One morning recently I woke to the sound of a dog barking. Strange I thought to myself, I nearly always wake up to the sound of a heavy truck or lorry rumbling along the street below. I looked out my bedroom window, the same one (I might add) that I looked out as a child 70 years before to catch the first glimpses of the great snow blizzard that hit Boyle on the February 23rd 1947. The street was as usual devoid of a human being except for the never-ending flow of tankers, delivery trucks, juggernauts, land rovers careering through with little or no reason to stop; the street had become a right-of-way to the west, to the midlands and the south. It was a far cry from the street I grew up in; people stopping for a chat, children laughing, dogs barking, the sound of shop doors opening and closing. Charles Lambe, the famous essayist describing a similar scene from his own time, talked about “the sweet security of a street”. If he were to come back today he might form a different opinion! Having got over the commotion of the barking dog I returned to my comfort zone but was unable to get back to sleep. Instead I went on an exciting cruise down memory lane recalling life as I remembered it in Main Street, the home place well over a half century ago.
It was a bustling busy street back then, full of small shops offering a friendly and personal service to all who came through the doors. Many of the same shops have since closed, some have changed hands, others have passed on the baton to a new generation. The closed ones had now a cold lifeless look about them, their windows devoid of goods; empty spaces, graves without a cross! The collapse of the economy a decade earlier had wreaked havoc on the town and many like it around the country. The deadly virus spread like a cancer killing everything in its path, but it wasn’t the whole story. In preparing for this great boom now dead, a raft of new parking regulations and street by-laws were brought in to facilitate the never-ending flow of heavy traffic through Main Street and the town centre. These great new pillars of the economy steamrolled their way through a town that was never designed for such traffic, making it literally impossible for any business to survive. A nail the size of a crowbar was being hammered daily into the backs of the traders. The never-ending stream of dead matter took priority over people and traders alike. Caught in a catch-22 situation, the shops closed by the dozen, never to open again; it was a case of death by a thousand cuts. The same story repeated itself in many towns around the country but little sympathy was ever shown by Governments or local authorities. The state was in the process of reaping a Pyrrhic victory.
Doing an autopsy, my thoughts moved slowly from house to house whence I had a long deep look. The street had at one time been the main driveway or gateway to the King House at one end. The facades of the shops and houses had been designed to face towards the driveway rather than the river running parallel behind it. Towns of more recent vintage with a river running through have the facades of the buildings face on to them, enhanced further by boulevards of trees, shrubs and pathways. Such considerations weren’t in the offing when the Main Street was being planned. The King family had become the new landlords of Moylurg, the ancient name of the area in the early 1700s. Their country residence was in Rockingham, which today is Lough Key Forest Park. That magnificent Georgian Mansion was destroyed in a fire in 1957 and the shell that stood for a further fifteen years was regrettably levelled before An Taisce had time to stop its demolition. The King townhouse on Main Street was in time converted into a Military Barracks and became the home of the Connaught Rangers before, during, and for a time, after the First World War. Later again it housed the 19th Infantry Battalion of the national army during the years of the Second World War, and later a platoon of the F.C.A. continued to have quarters in it until very recently. Bord-na-Mona, another semi-state body, used several of the rooms as offices in the late-40s and 50s, creating a good number of jobs in the process. The great open square used by the soldiers for drill and parading also served as a handball alley which in time became a little bonanza and a playground for the new kids on the block. Around the same time a peculiar twist of history helped restore the prestige of the old building for a short period. A drainage scheme carried out on the shores of nearby Lough Gara caused the levels of the lake to drop considerably, revealing several lakeside dwellings called Crannogs. These wattled huts had been the habitat of our ancient ancestors thousands of years ago. The findings also included shells of old boats, cooking utensils, tools for tilling land and numerous other artifacts. A temporary museum was set up in rooms of the building to store the vast array of items found. Dr. Raftery, then keeper of antiquities at the National Museum, became a frequent figure around the town, smoking his pipe and perusing the landscape. He also gave a series of talks on the archaeology of the area to packed audiences in the great groundfloor hall of the building. The project at the time was regarded as being of such national significance that three extra Gardai were drafted in specifically for the duration of the work. The same three Gardai integrated themselves so well into the community, becoming members of the local GAA, golf and snooker clubs, they were given the distinguished title of ‘The Three Crannogs’ and are remembered by many to this day.
