Watchmen and Snorting Coke. Balbriggan Street Corner.

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Photo courtesy of the Ulster American Folk Park 

This photograph is one hundred years old and yet it is as clear as the day it was taken. Only the horse has ignored the instruction to stand perfectly still.  As children, we looked up to men like these, men at ease in the world of hard work, farm animals and machinery powered by muscle power alone. They laboured in harmony with the swing of the farming year. They always seemed to be at ease with their place in the world and with one another. Nevertheless, the work was relentlessly hard. They grumbled and swore when things went wrong. They complained about the weather and at the prices their produce fetched, as farmers still do. They rose at ungodly hours and worked until dark. They tended the land and passed it on to the next generation, when the labour bent and warped them and the rain, seeping through damp clothing, stiffened their joints with arthritis. Yet they were winners in the old sense, struggling with the land and winning a living, when times were good. ‘Strong farmers.’ There is a danger of romanticising that farming life. The title tells another story. How many thousands and thousands of labouring people emigrated to find new and better lives in America and elsewhere. Faraway hills are green. How many disappeared into the great void of emigration. Ireland looks back at centuries of parting. We are good at looking back. We have the sad songs and poetry to prove it. Yet the working year went around. The sun shone and the rain fell. The ground was tilled and the harvest drawn in. Horses plodded down furrows and hooves clip-clopped in the streets. Men in their Sunday suits, stood at Balbriggan Street corner, after half-eleven Mass and discussed the weighty matters of the world.

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The little garden is in itself, a triumph over tarmacadam and concrete but it took away a comfortable nook sheltered by two whitewashed gable ends. A select group of men congregated at this vantage point to talk and smoke and observe the infrequent traffic. I was told by a local historian, i.e. a very old man, that this was the relic of a hiring fair from years long past, a fossil from a distant era, when a day’s labour could be the difference between survival and starvation. They wore their Sunday clothes and invariably their watch chains. They often took out their watches, as if some more pressing business were calling them away. I always wanted a watch and chain and a waistcoat to dangle it from. I wanted to stand in their company, but I was too young and would have had nothing to contribute to the conversation. Like with any good club, non members were rigorously excluded, not by any written constitution or a bag of black balls, but by heredity, seniority and convention. They were generally quiet civil men who would greet even a passing urchin like myself, with a wink or a sideways flick of the head. Like Mass itself, the meeting at Balbriggan Street corner was an integral part of the Sabbath day when labour was temporarily set aside and people greeted their neighbours. By half past one the meeting had thinned out and business was adjourned.

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Around the corner to the left,stood Miss Collins’s shop, flanked by two enamel signs for Players and Goldflake. If you hunkered down you could pretend to be smoking a giant cigarette. This was hilarious. No it wasn’t. Yes it was. Our father would sometimes interrupt the argument by taking us inside for a fizzy drink, ginger beer or American cream soda, while he bought his cigarettes. He was never without his Players medium, except for one winter’s night when supplies ran out and it was too cold and too late to go down the road for more. He was unbearable. ‘Why not ask **** for a couple to tide you over?’  ‘That’s a good idea.’ He mused for a minute. ‘I don’t like that bloody fellow. I wouldn’t want to be beholden to him.’  ‘ You can give them back to him in the morning.’ He poked the fire vigorously. ‘Bloody so and so. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. He’s probably in bed anyway. Bloody layabout. Should get a proper job.’ Everyone was to blame for the shortage of tobacco. We stayed out of his way.

There was a wooden bench against the wall in Miss Collins’s shop, under a picture of a red-faced boy in a state of ecstasy, chewing a Rowntrees fruit gum. We competed in imitating the boy. Hilarious again, until the ginger beer fizzed up the nose. ‘Stop that bloody caffling.’ He was only in the process of replenishing his supplies. Even more hilarious. Splutters all round. Pepsi was even more hazardous and then there was Coke. The whole world drank Coke and sang about it. It was/maybe still is, sophisticated to drink Coke. When we first encountered it, the original cocaine additive had long been removed, but it could still cause havoc if it got up your nose on a Sunday morning in Miss Collins’s shop.

Some of the men from around the corner, came in for tobacco or matches. Our father chatted with them. We kicked our heels and tried to make the drink last. One of the men had a big pocket watch. When he sprang the lid open it chimed or played a tune, like a music box. The notes sprinkled out of the silver case and hung magically in the air. We stopped caffling. He was proud of his watch, knowing the spell it cast. Sometimes at a threshing or in the street, we would stop him and ask the time. He would produce the watch with a smile and play the little tune. The time didn’t matter. He had a moustache and a waistcoat with a chain across the front. Men wore retired Sunday suits to work. They rolled up their shirt sleeves and got on with the job. Strong farmers. Every boy, at some stage in life, wants to be a farmer.

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How could I remember the man on top of the hay cart a century ago? The war was a time warp. Watches were synchronised to the nineteen twenties or thirties. For two decades, farm work reverted to the age of the horse and cart. Traffic disappeared. There was dung in the streets and farmyards in the middle of the town. There was much to talk about at Balbriggan Street corner. The meeting has been adjourned now for many years…..sine die. The garden is looking well.

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At the other end of the row was Annie Murray’s sweet shop. She couldn’t stock ice cream because she had no electricity She had an oil lamp on the counter to keep her warm on a winter’s night. It cast a welcoming glow. I went in for a fizzy drink. That was before children were obliged to become obese and  hyper from fizzy drinks. I asked for a straw. ‘May I have a straw please, Miss Murray?’  ‘What do you want a straw for?’  ‘To drink through.’  ‘Oh, I couldn’t let you do that. Sure there’d be beetles and insects of all kinds in straws.’   Not very sophisticated at all, was she?.

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