The Avondhu - By The Fireside
A BELLYFUL OF DUTCH COURAGE
Last week, I was chatting to a girl (all of mature years like myself ) with whom I had worked in the Cheese Department in the Creamery many years ago. As we started reminiscing, the topic fell to St. Fanahan’s Day. Regarded as a church holiday in Mitchelstown then, her memory was of the ‘cheese girls’ queuing for the early Cork bus to spend their money in the city.
I began thinking of the famous day in Mitchelstown and obviously ‘the Well’, but decided there was a chapter there to be written alone, so shifted my memories to the “merrygo-rounds” which my grandmother called the “hurdy-gurdies”. I now know that a hurdygurdy is a musical instrument, but I liked the words anyway.
The location was Davy Whelan’s mucky field at the top - or end - of Church Street, depending on your approach. There, a big tent or rather a patched up tarpaulin was erected with a belching stove in the centre with never a safety guard on site or in sight. The smell of diesel, putrified straw and sawdust was nauseating, which the Bingo goers were oblivious to and curiously, women were the main gamblers. Ironically, it was the Catholic Church who introduced Bingo to Ireland in the 1960s, my memories coinciding with it being all the rage.
With the caller shouting “Two Fat Ladies”, “All The Sixes” and “Kelly’s Eye”, sedate matronly women like my mother became raving dervishes. I recall the spite and venom when a previous winner called “Check!”, incredulity as one waited for the winning number for the third time that night and claims of a swindle when a certain number rarely appeared.
THE REAL ATTRACTION
But, it was outside in the biting cold with dampness oozing through your shoes that the real attractions were for a teenager. Having saved the money for the hurdy-gurdies, let me recall the choices.
Firstly, let’s discount the carousel or the ‘hobby horses’ as we called them. These were no majestic dancing steeds, but chipped and gaudy wooden shapes. They were for the little ones or those looking for a trance like state, as they circled inanely listening to such sentimental slush as Bobby Goldsboro’s ‘Honey I Miss
You’ (actually I never found out how Honey died!?) or even worse Tiny Tim squeaking ‘Tip Toe Through the Tulips’ . Gosh, I almost forgot ‘Sugar, Sugar’.
On reflection, all this now lends some weight to the expression “Get off your hobby-horse”.
Next up were the chair o’ planes, also known as the ‘flying chairs’ - in no way comparable to the white knuckle rides of today’s arcades, but in my view considerably more dangerous. Suspended by dubious chains with more suspect restraints, there were no height and weight restrictions, an operator who seemed invariably drunk, no safety announcements and the threat of a mechanical error that could see you landing in Mrs Myles’ Shop. Thankfully, it never happened. As for accident insurance, any falls were deemed misfortunate and careless.
Climbing higher were the swinging boats. Consider it, a heavy wooden boat being launched by two surly muscle men while the two occupants hung on to the ropes which passed through an overhead pulley to get the boat riding higher and higher. My memory of those ropes is of them being frayed, greasy and rain soaked. Hopefully you were smart enough to have worn a trousers, otherwise your knickers was literally and most definitely in a twist! And how did you come down from this ‘ride of your life’, you were brought to a shuddering halt as the operators inserted a plank of wood under the boat to bring you slap bang down to the ground.
But the piece de resistance were the bumper cars or to my English cousins, ‘the dodgems’. These electrically powered two seaters, drawing power from the ceiling with the smell of sulphur and the crackling static, were in a class of their own. All life was there from the timid to the outrageous. I can still see them, the Casanovas with their arms draped casually around their lady, Mammy with her elbows tucked in as her daredevil son screeched around the circuit, the boyos up from John Leahy’s or May Howard’s with a bellyful of Dutch courage, the Mario Andretti or Jackie Stewart of the racing world , the Sunday driver and the learner driver. All were living their dream in a metallic box in a dreary November field.
Yes, I can hear them now, the teenagers screaming, the guffaws, the riotous laughter, the swearing of the pile up, the shout of the operator of one way round and the roaring silence of Mammy as she boxed the ears off her darling son!
I have been to Florida, I have come down Big Thunder Mountain. I have flown through space in a simulator. I have been in the bell tower of Notre Dame with the Hunchback, sat in a giant tea cup, sailed through and sang ‘It’s a Small World After all’, partaken in the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, screamed through the tilt and dip of Splash Mountain.
Yet on the dreary canvas of a November evening in a muddy field in a country town, the gaudy coloured lights, the smell of diesel, sulphur and vinegary chips, the laughter, the shouts, the wink of a boy, the monotonous music, are - to paraphrase Gar in Philadelphia Here I Come - a “memory - distilled of all its coarseness and what’s left is - precious, precious gold…”