Chapter 34 - Rural Entertainments
Sunday afternoons in Mobane were a source of great delight to Kathleen when the locals found their friends over at the Ball Alley. Here stood a small building, bare except for a wooden bench down each side of the wall. The wooden floor was well worn with the weight of many feet that had danced the Sunday afternoons away. Away in the past it had served as a Church.
[ Chapter 35 ] or [ Table of Contents ]
One Sunday she accompanied her parents and a number of her Aunts as they all headed for "The Deck" attracted by the sound of a lone melodeon. Where everyone came from she never knew but there was a lot of pushing to get inside. She was told to sit down while her father took to the floor and joined in the fun. From her sitting position all she could see were legs and feet. Happy feet, dancing feet; some with great agility and all keeping time with the music. The musician had a great way with him. His feet tapped away while his fingers ran nimbly up and down the keyboard. There was laughter in his eyes and perspiration dripped from his aquiline nose. His cheeks were ruddy and his dark suit was shiny. He was of indeterminate age, small and compact with eyes that flashed a greeting at everyone.
The floor fairly shook as it took a pounding from the dancing feet. Many were encased in hobnailed boots and they beat out a heavy rhythm. Young lassies gave the "glad eye" either to their dancing partners, or over their shoulders to some other dancers passing by. After a while, Kathleen noticed one tall girl who stood out among the milling crowd. She was a beauty with a head of auburn curls and a flirtatious manner. She was provocative with that turn of the head and a glint in her eye. She obviously recognised her sex appeal and used it unmercifully on the poor unsuspecting men. Wee Matt Murtagh came and sat down beside her and his gaze went straight to the temptress too.
"Ah Mary Ann's in powerful fettle today", forgetting about Kathleen as his eyes followed her around the room.
"Shame on you Matt that you can't see she's a flirt".
"She is Kathleen, but then the power of life is very hard to control so she's tryin' to diffuse it. It could be the mating season for her".
He glanced down at Kathleen and there was sadness in his eyes that even she could see,
"Do you know Matt, you could find yourself a little girl that isn't interested in dancin'"
At the same time she eyed his short leg. He was born that way and limped badly, although he wore a built-up boot that didn't match the shoe on his other foot.
"Some of friend Willie's handiwork", she thought.
"I think when God shaped me he overlooked one leg".
He eyed it like it was something he had just discovered.
"Still I suppose he had his reasons for doing it and who am I to be complaining".
He heaved a big sigh.
Just then she saw Biddy Maguire among the milling crowd, dancing away, no shawl or either. The fellow dancing her was holding her close and her enjoying it too. It was a shock to Kathleen. She thought Biddy only had eyes for Noddin' Tim. He would be bound to be upset about it. While she watched this scene, perplexed by the vagaries of women, she became aware of a figure darkening the doorway. It was the first time she had seen a straightened Tim and he was raging. His blood was up and with good reason. Biddy was aware of him but it didn't stop her dancing. She looked good. Neat of course, her little figure encased in a figure hugging floral dress.
Some of the dancers realised there was trouble coming and a few took to the wooden benches to watch. They didn't have long to wait and Kathleen was delighted when Tim pushed his way through the crowd towards Biddy. She heard his dictatorial "Excuse Me", as he tapped Biddy's partner on the shoulder. Next thing Biddy was in his arms where she knew she belonged, while her former partner sat down close to the melodeon player who gave him a sympathetic smile. Kathleen was delighted and clapped her hands in sheer pleasure only to have the embarrassment of the dancers' eyes resting on her. She blushed shyly and hung her head. Then she felt a big hand in hers. It was Noddin' Tim with his Biddy beside him and he was pleased with her.
"We'll have to get together again Kathleen seeing you and I have so much in common. It's nice to know I have one rale friend here and I'll always remember".
"Ah sure Tim aren't you well worth it. If it wasn't for you I'd never have seen the beauty all around me. It was your interest in nature that made me aware of it. Anyway I expect you'll be over at the cards some night if Biddy allows you".
She gave Biddy a quick glance and she was smiling her approval. Maybe they were thinking of marriage now.
