The third Wednesday of every month was always the Fair Day
in Shercock during the 1940s and early 50s. I remember well
that Fair Day in August, 1946 when unknown to my mother,
I stole quietly off to the fair, from our home at the edge
of the town on the Kingscourt Road, to observe at first
hand the various goings-on from a few vantage points in
I passed the Flax mill, McGaheys Builders yard and then
came to Burns shop. Harry Fay, one of the shop boys,
was outside weighing buckets of blackberries, being sold
by Mrs Clarke from the Carrickmacross Road. 13 lbs
in that bucket he was saying to her. Almost
made the stone, I heard him add. The pleasant small
of half fermenting blackberries drifted from the two large
wooden barrels into which the blackberries bought that morning
had been unceremoniously dumped.
Across from Burns Shop, a common area known as The
Fair Green, was choc-a-bloc with cattle, owners, dealers
and middlemen sometimes referred to as tanglers. Their voices
could be heard above the bellowing of the cattle, shouting
the familiar negotiating jargon - Spot the Difference,
hold out your hand. Nearer to me a dealer had
spat on his hand and was hitting the sellers outstretched
palm a resounding slap as he said - Ill give you £21
for the pair and not a penny more. I knew that his
offer was rejected as he turned his back on the seller and
walked away to be called back (as expected, by the middleman.
I continued on slowly past Rosie Smiths sweet shop,
passed Fennelys pub, OMahonys pub, Paddy
Shorts pub and the medical hall. Along this area rows
of covered and crated blue and red horse carts, containing
banbhs (young pigs) were drawn up against the kerbs on both
sides of the street. Charlie and Wafers
red and white coloured ice-cream van was on the far side
of the street, near Wrights Post Office. Some dealers
were inspecting the banbhs in the carts and prodding them
with sticks to get them into a better position for inspection.
Horse dealers were looking at the actions of horses while
their owners ran leading the horses. Other dealers were
looking in horses mouths, examining their teeth. On
the pavement outside OMahonys, some farmers
were selling cabbage plants.
I continued on past the restaurants then called Ateing
Houses, past Lynchs shop, McDermott and McCabes.
On the far side of the street near Murtaghs pub and
Fidgeons shop wooden gates and troughs were being
sold by the OConnels from Bailieboro. Other
street traders were shouting their wares. Further down below
Sloans the sellers of large pigs congregated. These pigs
were usually bought by dealers for the bacon factories.
The dealers were strutting around. They were easily recognisable,
better dressed than the farmers, had a more confident bearing,
their trousers ends rolled up outside their brown leather
boots. Farm smells and noises and the shouts of buyers and
sellers blended into one harmonious scene.
In the midst of all this, a street singer, a small wiry
man accompanying himself on an accordion was singing, The
Wild Colonial Boy. He was singing loudly in order
to be heard over the din going on around him. Occasionally,
he had to rapidly sidestep the odd passing bullock or horse
drawn cart. This he did with practiced ease and without
any interruption to his singing. Froth, the result of his
vocal exertions bordered his mouth. I watched him for a
while. He was good but got no reward for his efforts. Not
one person dropped a coin into the small open bag, which
projected invitingly from the top of his accordion.
I proceeded back up to the centre of the town and sat on
the window sill of Tommy Shorts pub at the side of
which was an entrance to a large yard containing horse boxes
used on fair days to house stallions - big draft horses
owned by men from the Corduff area. These men were small
and lean and usually wore hats. They paraded their stallions
up the main street before lunch. These animals were huge
and fearsome with coloured tassels on their manes and platted
tails. It was a mystery to me how such small men could control
such fearsome animals.
I sat watching the action. Sellers and buyers were now going
into the pubs. Power the Tinker went into the opposite pub.
He was a very strong man, and became very aggressive after
a few pints.
A short while later, a relaxed atmosphere had descended
on the whole town. Many buyers and sellers had gone into
the Ateing Houses for lunch. I relaxed on the
windowsill enjoying the warm afternoon sun that shone down
on my side of the street. None of my school pals were to
be seen though most houses contained families of nine or
ten children. My pals were of course helping their parents
on this busy day.
Shortly after 2pm due to hunger pangs, I was considering
going home. I might come back later as I had heard that
Cullies, a fife and drum band would parade into town to
entertain all and sundry in an effort to collect funds.
I was about to go home when suddenly I saw her - a tall
lean black haired woman in a faded mauve coloured coat.
