« Malarkey | Main | Applied Imagination - 8 »

Open Features: Mary Ann

...Where strong waters were concerned the nature or brand was of no concern to Mary Ann. She loved them all. When she had imbibed what she deemed to be a sufficient quantity her feet took over and she would dance a jig with incredible agility...

Maintaining the great tradition of Irish tale-telling, Alan McConnell introduces us to Mary Ann and her sister Biddy.

Here's hoping that Alan brings us another hundred of his unforgettable tales.

As a young boy I vaguely remember Mary Ann and her sister, Biddy, as very old women living an unobtrusive life in our nearest village. However, the people of my parents’
generation could relate stories of shenanigans quite out of character with the modest and self-effacing Mary Ann I remember.

In my day the sisters lived in a little house in the village square. Biddy, the elder of the two, was remarkable in that having been born in the Victorian era, she never discarded the mode of dress required in those very proper days. Well into the Twentieth Century and, indeed, until her life’s end she clung to the old fashions, wearing dresses that all but swept the ground. The inhabitants of the village, being used to this anachronistic apparel, had long since accepted that this was Biddy’s choice and it was left to newcomers to the village to make any comment. A great deal of amusement was aroused when the story was related of how young Jim Toner at the age of three first casting eyes on Biddy walking across the square said to his mother, “Look, Mammy, no legs!”

However, my tale concerns Mary Ann’s somewhat unruly life some forty or more years before I laid eyes on her.

She patronised the bars in the village, brazenly ignoring the fact that the conventions of the day meant that the entrance of women to such watering holes was frowned upon. Since the village in those days contained no less than twenty public houses she had a wide choice in the matter.

Where strong waters were concerned the nature or brand was of no concern to Mary Ann. She loved them all. When she had imbibed what she deemed to be a sufficient quantity her feet took over and she would dance a jig with incredible agility.

To support herself and Biddy she worked as a house cleaner or washerwoman to those residents who could indulge in the luxury of occasionally employing paid help. To give her her due she was a capable, reliable worker and her fondness for the bottle never seemed to interfere with her efficiency in carrying out whatever tasks she was assigned.

Before commencing work she discarded her customary shawl the better to attack whatever task was at hand and invariably donned a man’s cap of that type known as a “duncher.” Why she perceived it necessary to do this when her work was carried out entirely indoors was a mystery that was to my knowledge never solved.

In her younger days Mary had ventured across the sea to Scotland, much to the amazement of the local community. She ended up in Glasgow but her stay there was not very long. From her account of the venture she would appear to have found work in a hospital or some other public institution for she declared upon her return that she had never in her life seen so many door knobs made of brass. It was her job to polish them all and scrub floors in her time away from the doorknobs. Apparently she found this type of work no more congenial that that which was available at home so she dissolved her ties with Scotland and returned home. Whether or not she sampled the famous Scottish equivalent of Irish whiskey is not a matter of record!

She was a faithful attender at public meetings of any kind and could be counted on to provide a little side entertainment if the speaker was unable to hold the interest of the audience. In those days gatherings of this nature were well attended and Mary Ann’s interventions in the proceedings usually provided welcome diversion as well as afterwards gaining wide currency in the area.

One story often told described how on one occasion a local government representative was pontificating on the subject of whether or not it would be beneficial for the village to have the roadway to the Pound Well properly paved in order to facilitate those of the Monday washerwomen who depended on this source of “soft” water. The speaker, a rather pompous individual droned on in uninspiring tones for ten minutes or so before a voice from the back of the hall was heard to exclaim "Speak up we can’t hear you.”

The pompous one raised his voice and said, “Can you hear me now?”

Whereupon Mary Ann leaped to her feet and called towards the back of the hall, “I can hear him well and I’ll change places wi’ ye.” The resultant laughter and applause rather took the wind out of the speaker’s sails and his spiel ended on a very subdued note.

On those occasions when employed as cleaner or washerwoman she had a habit of discussing the characteristics of various people in the village with her employer of the moment. According to what I heard, she had some rare sayings. When speaking of someone whom she considered snooty, and there were a few of this species in the village, she would say, “That one wouldn’t so much as take ye under her notice. She’s look through ye as if ye were a pane of glass.” Again she was fond of saying of one particularly malicious gossip, “She’d pull ye into trouble with a silk thread that a cable wouldn’t pull ye out of.”

Well, Mary Ann remained in our midst well beyond the three score years and ten referred to by the Psalmist as our allotted span. In the latter regard it must be remembered that you will find in the Bible a codicil seemingly to the effect that while some may make it to four score they should look out for trouble in the intervening ten years. Mary Ann, however, seemed to live a vicissitude free life in those bonus years, albeit much more subdued and decorous than that led in her heyday. When finally she was called to Sydney Carton’s “far, far better place” she received a surprisingly fine send off from the inhabitants of the village.

Biddy did not linger amongst us for very long afterwards. When Mary Ann was laid to rest Dr. Dawson as heard to comment, “Well, Biddy won’t be very long after her.” And, indeed such proved to be the case. Scarce six months passed before another melancholy procession would from the village out to St. Michael’s church.

Alas, characters like Mary Ann have gone from our midst and things have changed in the village since those days.

The humble house wherein Mary Ann and Biddy resided as well as those adjoining have long since been demolished and replaced by O’Neill’s Food Market. Mary Ann and Biddy live on only in the memories of a few old people in the village.

Half of the twenty bars have disappeared and those remaining have met the challenges of the change in drinking patterns posed in the intervening years. They survive, though perhaps in a fashion that would hardly meet with Mary Ann’s approval.


Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.