By John B. Keane
In the pub the other night I decided to opt out of the conversation. Very often a man with a good ear for speech can be nobly entertained if he is prepared to sit quietly and contemplate the ramblings and musings of his fellows. Davy Gunn, the bodhran-maker, was making a point.
“If I had enough goats,” Davy said as I sipped my drink in a quiet corner of the bar, “I’d make pucks of money, but don’t ask me to buy no bawnie. I made bodhrans of bawnie skins and they made no battle at all God help us.” A bawnie, of course, is a white goat or white cow. “The best place for goats I ever came across,” Davy confided, “is Croagh in the County Limerick. Tis there the good and is.”
Apparently the Croagh goats have better bones and are much larger in size. They have sleeker, more consistent hides, which provide an excellent tone when tanned.
“It isn’t,” said Davy, “but all goats are choosy pickers and only eat the best, like one of ourselves would go for the lean meat or the fillet.”
Listening was a man from the townland of Kilbaha, which is due north of Listowel.
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“Your goat,” said he, “if you had a goat, won’t eat musty hay. He’ll eat your galluses first.”
“Yes,” Davy Gunn quickly agreed, “and if you were to make a stack of four and forty wynds of hay and let you say to yourself that it was poor quality except one wynd where the harvest was light and dried well, be sure your goat will find that wynd no matter in what corner of the rick tis stuck.”
“So would a donkey,” the Kilbaha man put in.
“So he would,” said Davy, “for with all their breeding, your Friesian and Whitehead will eat direct till he comes to the good hay by accident, not saying he’ll turn on it when he comes to it, for he’ll fly into it like twas the clover of June.”
“Oh the clover of June” repeated the Kilbaha man savoring the phrase with the dedicated intonation it deserved. “The clover of June to be sure.”
“And where are you leaving your deer?” asked a man from Rathea, to the south of Listowel.
“Your deer don’t come down town no more,” Davy reminded him. “Too busy for him down below.”
“Faith indeed, I often eat venison,” put in a Killarney man. “I ate it in the bochtawn thirties when I couldn’t grind the free beef.”
“Oh indeed, there was one time,” said the Kilbaha man, “and we’d eat frostnails after Dev had the row with England and the calves was choking the eyes of the bridges and our backsides coming out through our trousers and we not having the price of a loaf.”
“Well they’re not choking them now,” said Davy Gunn.
Sensing an all-out political argument, the astute Rathea man steered the conversation toward the open sea.
“They were hard times,” the Rathea man reminded all and sundry of the several who stood in the same clump at the counter. Some shook their heads as they recalled the period. It was a time that most would prefer to forget. Indeed, it was a shameful time for some because of the grinding poverty.
“In them days,” said Davy Gunn, “you’d get two good calves for ten bob.”
Then came the ultimate story in poverty. It was told by a sallow man who had made no contribution to the conversation up to this. The time was nineteen hundred and thirty-three. It was a misty evening in the dockland of a well-known Irish port. It was also winter and not even the seagulls mewed in the desolate skies. A lone sailor trudged aimlessly back to his ship. Gradually a female shape emerged from the mist and accosted him. He dismissed her with a deprecatory wave of his hand, but she persisted. Who knows but she had a baby to feed or a workless man to support.
“Go away, girl,” said he, “all I have to my name is a three-penny piece.”
“That’s alright, sir,” said the lady of easy virtue, “I have change for it.”