J. (snif)F. McGowan, Scruples and the Food of the Gods.


Click to enlarge.

One of the great hazards for parents in the raising of children, is the fact that children see clearly and say what they think. They haven’t yet learnt the restraints of good manners and tact. They stare. They speak aloud in church. ‘Why has that grandaddy got a big nose?’ He had too, a magnificent bulbous conk with road-maps of veins on a lurid purple background. There were little craters caused by many a siege of drink. I had been wondering about it too. ‘But why has he got a big nose?’ It was spectacular. ‘Shhh, shhh’ was the best I could manage. ‘Is this the bloody bus, Daddy? Why is it a bloody bus? We didn’t miss the bloody bus.’  ‘Shhh,shhhh.’ An attractive young lady sitting opposite, began to giggle. ‘I like the bloody bus.’  Shhh,shhh.’ We were on a warning any time that we went into J.F. McGowan’s shop. J.F.punctuated every syllable with a sniff. ‘Don’t stare.’ Don’t giggle, especially if your brother punctuates every sniff with a nudge. ‘He is scrupulously clean, you know,’ my mother would say by way of summing up the frequent discussions about J.F. We could sniff all do a sniff good sniff impression although sniff it was sniffly forbidden.  He wore a scrupulously clean white shop coat. He ran a scrupulously clean Victorian style grocery shop. Serious business was transacted there. His sisters, The Misses McGowan, ran a sweet shop next door. That was the business, or bees knees as wittier boys would say. I never quite understood that. That’s a Miss McGowan sitting at the upstairs window. A young girl. I knew her as an old lady, behind a glass counter full of sweets. You probably remember your own catalogue of sweets and toffee bars from those days. Honey-bee bars were by far my favourite. Gloriously sweet, they softened in the warmth of your hand. You could literally stretch one out to last a whole afternoon. They picked up fluff and sand from your pocket, giving extra texture. They cost a penny each. I had a penny once, a dull, brown one with a hen, a harp and some chickens.

I know what a scruple is. I learned it in the school across the road; scruples, grains and grammes..Apothecaries’ measure. We learned Troy weight and Avoirdupois tables… pounds, ounces, stones, hundredweight and tons….miles, furlongs, perches, rods….roods, acres, square miles and square miles(Irish)… Most of all, we learned how to transmute numbers into money……4×12=48…pence four shillings. 3×9=27…pence two and three. That’s two shillings and thrippence. Simple. Four shillings would buy all the purple-wrapped chocolate in The Misses McGowans’ shop across the road. There were purple boxes of chocolate in glass cases with sliding doors. Some boxes had wonderful pictures on the lids. You could paint the town red with four shillings. Cadburys painted their own town, Bournville, purple but it has no pub…so you couldn’t paint the town red anyway. Never mind. I had a penny. I could have gone to Annie Murray who sold aniseed balls and penny bars. I could also have gone to Miss Collins’s shop at the other end of the row. I hesitated. A classmate and a crony, a side-kick, a partner in crime, stopped me. He offered to swap his shiny new penny for my dirty, old worn one. He showed it to me. I was wary. Why would he do that? I should have been suspicious because of the way he held it, encircled by forefinger and thumb. I could see the shiny harp, far brighter than my one. His pal extolled the merits of shiny money. I was dazzled. I made the trade. They turned and ran. I can still see the soles of their shoes as they disappeared down the street, two clean pairs of heels. I can hear their laughter. Why would they do that?  I looked at the ha’penny in my palm in utter astonishment. There was a shiny harp all right and a shiny pig with some shiny piglets on the other side. I’m still astonished by the rip-off. That expression didn’t exist at that time. They weren’t scrupulously honest in their dealings. I had to settle for a couple of aniseed balls. It’s too late now, sixty eight years or so after the crime, to instigate legal action. I have no witnesses. I thought he was one of the good guys. I still do. Strange.

