Lift the latch

By Brendan Murray

The 1930’s and 1940’s were days of great neighbourliness; they were days of the “open door” to all households; days of “lift the latch, open the door and step right in” and if a céilí was in progress shouts of “around the house and mind the dresser”. They were unhurried times of affability and kindness and watch out for your sick neighbour and your neighbour’s child.

People exchanged greetings and bits of news often several times a day as they passed on the street or met in a shop. There were few cars, no television, just an odd wireless usually the wet battery type, no supermarkets, just the local shop where the shopkeeper or an assistant chatted to you from behind the counter as they filled your order.

Telephones were practically non-existent then; mobiles were a long way off, so communication with friends and neighbours was mainly by face-to-face discussion.

Visiting people’s homes to exchange views and news or just to socialize was a major part of the way of life in those days.

Neighbouring housewives, would, according to the saying at that time “drop in” uninvited to each other’s homes at anytime during the day with “a bit of” local news often referred to as “gossip.”

Occasionally, the news would be of the utmost gravity; maybe concerning some person “taken off” to hospital-in those days you were on the “way out” if you were “taken off” to hospital. Most times the news was trivial, the relating of which was always dramatically prefixed with the remark - “did you hear the latest?” Again, the visit might be just to borrow a cupful of sugar or a pongerful of milk, this, at times was just an excuse for a chat. Few people suffered from depression due to loneliness or from lack of contact with their fellow beings.

There was a “rambling house” in most towns, villages and townlands where people would gather announced to exchange views of common interest but particularly to listen to a radio commentary by Míchéal O’Hehír on an important football match, such as an Ulster final between Cavan and Antrim or Cavan and Armagh. For such occasions, the affable host had always insured that the radio battery was fully charged. As youngsters we enjoyed the tension of these gatherings and the comradery of the listeners, old and young, and particularly the antics of one man who would leave the room when scores were close and an opposition forward, such as Kevin Armstrong of Antrim or Alf Murray of Armagh had possession of the ball and was rapidly progressing towards the Cavan goal; our man would hurriedly go outside muttering “that So and So is deadly dangerous” he would discreetly venture back feigning nonchalance if he heard resounding cheers from within which would have told him that the opposition had failed to score. Somebody taking pity on him would whisper to him “Gannon made a great save” or “O’Reilly cleared it”. Our man would then relax until the next dangerous onslaught by the opposition when he would hurriedly leave again.

Wives of colleagues in the same occupations, such as, the Gardai, would on occasions arrange visits to each other’s homes during a weekend; they would bring along their children who might perform their party pieces during the course of the evening. Among the highlights of the evening was listening to a popular radio programme, such as, “Around the Fire” or “Question Time” compared by Joe Linnane. High tea was then served and the radio programme, among other things was discussed at length.

Later on, if there were a piano in the house, the jovial host or one of the guests would play it, and initially accompany herself singing some popular songs of the day, such as “Send me one dozen roses” or “Off we go Antonio” and “If I were the only girl in the world”. All would join in the choruses, the singer having the right of “noble call” - this was the right to nominate the next singer. Tea and biscuits lightly referred to by the host as “just a cup in your hand” was then served to replenish energies for the trip home.

Visiting a farm-house in those days was always an interesting experience; the kitchen furnishings were very different to those of town houses and usually comprised - a large open dresser displaying delph speckled blue and white, a wheel bellows to blow the turf fire in a large open fireplace, a big wooden bin containing cwt. weight bags of flower and oaten meal, and also a chiming wall clock.

Amazingly, the greetings by individual farmers or their wives to their guests were unique. The greetings of one particular farmer’s wife as she shook your hand on entering her farmhouse was “Well hello now and you’re welcome here and how long is it since I last seen you?” One of the refreshments unique to this house and served to both adults and children was homemade deep purple sloe wine (cordial). Also, to the delight of children, the high tea started with the desert, usually green and red jelly.

Another farmer whose house our parents and we youngsters visited by invitation once a year in summertime, would personally welcome you as he shook your hand at each of three gates along the broad laneway to his house; he personally welcomed you and shook your hand at each gate, closing it when you had passed through; he welcomed you again and shook your hand as you entered his house.

Following a four-course meal prepared by his eldest daughter, one of his many younger ones would dance a jig or a hornpipe on the flagstone floor to the lilting rhythm of her mother. Eventually, at an appropriate time, all men and boys would retire to a bedroom to the left of the kitchen where they smoked and chatted; the bed in the room was often occupied by a male relative suffering from some illness; he would fully participate in the conversation his opinion was sought and valued. There was amiability and good old-fashioned politeness all round. Similarly, the females retired to a bedroom on the right of the kitchen in which the bed was occupied by an elderly female relative who had been confined to bed for many years; she also would participate in their discussions. Prior to departure, the male and female guests would bid their farewells to the sick occupants of both rooms.

Senior schoolchildren would visit elderly people living in country areas and bring them old magazines and fire kindling gathered along the way. Occasionally, they would bring a small gift such as an ounce of tobacco, the cost of which was funded by a school collection; the local schoolmaster arranged these visits on a rota basis. Elderly people living in towns and villages were well looked after by their neighbours.

Loneliness didn’t exist in those days; there was little depression and very few suicides - none among the young; the attributes and opinions of old and young were sought and respected; young and old could walk the street or the road to visit a friend’s house at anytime, day or night, without fear of being attacked.

There was family pride then; people were rich but didn’t know it. Most people are better off now but the increasing older population is caught in the web of changing times. The great technological advances in communications and entertainment have been achieved at a high cost; nobody has time now to stop and chat; they might even e-mail their friend next door; the old meeting places like the rambling house and the house where people “just dropped in” for a chat or to borrow a cupful of sugar or a pongerful of milk is gone; the arranged visits of parents and children to houses of friends and colleagues have like the full time housewife all but vanished. All members of families have mobiles; music is transferred to pubs so noisy you can’t chat; people haven’t time to visit neighbours or anyone else; everybody is hurrying to and from - not to and fro; the art of polite conversation is vanishing; a surliness is appearing; visits by children bringing fire kindling and small gifts to the elderly in their country abodes are gone; all replaced by loneliness and hospital queues; so let’s at least, bring back some of the Pastimes of Times Past.

Times Past - Pastimes

See us working in the fields
swinging scythes, binding sheaves;
We have worked since early morn
to cut the corn and fill the barn.

Drink the stout and drink the tay;
let us dance the light away;
Round and round and round we go
right foot, light foot, heel and toe.

See us dancing in the fields,
We low dance the jigs and reels
over and back and in and out
up and down and round about.

We dance together; that day is past,
gone the flail, the rake and fork,
gone the joyful circle wide
the cocks of hay and the gay hayride

Our ghosts are still beside the rill
and over the brow of yonder hill -
Watch us in the breaking dawn -
Breezes in the fields of corn

Hear our laughter on a summer’s day -
Rustlings in the fields of hay
Round and round and round we go
hay foot, straw foot, heel and toe,

Taken from Breffni Blue
April 2003