Anyway, they walked off hand in hand.
She turned to Matt who had listened to it all.
"Now I know it's true. They tell me you're for ever match makin'. There won't be a bachelor left around these parts by the time you're finished".
"Don't they make a fine pair Matt?"
"They do but sure they should have done it years ago when the surges of life were strong in him. He had plenty of chances and poor Biddy was only waitin' to be asked. He hasn't much to offer her now. The well's runnin' dry and maybe the only spark she'll get from him will be from the match when he lights his pipe. Still, they'll be good company for one another. I might even get round to visiting them. It could be a good Ceilidhe house yet".
"That's a great idea Matt. I might even do it myself".
They sat on until Kathleen felt her mother's moist hand in hers. She had been dancing and her cheeks were still glowing as she spoke to Matt.
"I hope this one hasn't been bothering you too much".
"No", he drawled, "but she's not backward in coming forward".
The sadness had gone from his eyes now and with eyebrows raised he informed her mother with a little chuckle,
"I think she's discovered all about the matin' season today".
Kathleen knew there were Dancing Decks all over the country and it was a great way for the girls to meet the boys. She just hoped they would be there still when her time came to dance.
Uncle Ned could be quite enterprising when he wanted to be and not too long afterwards the beautiful garden, filled with apple, damson and plum trees disappeared along with the tall sighing pines. The area was now covered with a fairly large Dance Hall. They said he was a good builder and he had done a lot of the work himself. It looked impressive and Kathleen told Ned so.
"Well child, I feel we should be movin' with the times and I'm going to run dances, concerts and films and fill the hall to capacity.
"You're right Uncle Ned, there's no use having a hall standing empty.
Mobane Hall soon made a name for itself. Peter usually gave Ned a hand before a film show, putting up rows of hard benches and chairs and closing the blinds on all the windows to darken the hall, and give the courtin' couples a chance
One Sunday Kathleen went up to Mobane to see the film show. She walked up after Mass and the family followed after lunch. Although it was Sunday, country shops were open for a time, particularly after mass, and people crowded in for last minute purchases such as cigarettes and the odd groceries. Kathleen delighted in helping out. She filled a can of paraffin oil for Luke from "The Hollow". She had to pump it out of the large container into a smaller measure. There was always some spillage, so her Aunt took over while she had a bit of a crack, with Eileen shouting over her shoulder.
"Don't listen to her Luke. That one would talk the leg off a pot and be puttin' years on me at that".
Luke was a nice wee man and a great one for the dog racing, always willing to share his knowledge and give advice. Afterwards the shop closed and they all sat down to a well-earned lunch.
Soon the people came walking from over the hills and across the fields to witness this wonderful invention of moving pictures. A stage was erected and the screen pulled down, while the hall filled with people of all ages. Peter was doing his usual job, closing the shutters to keep out he light of day. Kathleen sat on one of the long benches almost under the stage. She was restless and fidgety and kept looking back at the Projection Room where Uncle Ned was rolling the film. There was great laughter at the antics of a large dog peeling the clothes from a lady endeavouring to enter a roofless car. It must have been an American film.
She began to notice a stinging on her back and found it impossible to sit at ease as the soreness increased.
"For God's sake Kathleen, will you stop your fidgeting and let the people have a bit of peace".
"I can't help it Eileen. Me back hurts".
A little later she was hauled out of the hall by an angry Eileen, walked in the back door and her outer clothes peeled off. She could see the concern on her mother's face so she said in amazement,
"Kathleen's back is red raw. All the skin has peeled off".
She didn't know what they administered. She couldn't bear the clothes on her back. There was a hurried discussion and she was carried home by her father and then by her mother. She didn't like this; putting strain on them. She had given them enough worry since she was born.
It was an unpleasant and painful journey home and Dr O'Brien was called in immediately. His miraculous potions cleared up the inflammation in a week but she had to stay in bed and pestered the whole household while she was there.
"Rantin' and ravin' won't get you anywhere", was the nearest she got to sympathy from her mother.