Dandelion and yellow 027

A teacher told me not to use yellow in painting. ‘Yellow is a vulgar colour’. I believed him for years and painted turgid brown pictures. One day I discovered yellow and the sun came out. There are many different yellows. My former bank manager, for whom I had written some of my best fiction, met me in a shop. ‘How’s the writing going?’ he asked. ‘Not too bad,’ I replied, ‘but I haven’t struck gold yet.’ He smiled. ”Maybe you have.’ I took his words to heart. I have managed to keep myself uncontaminated by wealth for most of my life. I never see a ‘great deal’.  I don’t think I have ever ripped off  ‘a sucker’. Neither though, have I bought any gold bricks from philanthropic fellows on street corners, or real estate in the Everglades. I learned a hard lesson outside J.F. McGowan’s. So where is the gold?

Dandelion and yellow 028

A little grandchild plucked a dandelion for his Nana, who was going into hospital for an operation. Another one gave me a chocolate egg from a yellow bag. Another one made a get-well card for her. It is bright yellow. The sun is shining.



The other grandchildren and our children, rang up with advice and encouragement. ‘These doctors know what they are doing. Don’t worry.’ An old lady in the hospital advised me to eat only yellow food, to ward off glaucoma. I will look into it. A little yellow man kept me out of the traffic. Ronald MacDonald dropped in to cheer me up. A great man, Ronald. I could never fill his shoes.

     Dandelion and yellow 026     Dandelion and yellow 023

It seems that the doctors do know what they are doing. Nana is on the mend. The sun came up this morning. The bees knees. The gold is all around us.

Dandelion and yellow 018

J.F.had his own heart-breaking personal tragedy. We should not have giggled at his sniffing, but we were children.

Creeping like snail, unwillingly to school.


There was a man living ‘down the town’ who bought a house halfway up the Dublin Road, in order to avoid this stretch, on his walk to the train every morning. This is the bit where the road runs across a causeway between Nicky Ellis’s field on the right and Foxy Gowan’s on the left. There is no hiding from the wind and rain on this stretch of road. He said that this bit of road put him in a bad mood, before the day’s work even began. The move suited him. I never saw him in a bad mood. He liked gardening, fishing and sailing. He bought a handsome, bay-windowed house with Virginia creeper all over it. He reprimanded me in later life, for not pruning my roses, with  a strong hint that he would be back to inspect them. I did as I was told.


I hated that stretch even more, because the school lay at the bottom of the road. The school was cold and draughty too. The wind found every crack and ill-fitting window. However, it had to be endured. The problem was getting there. Halfway down on the left, McCarthys lived in a bungalow, with a garden and a wooden gate.I can’t remember the McCarthys but I remember their dog. A scrabble of claws on concrete, when he detected us on the way to school; a deep soul-shuddering ‘RORF RORF’ and a crash as he hit the wooden gate at speed.The latch leaped and jangled. Would the bolt hold? He was a boxer-great Dane-mastiff-wolverine cross breed. We called him Mong, short for Mongrel, the most insulting word we knew for a dog.  The happiness or otherwise, of the day depended on whether McCarthys’ gate was open or shut. If shut, we could mutter insults as we crept past. ‘Yah, Mong.’  If open, he would chase us out onto the road, snarling and snapping. If there had been cars, which there were not, it would not have mattered. Terror is blind. I hated him. I hate him still. If I go to Hell, in the next world, however undeservedly, it will be some consolation to see him roasting on a spit of flame. Of course he may be one of my tormentors. Not if there is any justice.  I shall stroll nonchalantly through the fields of fire and brimstone, to watch the devils turning him  over the fire. ‘Yah, Mong.’

The lesser problem in going to school, was the fact that my big brothers held me by either hand. They blamed me for going too slow. In fact, they were going too fast. My little legs could not keep pace. ‘Come on! We’ll be late for tables.’  Tables were the morning ritual, a musical acquisition of knowledge. ‘Seven sevens are fortynine, four shillings and one penny. Five tens are fifty, four shillings and tuppence.’ In fact it was syncopated to ‘fornapenny, fiveantwo,’ and so on. We were human comptometers, cash registers, almost computers, by the age of six or seven.  It is only when you translate the present money into real money, do you realise that a Mars bar costs sixteen shillings. ‘We’ll be late for tables.’  After we had got past Mong, a new panic set in. They ran. I flapped between them like a ragged Tibetan prayer-flag in the cold Himalayan wind. I yelled and prayed but there was no let-up, until Daisy Cooper intervened. She spoke to my mother about the daily torture. My brothers throttled back. My feet touched the ground.

