On Monday, January 10th, 1949, I attained the age of three. I don’t remember it, but I do recall Thursday 13th, it was the Fair-Day in Blessington. When I awoke it was very dark. I made my way into the kitchen, attracted by the yellow glow of lamplight; my feet sensitive to the change of surface as I stepped from the concrete floor of the upper room to the granite paved kitchen. It was not night but morning; a fact proclaimed by my father’s apparel as he sat on a low stool at a military-style bench which on this occasion served as a breakfast table.
Most memories have become blurred on the screen of time, but superimposed there and in no way distorted is my first picture of that big man, with greying hair, eating home-cured rashers from a maidenhair fern plate. The kitchen was devoid of a clock, but he threw the odd glance at the key-winder pocket watch which hung from a bent oval nail on the second shelf of the dresser. When he had mopped up the last drop of grease with a crust of home-made bread, I was to witness a scene that I would see repeated a thousand times. He took each of his boots in turn and placed a couple of small red coals inside each. Then, expertly, he rocked them from heel to toe several times. He replaced the coals in the fire, laced each boot firmly and stamped his feet on the hearth as if to test it. A full pipe was tamped with his index finger and reddened with a paper spill lit from the glass-bowled oil lamp, which stood at his right elbow.
My mother often talked of trimming and filling oil-lamps in the house of gentry, yet she hardly ever succeeded in cutting this lamp wick straight across. The result was a diagonal flame. His pipe is filled, he’s ready then, he took the reins out of the pony’s winkers that hung by the open fire, under the tallague. With the rope he made a head collar, went to the cow house and led out the White Head Cow. The name was not a misnomer; she was a big red animal, with a white forehead adorned by two sturdy mismatched horns. I was seeing her for the first time. Having sprinkled her with Holy Water, from a jam-dish on the windowsill and making the Sign of the Cross on himself, he brought her to the road. The predawn hue was giving way to daylight. It was already bright enough to see the silhouetted paling posts and the stark contour of Blackhill and the stable. A rat raced across the road. A neighbour cycled past on his way to work. Friendly salutations were exchanged. My mother ushered me back to bed. My first recordable day had begun.
Such doggerel aside if the 13th of the Month fell on a Sunday (or a Holyday) the fair would be held on the 14th. My first visit to said gathering was on Monday 14th April 1952 when, at the age of six, I accompanied my father with two cattle. My job was to run ahead of them when instructed and prevent them going into “gaps.”
The five-mile journey was shortened by the stories of our neighbour and fellow traveller, Tim Browe. One tale was about a farmer who was in the habit of keeping his cards close to his chest. He had sold a cow in the fair of Naas. On arriving home he was met by a neighbour. This resulted in the following dialogue,
“Did you get a good price?”
“Ah, I did an’ I didn’t.”
“Did you get what you expected?”
“No, nor I didn’t expect I would.”
The first bid for our two animals came from a cattle-jobber wearing the trade-mark red boots and holding a “raddle-stick” at the ready. Without giving any indication that the price offered was more than he expected, my father took the pipe out of his mouth, spat on the footpath and said, “Well, I can’t say you’re insulting me, because you have offered me more than half the value of them.”
After much, “dividing”, slapping of hands, intervention by bystanders and arguments about “luckpenny” the two whiteheads were sold to a neighbour.
As the day wore on I became aware of the socio- economic dimension of a fair-day. My father drank bottles of stout and swapped yarns and talked about seed potatoes and the forthcoming Punchestown Races with small farmers that he hadn’t seen in ages.
On a fair-day Blessington became a mini Petticoat Lane. Second-hand clothes, tools, spectacles and compounds that would “remove any stain” were on offer. (My father told me that in his youth he witnessed a “travelling dentist” on a platform in the “pig-fair” who claimed to pull teeth “without pain or blood.”)
I arrived home tired loaded with toys purchased with the sixpences, shillings and the odd half-crown donated by my father’s friends.