The Doctor had said, "It looks like a burn to me. Has she been standing near oil or paraffin by any chance?"
Of course! Now they had the answer. She had stood close to the paraffin container, probably with her back to it and had received a few splashes. That was one smart Doctor.
He looked so like her own Daddy, he even remarked to him.
"When I met you coming across The Square the other day, I thought you were my twin".
"Glory Be", thought Kathleen, "no wonder I like him. Sure he could have been me father. They're the spittin' images of one another".
Anyway that was her one and only experience of silent films.
Uncle Ned's Dance Hall became as famous as the band that played there Sunday after Sunday night. The dancing went on until three o'clock in the morning, with couples coming from as far away as Dundalk and Castleblaney to dance the night away. Those travelling for a distance mostly came on bicycles while the locals walked. Everywhere you looked there were bicycles, many stacked on top of each other against the windows and walls of the hall. In the darkness young courting couples seeking solitude could easily fall over them. A hurried swearword in the darkness would indicate the direction in which the couple were heading, either for the rocks behind the hall or maybe to one of the farm sheds close by.
Those who left early often had great difficulty in locating and extricating their bicycles and hoped their lamps and pumps were still intact. The Band sat on the stage at one end of the hall and played energetically until the interval. Then they came down to the kitchen in the house where supper was prepared for them and where they could slake their thirsts. Around this time Ned and Peter would take down the Tilley lamps hanging from the ceiling of the hall and pump them back to full light.
The young and not so young ladies sat on the hard benches around the hall waiting for a dancing partner. When the band returned and, infused with renewed vitality, struck up for the first tune, the men made a stampede for the benches. More often than not, they gave a wee kick to the girl's foot and said,
"Are ye getting up?"
That might even be the beginning of a romance as well as a dance.
Ice cream was made in the house, mostly by Eileen, and she could have any number of young helpers, willing to sample if given a chance. This was kept in the room adjoining the hall along with bottles of mineral water, lemonade and other soft drinks, for all of which there was a roaring trade during the interval and later until the room was closed about one o'clock in the morning.
Poor Mary Brigid and her best friend Helen would hardly ever miss a Sunday night yet they were lucky if they got a dance at all. Still they always stuck it out and when the odd man came along he was generally a devotee of the pump handle style of dancing, rushing his partner round the room with his left arm working overtime, up and down. Plenty of effort went into it. In the end all the men got around to the usual question just the same.
"Am I leaving you home?"
Sure the lassies were glad enough of a wee scud of a court and only refused if they had taken a real dislike to the suitor. A wee bit of warmth was all they needed and many couples could be seen taking their stand against a wall or a gate. Cackling of hens generally meant a couple had taken to the hay. Tommy always said it was a good warm spot and he should know for that's where he usually ended up with his Mary.
When finally a dance had ended and the Band and the revellers had left, Ned and Peter and a few helpers would set to sweeping the hall clean again. That meant cleaning out both cloakrooms and toilets, re-arranging chairs and cleaning down the long wooden benches. Curtains were drawn back from the windows and doors opened to let the fresh night air in to clear away some of the odours of stale tobacco and human sweat.
In the kitchen, Eileen, helped by Ned when available, and one or two of her friends, was always busy counting the takings. Peter took down the Tilley Lamps some still swaying in the night breeze and they were left standing outside the door, resting, having given light for hours of pleasurable dancing. After Peter had locked all the doors he would find the lamps by the light of his torch and return them to the house where they would be put at the back of the shop to remain there until the next dance. The Band was paid and then sent on their way, disappearing into the night. By this time, most of the dancers would have found their bikes and departed. Ned always took a look out of the back door before he bolted it. He and Eileen knew full well there would still be a good few couples keeping warm in the hay shed but then the nights were made for young love and the hall was playing its part in bringing young couples together.
After a night of strenuous activity they would sit back, stretch their legs out to the fire and listen to the silence, savouring the warmth and Eileen's good cup of tea. There would be peace in Mobane once more.