I liked Daisy. She had a good natured dog, called Kaffir. He was stiff, as if assembled from odd bits of wood. He had no knees. He was covered in short curly hair, black, with streaks of grey, probably because of the stress of living across the road from Mong. Daisy looked after her sister, who slipped on seaweed at The Springboards as a child, and broke her hip. The hip never mended. She was fortunate in having Daisy. I wondered about Daisy, Daisy, give me your anserdoo. What could that mean? We wrote Ans at the end of a sum in our copybooks. We wrote it triumphantly, like magicians pulling rabbits from hats. I tried a little literary flourish. I wrote Anser. I should have written Anserdoo, in order to introduce a little levity into the proceedings. The teacher explained that there should be a w. All very strange. I had a lot to learn. Daisy once complimented me on my whistling. That was after McCarthy’s moved away, taking their evil mongrel with them. I can say it out loud now. ‘Yah, Mong.’ I don’t know if any young man ever asked Daisy to take a spin on a bicycle-made-for-two. I wouldn’t blame her if she refused. There is a convention that the lady sits at the back. The man makes all the decisions. He enjoys the bracing fresh air. He admires the scenery. She does as much work and gets a view of his least attractive feature.


You could of course, avoid Mong, by making a detour around by the mill and down through the fields. You had to weigh the pros and cons: the joy of walking to school in peace, against the anger of the teacher for missing tables. My mathematical skills suffered and have never recovered. I find darts a challenging game. I still can’t manage money. There was a boy in school who never liked to commit himself too deeply. ‘What’s seven sevens, Andy?’  ‘About fifty, Sir.’  Near enough  for all practical purposes.

On the way home, time was on our side. We could detour through the fields and the Ballast Pit. There was a man who used to pooch through the dump. He was about three score and ten years old, impossibly old and too slow to catch you if you shouted his name. This was just as well, as he carried a sack. ‘That man will put you in a sack,’ our mother warned us. ‘He’ll take you away.’  I suppose I understand her now. He was too old to run after us. He couldn’t climb up to our cave where the remains of an old wall cantilevered out from the gravel cliff. We dug under the foundations and hid there, safe from Mong and old men with sacks.  The gravel fell away.The wall snapped off and shattered into the pit below. I have some of the blocks in my garden now, not too many as I am too old ( about three score and baker’s dozen) to be carrying lumps of old walls around. I carried them up out of the pit, in a sack. (We prune the roses assiduously—and we have planted some Virginia Creeper.)

lots of miscellaneous cashel etcetc 104

Foxy could run, though. We watched him ploughing his field, now the GAA pitch. We waited until he was at the far end and shouted ‘Yah, Foxy!’ Quite witty, but a bad move. He abandoned horse and plough and covered the length of the field in two strides. No Gaelic player has ever equalled his speed over that ground. He came up the bank and over the wall like an avenging fury, before we could even think to run. He shook us until our teeth rattled. He demanded our names. He spoke to our parents. We never shouted at Foxy after that. I wonder if he was on steroids.

Harps, schools 008

There was little or no traffic on the Dublin Road, except for Bill Harrington’s father’s car. It was, more correctly, an automobile, a Studebaker, with a kind of rocket device on the grilel and a boot that stuck out at the back. Americans would say ‘ trunk.’  No other car stuck out at the back. I remember it as being a silvery, metallic, blue, utterly glamorous and exciting to see. Cars were supposed to be black and vertical at the back. Better than a bicycle-made-for-two anyway. Nowadays, when I go to call on my brother at the top of the Dublin Road, I take my life in my hands, crossing the road. On the plus side, I can walk up the road without fear of dogs and I don’t have to go to school.