Watching a queue of school boys and girls boarding a homeward bus recently set up a train of thoughts and mental comparisons on conditions in my school days and theirs. In addition to the amount of bottles of soft drinks, potato crisps, candies and chocolate taken onboard, a number of light magazines of little or no educational value were also included. I saw one youngster who dropped a halfpenny from his hands full of change look down disdainfully on the ha’penny and he did not even stoop to pick it up.

In my school days, Pat Moran and his wife, Mary Flynn, kept a neat, well-stocked shop in Swinford, where sweets, fruit and many smaller grocery items were stocked. The most prized items of all were Pat Moran’s handsful of sweets, which were whatever amounts that came up to his hand when he plunged it into a shining can of 'bullseyes.’ Mary’s Flynn’s handful was only a small pinch compared to Pat’s straight handful. I often saw tempers raised and small fists flying in defense of Pat or Mary when it came to a matter of deciding the relative merits of either’s ‘ha’porth’ of sweets. I may add that halfpennies were so scarce that the ones who were in a position to buy sweets had to share them around or were liable to have them hijacked.

World War 1 and cruel inflation put an end to ha’porths of sweets. Against the heaps of goodies enjoyed by modern schoolchildren, we had to make do with berries sweet or sour (mostly sour) sloes, crab apples, hips and haws, blackberries and wild raspberries.

All those items had to be consumed by November Night, when we were told they would be polluted by the Púca. (Pooka)

A feed of raw turnips was considered a luxury, especially if the turnips had been sweetened by frost. Often, we were chased by irate farmers when they felt we overdid our visits to their turnip fields. On of the most dreaded hazards for schoolchildren in my school going days was meeting a cross gander. Most of the small farms in those days had a flock of geese, complete with ganders, to help out the farm economy. Those birds were not handfed, except at Christmas when they were being fattened with feeds of small waste potatoes and fistfuls of inferior grain. This left the gander in fighting condition in our estimation. A half starved gander was an adversary to be avoided and feared by young school children.


Any child who got bitten by a gander or got slashed by his powerful wings would thereafter give him a wide berth. Those birds were regarded as polluters of pastures and many flocks were maintained along the roadside along their owners’ holdings.

Around 1920, speeding Black and Tans loved to drive through those flocks of geese, leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake and they were also liable to take pot shots at the geese for good measure. This, coupled with ever-increasing road traffic led to these flocks being taken off the roads.

One legendary gander was owned by a widow woman who lived in a quiet spot by the River Moy. This bird was reputedly over 20 years old and only that he met a sticky end he would undoubtedly have clocked up a good many more


He had often put foxes and stray dogs to flight and it was mainly for that reason, the old widow maintained him as a protector of her chickens and ducks. Not having a flock of geese for company seemed to make him extra vicious.

He spent his time patrolling up and down the nearby River Moy, chasing young anglers away from his domain. Some of those anglers swore his skull must have been armour plated as they hopped heaps of stones off it to no avail.

One day, when a teaman, as tea sellers were known back then, called to the widow to sell her a pound or two of tea, the gander strode up to his pony and bit it on the heel, causing him to run away. The wagon was turned over and the stock of tea was spilt all over the road. The teaman threatened legal proceedings against the widow, who decided it was time to eliminate the gander. On the very next night, two IRA men on the run called to the widow’s house for a cup of tea. She asked them to kill a ‘goose’ for her and invited them to return the next day to share the dinner with her. Being natives of a neighbouring town, they hadn’t the slightest idea of how to go about killing a goose.

Finally after a hard struggle, they managed to catch the gander; one executioner grabbed his body and stretched his long neck over a wooden block the widow used for chopping firewood. His companion grabbed the widow’s firewood axe and with a mighty blow he severed the gander’s head from his body.  Both men jumped back to avoid bloodstains. Without warning, the headless bird rose into the air and made  a long, slanting dive towards the Moy, which was in flood at the time.

There was a swift current at that point and the headless carcase was swept rapidly downstream. The two men symapthised with the widow and promised to make up her loss in some way.

They got a message carried by a young schoolboy through to some sympathisers in Swinford and ordered two pounds of bacon (rashers) and two pounds of sausages.

Pork sausages were new to the market back then and the casing or skins of those new arrivals were many times thicker than those of their modern-day counterparts. After procuring the bacon and sausages, the two men returned to the widow and delivered the parcel. She thanked them and invited them to return that night to share a meal with her when she had the bacon and sausages fried.

They duly came back a couple of hours later to find a plate of rashers served up with a pile of what resembled charred, shrivelled skins. When one of the men asked her what had happened to the sausages, she replied, “Sausages? Is that what they are called? Well, when I got the dirty things cleaned out and rinsed, they were hardly worth cooking!”

Before School Buses

Folktales From County Mayo

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