The Street singer

By Brendan Murray

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 the town.

I passed the Flax mill, McGaheys Builders yard and then came to Burn’s 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 Burn’s 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 - I’ll 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 Smith’s sweet shop, passed Fennely’s pub, O’Mahony’s pub, Paddy Short’s 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 Wafer’s” red and white coloured ice-cream van was on the far side of the street, near Wright’s 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 horse’s mouths, examining their teeth. On the pavement outside O’Mahony’s, some farmers were selling cabbage plants.

I continued on past the restaurants then called “Ateing Houses”, past Lynch’s shop, McDermott and McCabe’s. On the far side of the street near Murtagh’s pub and Fidgeon’s shop wooden gates and troughs were being sold by the O’Connel’s 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 Short’s 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 man’s 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 hadn’t 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 didn’t 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 were:
“Me name, it is Eileen McMahon,
My age is is scarcely eighteen,
And I thank you kind sir for your kindness,
For you don’t know how lonely I’ve 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 Short’s 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, I’ll 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 Erin’s 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 I’m going back again,
To dear old Erin’s 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 on?
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 singer’s 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: “I’m sorry men but I’ve a pain in my head so if ye don’t mind, I’ll 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 fraternity.
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
April 2001