's in full swing with his routine, warning of chilblains, distemper, constipation. He takes up the saucer and holds it aloft like a votive offering. In the silence, his black eyes swivel from side to side. Though I know from last year what's coming next, I can hardly wait. At last, he swipes the penny clean and slowly, between dexterous index finger and thumb, he turns the coin for all to see: grimy on one side, gleaming on the other.

If brown sauce do this to copper, he thunders. What it do to your bellies, man!

Excitement still persistent in my wake, I leave the market yard. Just outside I witness the Widow Shine barring— in no uncertain terms—Tody Flaherty from her licensed premises. The Widow is proprietor now; no more drinks "on the slate." Swaying solemnly at the curb, Tody Flaherty hitches his trousers...