Edgar F Keatinge continues his reminiscences of south Dublin around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (see previous post “Great Days in Rathmines”).
I always connect Mount Pleasant Avenue with a tall black-shawled woman who walked rapidly along the sidewalk with her basket on her head calling
“Ye-oung wather grass! Ye-oung wather grass!”
She had a curious break in her voice, amounting almost to a yodel, which fascinated me, and always used the old form rather than the more modern “Water-Cress.”
A most appealing person, whom I remember very clearly, was a pale-faced, sorrowful looking woman who wore an all-enveloping grey shawl drawn up over her head, surmounted by a rope of hay on which she carried her basket which, strangely to me, always seemed so secure there. She always seemed to me to glide rather than walk, and she had that peculiarly graceful carriage which is common to nearly all women who carry loads on their heads. She sold herrings and her call was very forthright and straightforward –
“Dublin Bay Herrin’s! Dublin Bay Herrin’s!
And then a long-drawn out
“Dub-lin-nn Ba-a-ay her-r-r-in’s!”
In a very conversational tone she would address the ladies who stood at their doorstep, or open windows, “Want herrin’s, lady?” She never employed any qualifying adjective, no “fine,” no “fresh”, just “Dublin Bay herrin’s,” as though she realised that all one could ask of any herring was that it should emanate from that beautiful Bay of Dublin: and this was, indeed, praise.
I must now tell you of one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. There was a venerable man – or so he seemed to an eight-years-old – who always wore a cream-coloured waterproof coat, very long, rain or shine. He also carried his wares on his head, and it was a wonderful sight to see a large white delf dish, piled high with honey, in this seemingly precarious position, and to speculate, as I often did, on what would happen if some day this should fall – the very idea was almost too much to bear thinking about. His call was always the same – and always in a rather deep tone ‑
Well, I regret to have to confess that I and my playmates often teased this poor man by imitating his cry, and also by commenting adversely on a curious growth which he had on the end of his nose, over-hanging his upper lip. In a word, we nicknamed him “Old Nose-bag,” and we often pranced about near him calling out “Honeycomb,” and “Nosebag,” knowing that he could do nothing about it by reason of the valuable golden cargo on his head, until the poor man was absolutely frantic.
Well, one fine day, in Leinster Square, we were engaged in this entrancing sport, and we cannot have observed that his dish was empty, because all at once he laid it down and gave chase to his tormentors – to me! ‑ I ran – fear lent me wings; he ran ‑ rage gave him speed – and soon I saw I was being chased into a complete cul-de-sac, Prince Arthur Terrace. There is, at the end of this, a high wall dividing the public terrace from the private garden of a Mr. Duggan who at the time lived there. We regarded him as an ogre and frequently called him so, because he always adopted a very threatening tone whenever he saw us standing on this wall, which I think we often did. He took a very poor view of us.
But I had no time to think of that now. I was being pursued by a madman who was gaining on me at every step and who, as he ran, swore the most awful vengeance upon me. He would cut me open with his honey-knife – he would fry me alive – he would sting me to death with his bees – but, the most awful threat of all – he would cram my mouth full of slugs and snails! He could not have thought of anything which would have appalled me more!
Now he thought he had me in his grasp, because we were faced with this blank wall – I thought so too; there was no escape, and then happened a very extraordinary thing. Maddened by fear, loathing and disgust, I simply leaped and scrambled up on to this wall, a good six feet high, and over into the ogre’s garden on the other side, and so escaped into Wynnefield Road. Baffled, foiled and raging, my pursuer retraced his steps to where he had left his dish and knife, and wended his way home.
Many a time since, my brother – four years my senior ‑ and I have tried to emulate this feat, but never again could we scramble to the top of this wall, and never again did we tease poor “Mr. Nosebag” – and when we heard his cry drawing near – “Honeycomb! honeycomb!” we slunk away, ashamed.