When the Barracks was finally vacated, a syndicate of local businessmen bought it and used the grounds to store large quantities of coal, turf and briquettes for resale and also as a storage depot for dance marquees. The new owners were a breed of young entrepeneurs who saw the potential for renting out marquees for open air dances, agricultural shows and various other kinds of social occasions. Dancing at the crossroads under canvas had become the new craze in the 1950s and continued for decades until the disco hall and the singing lounge brought in a complete new form of entertainment and pleasure. The attraction of the marquee reached a peak when the season of Lent was over and the long spell of abstinance had come to an end. The sight of circus-like tents raising their heads in fields outside every village and town was something to behold, they were the harbingers of the good times ‘a coming’.
With my memories of the King House now drained I turned my attention to my own place Main Street, where I first saw the light of day. There she stood in all her fullness. For a moment I thought of Fra Pandolf the artist praising his masterpiece ‘My Last Duchess’ to a friend. “There she stands,” he said. “I call that piece a wonder now. Will’t please you sit and look at her?”. Newsagents, grocers, drapers, butchers, hairdressers, electrical shops, bicycle shops, hardware shops, a music shop, a sports shop, a pharmacy, a one time R.I.C. Barracks now a restaurant, licensed premises, a merchant tailor, a hotel, a legal practice, an office of the Bank of Ireland and National Bank, two shops with the added attraction of a petrol pump outside; the one next door to the home place a vintage model that required manual operating (i.e. two large bottle-like containers overhead had first to be pumped full of petrol and released back slowly into the car tank; an interesting piece of technology to the eyes of a young street urchin hoping to be asked to give a hand in the operation). What finer variety of shops could a street offer, not to mention the rare and varied selection of sound, music and sometimes fury rising from within and without. There were the voices of happy children playing on the street, dogs barking, loud men laughing, the music shop playing the best of Delia Murphy, Three lovely Lassies from Bannion, The Sally Gardens, The Spinning Wheel, Dan O’Hara, the clarion sound of the bell in the hotel lobby ringing out time for meals, the thud of the butcher’s cleaver carving up a half side of beef. Saturday, the market day, was the big business day of the week. Donkeys and carts laden with our feathered friends lined up along Military Road, better known perhaps as the Fowl Market. Chickens are thoroughly examined and breasts felt with a view to Sunday’s lunch. A buzz of business fills the market place. A customer showing an interest in buying two birds sets off a bout of bargaining reminiscent of buying the turkey at Christmas. The local expert on birds, a man who never misses a market, is tentatively approached to give his valued opinion. His word is sacrosanct, a deal is done, Sunday lunch is guaranteed. Around the corner a donkey (and cart) parked outside a large grocery store has finally run out of patience and neighs its deep displeasure, and sadness almost, at being ignored and forgotten about for hours. The owner appears out of nowhere, produces the magic bag of hay from the back of the cart and spreads it on the ground; all is forgiven, the donkey now happy sounds off and retreats back into himself. The brief spell of silence is shattered minutes later when the local town criers, two mongrel dogs that live opposite one another, start a high-powered barking match in the middle of the street; it goes on and on till one of them eventually runs out of steam. Not quite outside the door of the National Bank, an elegant-looking Victorian-style lady dressed all in black and somewhat eccentric stands grumbling and mumbling about her lost savings; she faces the front of the building demanding her money back now. She stands in the same spot three mornings a week (on my way to school) staking her claim, and for anyone willing to give her an ear she reads out the Bank’s Capital Assets writ large in letters of gold on one of the windows, £7,500,000. On the other side of the street, at the hall door of a long-established premises, a sedate old man reputed to be verging on centenarian status stands Moses-like with a beard stretching down to his breastbone. Local history believes he was an Elder or Bishop of the Plymouth Brethren, a religious sect that once had a place of worship in the town in the late-18th and early-19th century. To the young denizens of the street he is their Noah (from a film), the bearded holy man at the helm of the of The Ark navigating the mountainous waters of The Deluge.