She was about ten yards from me and wheeling a mans
bicycle. She looked mysterious. Over her shoulder was a
banjo and it was obvious that the strap on her banjo was
the belt from her coat. I was astonished that I hadnt
seen her until that very moment. She propped her bicycle
against the nearby ESB pole and walked over very businesslike
to a position at the end of the windowsill on which I was
sitting. She looked up and down the street and she adjusted
her banjo into a playing position.
At this time all was reasonable quiet. Some men had come
out of the Ateing Houses and had exchanged pleasantries
before dispersing. Garda Sergeant McDonald (a Corkman) arrived
around McEntees corner and stood among them. No doubt he
was aware that Power the Tinker was in the nearby pub. Also,
he would move on any three card trick men and sometimes
street singers causing obstruction.
The situation at that point in time became very interesting
- Power the tinker might come roaring out of the nearby
pub looking for a fight with anyone who didnt take
flight. He would be surprised to meet the Sergeant. Also
would the sergeant move on the mysterious female street
singer if she started to sing and cause an obstruction in
his busy area? Maybe these events might happen simultaneously!
The whole situation was intriguing to my young mind.
I had never seen a female street singer before. Street singing
was a male preserve. The male singer with the accordion,
whom I had witnessed earlier in the day had received no
reward. The odds were stacked against our female singer.
She waited for a silence and without any further ado expertly
hit the strings of the banjo. The melodious sounds of the
opening bars reverberated across the street and got the
attention of those nearby who saw her for the first time
and who no doubt were intrigued.
She started to sing, some of the opening words of her song
Me name, it is Eileen McMahon,
My age is is scarcely eighteen,
And I thank you kind sir for your kindness,
For you dont know how lonely Ive been.
It was an ideal opening song. It seemed to introduce and
identify her. The song had nationalistic overtones, which
pleased the crowd. Those nearby drifted closer and formed
a semi-circle around her. All in Paddy Shorts pub
came out and swelled the circle wider. The Corduff men coming
out of the nearby horse yard joined the throng.
As she was concluding her song, Sergeant McDonald started
crossing the street towards the throng. Was he going to
disperse the crowd and move her on? He paused at the edge
of the semi-circle waiting politely for her to finish.
Whether she saw him or not or knew that he was a Corkman,
Ill never know, but without stopping she immediately
commenced another song, playing the first few bars loudly
and fast before singing.
It seems, like only yesterday
I sailed away from Cork
I sailed away from Erins Isle,
And landed in New York,
The divil a wan to meet me there
A stranger on the shore.
She finished the song with the verse that commenced:
And now Im going back again,
To dear old Erins Isle,
The boys will greet me on the shore,
The cailins with a smile.
She paused when she had finished waiting for a reaction.
The presence of the Sergeant caused an audible silence.
Would he disperse the large crowd by asking her to move
His action was pleasantly surprising - he said good
girl and tossed a coin, which landed at her feet.
It was a half a crown which to me in those days was an enormous
amount of money. The most that a street singer would get
from anyone would be a penny, and that was achieved by going
around collecting after singing which often had the affect
of dispersing the listeners. A hail of six penny and shilling
pieces followed from the crowd who applauded and shouted
more. The Sergeant discreetly slipped quietly
away about his duty to some other vantage point of the Fair
(no doubt within earshot).
She played non-stop for the next hour. The coins tossed
in after each song remained on the ground. A young tinker
woman with a baby under her colourful plaid shawl was passing.
She had an empty cardboard box in her hand, which no doubt
she was going to use for begging. She saw the singers
predicament and she gathered up in the shoe box all the
coins on the pavement and then placed the box, half full
of coins on the windowsill behind the singer who nodded
her thanks as she sang on.
After another half an hour the singer on completing a song
said: Im sorry men but Ive a pain in my
head so if ye dont mind, Ill finish after the
next song. Of course she was prevailed upon to sing
a few more. There was appreciation and courtesy all round
when finally she was allowed to stop. The crowd cheered
and applauded and then slowly dispersed.
Afterwards, I learned that our mysterious singer was none
other than Margaret Barry (before she became famous). The
first female street singer at Shercock Fair. She had ventured
into the male preserve. She had stopped and entertained
the fair for about two hours by her non-stop singing. Everyone
was very much the better for seeing and listening to her.
(Power the Tinker had a quiet day). Her takings must have
been a record.
It was a privilege for me, that only twelve year old in
that gathering to have witnessed that great occasion - the
debut of a young female street singer at Shercock Fair.
Many years later, Margaret was discovered by an American,
while singing on the streets of Dundalk. She went to the
US where she became hugely popular among the folk singing
Whatever you may think of her recordings which she made
in later life - I assure you that on that sunny day at the
Shercock fair, she was in her prime and at her very best.
Taken from Breffni Blue