Kathleen was lucky when her Uncle Ned picked he up when he was on his way to the Dog Racing in Crossmaglen. He had to pass their house anyway and she got her mother's permission to go with him. It wasn't a long journey, the course was only two fields way from their house on the other side of the road. They joined the crowd, all walking in the same direction and when Paddy Maguire passed with his greyhounds, she knew where she would put her money. Her Mammy had given her sixpence leaving the house and Uncle Ned and Paddy Maguire had given her a shilling each, so she had half a crown to invest. Paddy's two dogs were Border Lass and Carrick Lady and she meant to put her money on them.
"Do you think I'm doing the right thing Uncle Ned?"
"Of course you are. Didn't you get it right from the horse's mouth, excuse me, the dog's mouth. Advice like that must be taken seriously.".
There they all were, marching out like lambs to the slaughter and not a care in the world. She considered that she knew a bit about greyhounds as their owners took them out the road past their house every day. They exercised in the fields and she had some idea of their form. What she didn't know she soon found out. When they arrived at the field it had a festive air about it and the atmosphere was full of sound and anticipation. Bookies in their extravagantly coloured suits were there, setting up their stands and shouting the odds. Families moved among the hastily arranged stalls where balloons and toffee were in great demand.
There was quite a bit of barking from the dogs before they were put in their boxes. From time to time some of the children climbed through the barriers on to the course and had to be retrieved. Kathleen managed to get to the barrier and have a good look at the track where the electric hare would run. How often she had seen that same hare caught and pulled to pieces by the dogs. It often had a fault of some kind or another and it couldn't get away in time. Looking at it now she wondered if history would repeat itself.
She was still studying the course when Paddy Maguire went by with his dogs and she gave him a grin,
"Don't forget my advice Kathleen. You put your money on my dogs. When the box doors open you won't find them playing around with the hare. They'll be so busy rushing around the track, they'll ignore the hare completely".
Ned placed her bets. Sixpence each way on each of Paddy's dogs who were in two different races. Both behaved exactly as Paddy had predicted and it was a very happy Kathleen who collected her winnings.
"Thanks Paddy. You know if it wasn't for your dogs, I might as well have stayed at home".
"Sure it's a pleasure Kathleen. At least you know a good dog when you see one".
She was discovering for herself that flattery carried great persuasion with it and Paddy could do with a little of it now and then, him living his life as a bachelor and a shy one at that.
She watched some of the owners marching their dogs up and down the field. There was plenty of barking but also the sound of music coming from the far end of the field. She was drawn towards a lone melodeon being played by Peter Grant and a cluster of young people was stepping out to dance a hornpipe. Some of the less successful punters left the rail to wander over and watch the display. They may not have been the best of Irish dancers but they sure put all their energy and enthusiasm into it. Peter had them dancing their hearts out.
Uncle Ned was holding court as usual, recounting his feats on the bicycle. He could hold an audience alright with that golden tongue of his.
"I was standin' on me head at the time", was all she heard, but as she passed by he grasped her by the hand.
"Don't go away. We'll be going home soon" and he held her hand while he finished his story. She lifted her eyes beyond the field and towards the bog. It was cloaked in mist with the pink dusk descending.
Shortly afterwards, the racing ended and the crowd dispersed. The field emptied and the cows in the adjoining field munched the grass quietly. Peace returned once more. She went with her uncle, mingling with the crowd, and was soon home. The night she left to the curlew, its sad call rising in the still air.
Back in the house, Uncle Ned was telling their Mammy,
"Poor auld Jamsie is under the boards tonight".
"Poor fella but sure he never did harm to any man".
"Ah well he's gone to his heavenly reward now. Me and McEnteggart will be going along later to pay our respects and poor Mary Agnes may need a bit of consolin'".
"Will you listen to that fella Mammy. You know those two boys are going to have a good night at The Wake".
"You're right there Kathleen. It's bound to be an all night affair".
"What about poor Eileen. You're surely not leaving her on her own?"
"Oh yes. Well I fixed that up earlier in the day. She has the company of her cousin tonight, God help her. That one will blether the night away".
With a chuckle he opened the door and was gone.