By Frank Cody
Saturday mornings, during childhood, brought freedom from classroom confines. There was an escape from ‘bhfuil cead agam”’and the equally repetitive ‘cuir amach do lámh’. Released from the spirit-numbing repression, we welcomed frivolous weekends with exuberance.
Admittedly they got off to a slow start, courtesy of mundane chores. Yards had to be tidied, shopping expeditions made, ‘messages’ collected. Yard duty saw me ensconced in the shed, seeking the soft path, perusing the exploits of Desperate Dan or The Bash Street Kids. Again, my easily distracted amblings meant serious delay in obtaining shopping items. Therefore it was my lot to procure the coal.
Off with the wheelbarrow, down Ballybought Street across the ’Comer Road, descending into the bowels of the Gas House to collect a half hundred weight of sea coal. If there is a more technical name for this pulverized bituminous fuel, I am unaware of it. The working environs to a young mind was a wonderland. Men were stripped to the waist shovelling coal into sacks and casually throwing them on large scales to be weighed. Satisfied, they would heft it into the wheelbarrow and you were ready.
Initial endeavours, with the stuffed sack lying flat along the bottom of the barrow, made the return journey a struggle. Enlightenment came when my father showed me how to ease the burden by bringing the sack upright to the front of the barrow. My obvious joy at this discovery delighted him: “Typical… You’re so busy learning the tricks of the trade you haven’t time to learn the trade” (aka ‘The Parable of the Radical Son’).
The day, flammable material safely home, was all mine – well, almost.
Two other impediments, on alternate Saturdays, halted progress. The first was Confession. Why a preteen needed to attend this service with such regularity baffled me. Attendance during teenage years was, perhaps, a tad more necessary. Reciting my misdemeanours, I appreciated the darkened box. Always did so until a long time cleric of the parish interrupted “Bless me, Father” with “Hello, Frankie, how are you?” Never again, I pledged, as I regained the daylight.
The second impediment was a haircut. Like confession, the twice monthly trip to the barber seemed a smidge excessive. Neither my sins nor my hair, I thought, needed such minute attention.
The family barber of choice was John Finn. Making my way, I clutched a ‘tanner’ for the haircut and ‘thruppence’ for a treat afterwards. Distractions multiplied as I neared the destination. Mac Tiernan’s sweet shop had a collection of exotic confectionery. Daly’s ensured a vast array of comic books were visible through the window. The Mascot was full of creamy delights.
Entry into the barber shop seemed a visit back in time, even in the 1960s. This emporium was old fashioned. The brightly lit room had, parallel to the back wall, a long timber bench polished by generations of queuing bottoms.
Ageing men crammed the shop. Squeezing in, you waited, patiently. Talk and cigarette smoke engulfed the room. Hurling chat dominated. Here I first heard of Jimmy Langton and relished the exploits of the county’s most potent goal scorer, Sam Carroll.
Two high-backed chairs, for clients, fronted mirrors. Shelves along the wall contained jars of Brylcreem, various hair oil preparations, combs, scissors, wigs and other paraphernalia of the trade. Gazing at the scarcity of hair on seated heads, you would imagine the visit would be a quick one. Not a chance! John Finn was a perfectionist who took particular pride in his work. Each head got the full treatment. Clippers and scissors were wielded expertly, with a step back, a slight adjustment, until the tonsorial result satisfied the master. Young or old, the cut was the same, short back and sides, no deviation.
Adjustable seating had yet to discover John Street. So children sat perched on a board placed across the arms of the chair. On completion, a generous amount of oil was massaged into the scalp prior to the final comb. If nothing else, it kept flying insects at bay.
Departing, anxious to spend the thruppence, I would recall my mother’s prophesy that I was bound for Borstal. I laughed to think, if it was to be, I had the haircut for it.
Ignoring earlier attractions, I would race to Paddy Kirwan’s on the corner of the ’Comer Road and Ballybought Street. Within those walls tobacco, bread, biscuits, sweets, butter, jams lived in close proximity, producing a glorious and unique aroma. My choice was bullseyes and acid drops, packed into paper bags.
A pragmatic choice, since Paddy always gave extra. I would venture onwards, my penny change allowing the purchase of two Black Jacks in Meaney’s.
Carefully, for it was to last three days, I would divide the bounty, storing it safely under the mattress. A few surreptitious visits to sample the goods saw a mental realignment and acknowledgement that the booty would only last the weekend. Three o’clock brought consternation and devastation on discovering the stockpile had completely disappeared. I always suspected there was a little man residing under my bed.
The remainder of the afternoon passed in a flurry of activity with friends, before the final bit of tradition. Every Saturday, seven o’clock onwards, all the boys had a weekly bath ¬– whether we needed it or not. Afterwards, sitting around the wireless, the family listened to ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ with John O’Donovan, as busy day eased into somnolent evening.
Today, as I stroll the city, I often glimpse, in shop windows, an overweight man, a constant companion. And I realize, however belatedly, who it was that lived under my bed and devoured all those treats.
Extra photos with thanks to Denis Brett