Further on again, a long established trader stands at his door dresswed in his brown shop coat. The man whose day begins and ends with a cigarette can be heard coughing and choking in what could be his last breath on this earth. Every sinner in the street knows the origin of the sound and the direction it’s coming from. They’ve been listening to it for donkey’s years but no one mentions a word of condemnation; judge not and you shall not be judged. Lady King Harman, severely afflicted by rheumatoid-arthritis, leaves the Beauty Salon complete with hair perm and accompanied by her lady-in-waiting. Outside, her chaffeur stands in readiness dressed in navy blue uniform and high leather boots at the door of the wine-coloured Bentley for Her Ladyship to enter; shades of the grand old ‘Upstairs Downstairs’era. Drawing ever closer to ground zero (the home place), a vision of my neighbour looms large in front of me. The man was one of the great pianists of his day, the Joe (Mr. Piano) Henderson of his time; a person who could beat out the great postwar tunes of the 1950’s. A celebration is taking place in the upstairs sitting room and friends are sitting round having drinks sweetened up with ginger ale or soda water. The occasions are Christmas, Easter and other celebratory times of the year. Other impromptu sessions occur that are even more enjoyable than the organised ones and may last till midnight and beyond; what memories, what a wonderful world!
A lady, a music teacher by profession, living in a flat a few doors away brought the word curry into the little world of Main Street. Born in India, where her father was a British army major during the First World War, the said lady had family connections with Boyle. After her father died in India she came on a holiday, fell in love with the place and never left it. Her oriental cooking became famous in the street and was talked about almost like an eighth wonder of the world. The pungent smell of chicken curry or vindaloo halted people in their tracks as they tried in vain to discover the source and the name of the strange exotic aroma permeating the street round about. A touch of eastern promise and oriental cuisine had come to the home place years before an Indian or oriental restaurant was heard of in Ireland.
A new neighbour has just opened up a strange type of grocery store in the street which boasts being among the first of its kind in the west of Ireland (1960); it’s called a supermarket and it’s doing a roaring trade. A ground-breaking concept, the place is held in awe by all who enter. How a business can survive that has neither a counter nor an assistant (so to speak) simply boggles the mind. It beggars belief, shelves upon shelves of items to pick and choose from and pay at the door on your way out. Old habits die hard, the pass book, the weekly credit, the personal touch, the Christmas Box. Do these grand old trappings of a way of life that has endured for generations go out the window in the name of some alien form of business still wet behind the ears! When God was a child the shops stayed open all hours; the owner could almost choose his own time to open and close. Closing time was usually 8 p.m. on weekdays, 10 p.m. on Saturdays and 1 p.m. on Wednesday (the half day). Sunday, the day of rest, was sacrosanct except for the sinning Newsagent. The barber around the corner held the record for long, stand alone, outrageous hours; he could be found working up till the midnight hour, cut-throat in hand unloading a mountainy man of a week’s growth of beard. His was the last stop saloon. Trade unions were a nasty word in those times, probably a throwback to the great Dublin Lockout. The name was rarely brought into conversation, shunned like the subject of politics or religion in a bar.
At the junction of Main Street, Bridge Street, Patrick Street and Green Street stands the majestic old building of the Northern Bank. Standing in the shelter of the hall door of this impressive building, one has a birds-eye view of anything and everything happening on three of the four named streets. The shelter surrounding the closed entrance door served as a kind of lookout post for as long as anyone can remember, a place where a restless soul might linger to consider the fragility of life or for the man not quite ready to go home ‘yet’. After leaving the pub or the cinema, a small group would gather around the historic door for a rehash of what had gone on earlier. The pipe would be lit up, cigarettes smoked and the occasional loud laugh told its own story, a good yarn had just been spun. Then came the pauses of deep silence as the group huddled together like ghosts in the shadows using each other as protection from the elements. The spot became the all-seeing eye of Boyle, the local centre of the universe, a kind of early version of CCTV. Other memories to enrapture the mind are the bright lights of the ‘open all hours’ little shops in the long winter evenings, a husband and wife team working together behind the counter with a smile for everyone. They were the halfway houses where a customer hung on late for a chat and a smoke, and could end up sitting at the fire in the kitchen at the back of the shop. It was a familiar culture that died with the demise of the small shop; they were John Nesbitt’s Passing Parade; they were the ‘Lachrymae Rerum’.
As I reach the bottom of my Pandora’s Box, I see the faces of two colourful personalities peering up at me who were born on Main Street. They are Jasper Tully, M.P. at Westminster and founder member of the Roscommon Herald, and Maureen O’Sullivan, the famous Hollywood Actress who acted as Jane – Tarzan’s (Johnny Weissmuller) partner in many a jungle film. They have earned their niche in the street’s little Pantheon of characters. Boyle town has been through the wars; battered, bruised and scarred, but still standing; a born survivor. Within her lies an unconquering hope that will see her overcome every obstacle no matter how great. Lord Tennyson said it once in a few words:
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.