The magic of radio in days gone by...

Week II

When I was boy, as soon as school ended, my mother whisked us off to her home in west Cork, where my brother, sister and I spent most of the summer. It was a very different place to Galway. We enjoyed large family picnics, long afternoons fishing and rabbit shooting (everything was eaten ), and picking fruit and vegetables in my grandparents’ large garden. Looking at old black and white photographs our everyday clothes were zipped corduroy jackets, short pants and wellies.

West Cork was full of talkers. When grandfather had finished work, the late afternoons were spent driving in his old Morris Coverally, to one of the many small pubs in the area, O’Neill’s, Goggin’s, O’Halloran’s, or to O’Sullivan’s at Crookhaven.

People would come out to the car to talk, or talk half-way between the car and the door of the pub, or at the bar where Murphy’s stout was watched carefully as it was first poured into an enamel jug before being gently tipped into a glass. The cream was wiped off with a knife, before being filled again to the brim. The talk was usually about fishing, the harvest and small town gossip.

In the 1950s for some reason, no home radio could receive Radio Éireann or, as it was called, 2RN, in that part of Cork. But BBC radio was loud and clear, and listened to fervently for the weather forecast (the Fasnet area ), music and plays. One summer we were all gripped by a BBC radio science fiction serial Journey into Space, where each episode ended with a dramatic cliffhanger. The impact on our large family, and on the community in general, was enormous. After each episode phones were ringing to gather opinions as to what would happen, and conversations at the car often began, “Tell me, what did you think of Journey into Space last night?”

Radio is still a pleasure, but at the time of no TV, or portable electronic devices, it was often totally captivating. Thomas H Mason, in his enjoyable book The Islands of Ireland*, describes the evenings in the early 1930s at Mrs McDonagh’s house at Kilmurvey, Inishmore, when he produced his wireless (virtually unknown on the islands at the time ), which attracted a huge audience. Not only was every seat and bench occupied, but ‘every spot on the floor had its tenant.’

There were some gramophones on there islands, and islanders were familiar with music from ‘a box’, but to hear voices was an altogether a different thing. Mason recorded some of their comments:

“Tis a miracle.”

“Tis one of the seven wonders of the world.”

“I will tell my son in America about it.”

There was particular interest in stock prices, as cattle and pigs, transferred to the mainland by boat, were a main source of income on the islands. There was uproar if the price of pigs was not mentioned.

Poor Murteen

Like in West Cork two decades later, 2 RN was practically impossible to tune into on Aran. There was general disappointment at this. When Mason asked why, he was told, “Sure they are teaching Irish up in Dublin. We want to see if they know what they are talking about there.” One woman wondered how the voices could keep talking all day and all evening. “Glory be to God. Do they never get sore throats over there?”

One evening there was a recording of a nightingale. Everyone listened intently.

“Do ye tell me now that’s the nightingale?”

“Yes”, Mason replied, “And he is singing 500 miles away in England.”

“Well”, said the man, “I’d rather have the thrush.”

Some of the listeners were afraid that young people could be put in moral danger by hearing something a little bit racy. In the middle of listening to a short play, a woman shouted, “ Tis courtin’ they are. Murteen had better go out.”

The ‘Salmon leap’

Mason and his wife Margaret enjoyed these wireless evenings which introduced them to a wide number of people in their first few weeks on the island. They were welcomed in every cottage and the people talked freely to them.

One of their regular visitors to their wireless evenings was an old blind man named Patcheen (Little Pat ) who lived in a cottage by himself, and who took great delight listening to the wireless. He had a small parcel of land and a cow, and the neighbours helped him with the cow, and keeping his home clean and tidy. He was a talented musician and enjoyed listening to any kind of music on the radio.

When Mason and his wife called to see him, Patcheen, welcomed them ‘with beautiful dignity and courtesy’. He was anxious to reciprocate Mason’s hospitality by performing the ‘salmon leap’ which required considerable gymnastic ability. Apparently Mason was alarmed to hear that to perform the ‘leap’ Patcheen would have to lie flat on the floor, his hands held stiffly beside him, but not touching the ground. Then with a tremendous muscular effort Patcheen would leap to his feet without bending his knees. Patcheen was the only man on the Aran islands who was able to do the ‘leap’, and his offer to perform this demanding feat was in the way of a gift for the wireless evenings. However, Patcheen was over 70 years of age, and was persuaded not to do the ‘leap’ on that occasion.

Mason and Margaret later saw that Patcheen was probably still able to preform the ‘leap’ when, one Sunday afternoon while walking through the village of the Seven Churches, they heard music coming from Patcheen’s house. When he heard that the Masons were at the door he came forward and brought them inside.

He turned out to be a spectacular dancer, and astonished the Masons by his ability when, in response to loud requests, he ‘took to the floor’ for a jig.

Every Sunday afternoon his house was thrown open to the youth of the district. They danced ‘Maggie’, ‘The Stack of Barley’ and other jigs, reels and sets. The Masons sat enraptured at the fun and skill of the dancers. Mason could not help contrasting the scene with the modern dance room in the towns and cities of the time, where ‘girls with painted lips and powdered faces, and men with plastered hair’ danced to American jazz, ‘if it can be called music’.

Next week: The call of America, and life on Inis Óirr, ‘the island of the east’.

NOTES: * Islands of Ireland, published by Batsford Ltd, London, 1936.

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