Letting out the Dark

One of my early recollections is of an elderly, gentlemanly type ‘knight of the road.’

I think his surname was Kilgunn or maybe Gilgunn and he said he had been born in Co. Leitrim. There was a belief that he had studied for the priesthood in his younger days. As he dressed better than the average traveller, he was known locally as ‘The Toff.’

He collected bottles that he carried in a bag on his back to be sold to merchants in the local towns. Men of his calling were known as ‘Bottlemen.’ I can remember him calling one bottle that he collected in our house a beauty and saying that he would get a halfpenny at least for it. This gives an idea of what prices were like before production for excessive profit became the greatest single factor in the economic malaise crippling the world today.

The Toff carried a flannel in which were stuck hundreds of pins and needles and in a home where he got a meal, he always left some for the ‘Good lady of the house,’ as he termed the housewife. He generally called twice a year. On one occasion I found his arrival to be very welcome. I had just wrecked a window pane of glass with a misdirected shot and his arrival helped to get me off the hook.

He sat down by the fire and told me about the first window that ever came to his native village of Cruck.  

 “In my great grandfather’s time,” said The Toff, “there were few glass windows to be found except in the Big Houses, and churches and with some well off people here and there. Among the poorer people, there were various excuses for windows. In some houses, long, narrow openings in the walls served for windows. It was narrower on the inside than the outside and a board was fitted on the outside at night or in bad weather. In some cases, a mare’s placenta or a sheepskin with all the wool and fat removed was stretched across the ‘window.’

These allowed a dull light to get through but were far from being as satisfactory as glass. A good many dwellings then were only ‘bohauns’ or mud huts; they had no light except what came in over the half door.”

“My great grandfather was known locally as Mairtín Bradach. (Mischievous Martin) He went to Sligo on one occasion and brought back a pane of glass. He was so careful of the glass that he carried it all the way home on his back in a sack that was well-padded with rags and paper. He never once sat down on his journey of 22 miles. With the help of a local handyman, he fitted the glass to a wooden frame and installed it with the proud boast that it was the first glass window ever to come to the village of Cruck.”

The Toff went on to add that his great grandfather had a well-known habit of turning things around when he spoke. So, when a neighbour who came across him while fitting the window, asked him what he was dong, he received an unexpected answer.

“I’m tying to let out the dark,” my great grandfather is said to have replied.

“Letting out the dark, as Mairtín Bradach said,” became a popular saying in the locality afterwards.

When the window had been fitted, some of the neighbours felt it that a celebration known as a ball was called for. Accordingly, a small money collection was held and Mairtín donated the food and the music, he being a player on the fife or wooden flute.

During the ball, Mairtín saw a neighbour to whom he had not spoken to for some years, peeping in through the new window. There were two lighted candles, one on each side of the window, and he had no trouble recognising the ‘gobadán’ (curlew) as this man was known locally. He had a very long nose, which earned him his title.

After making up his mind, Mairtín moved quietly to the back door and picked up the hardest sod of turf he could find. Moving stealthily, he waited until he got beside the window. He waited until the gobadán had his long nose right up to the window. Then he let fly catching his opponent full on the nose and of course breaking the window in the process.

The gobadán was not seen in public for two or three weeks and, even then, his nose bore some scars.

Later, when neighbours sympathised with Mairtín on the loss of his window, he replied cheerfully that his only regret was that he had not been able to find a harder sod of turf to give the gobadán a longer holiday!

Folktales From County Mayo

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