Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Corner Boys

This picture of Listowel Celtic footballers yesterday evoked,for Vincent Carmody, this memory of other very different lads on that same corner in bygone days.

"The boys at the corner are a throwback to former years when the corner house , then owned by two eccentric Dillon sisters, was a haunt for pals on their homeward journey from their nocturnal public house visit. A motley, porter fuelled crowd, standing at the corner, laughing, talking, belching and of course sometimes far..ng used draw the wrath of the sisters, and armed with the previous night’s chamber pot, the sisters would send its contents flowing out of an opened window, down on the unsuspecting heads of the revellers below."  

A cornerboy was usually a term of insult and these boys, unlike our soccer players,  were often of the not so law-abiding ilk.

The paper sellers who sold the Kerryman on the streets in Tralee had a peculiar cry, "Kerryman, Kerryman, court and all in it". A corner boy featured in the edition of 1909.

 It also has an advertisement from St Brendan's in Killarney who had scholarships of £10 raising to £15 in the second year. It states that a student who has a good knowledge of Irish and Mathematics can hardly fail to receive a scholarship.
 Other items in the paper include the sale of creamery plant and machinery at Derrico near Ballyduff on Sept. 2nd 1909; GAA Tournament, Football and hurling in aid of Ballyheigue Church on Sept. 5th 1909; Suffragettes had a meeting at Hudson's Bridge in Dingle, Mrs Cousins Treasurer of the Irish Women's Franchise League spoke for 45 minutes; Editorial in the Kerryman remarked on the lack of amusements at our health resorts. 
Kerryman of 25th Sept. 1909 reports murder of water bailiff, there is a second murder in the October edition; Pierce Mahony a former member of the Irish Parliamentary Party was accused of evicting a Kerry tenant, but it was his son  who did the deed; District Inspector McAuley who was retiring was described by Mr McElligott as one of natures gentlemen; 
Listowel court, Mathew James a corner boy was fined 10s 6d for abusive language, Mary Mournane fined 2/6 for abusive language, Jer Galvin of Ballyhennessy summonsed for assault, case dismissed, Gowran of Knocknacrohy failed to pay rent.

But the best account of corner boys was left to us by John B. Keane who made a study of the species.

This article, although rather longer than my usual posts is well worth a read. It also features a reference to The Man's Shop which is soon to close forever.

A Christmas Disappearance

Love is always worth waiting for, and can change the countenance of the most unlikely of characters, writes John B Keane, in this seasonal tale.
WHEN I was young and more observant, I spent some of my spare time studying the corner across the street from this very room where I write at present.
I also studied the denizens of the area and when my room window was partly open, I would often catch fragments of conversation.
The corner had one resident Boy by the name of Johnny Muller. Passers-by would sometimes stop and endeavour to begin conversations with him. He never responded even when asked for the location of a bank or the post office.
If he was in talkative mood, he might sometimes acknowledge the weather assessments of an old lady who passed down every morning and up every evening. "'Tis soft," she might say.
"Soft enough," he might reply.
Once she asked him if the weather would hold. "Could," he replied.
Lay people do not understand the function of a corner boy. He is not obliged to respond to questions or make observations. His function is to be there, to maintain his corner no matter what. Johnny Muller took his job seriously and this is the reason why he never smiled.
From my vantage point at the upstairs window, I occasionally examined his face. There were no wrinkles and no blemishes. There were no repulsive aspects and no scars. I could never deduce whether he was grey-haired or bald because of the peaked cap which he always wore.
I suppose the fairest thing to say would be that it was a good enough face as faces go. It certainly wasn't distinguished but neither was it forgettable. Some said that it was a face without character but there would be no way of confirming this until he was put to the test. As a rule, when put to the test, corner boys vanish from the scene or surrender their attention to distant vistas unseen by the laymen's eye.
It took me several years to discover that Johnny Muller's face was incomplete, as indeed are the faces of most corner boys. In Johnny's case, it was clear that none of the great emotions had ever tampered with it. It seemed to me that it was awaiting alteration. His facial disposition was drab. His throat clearances and coughs were run-of-the-mill, as were his rare utterances.
Only his sneezes had colour. Unfailingly they were highly explosive and when they erupted in close continuity, they shook him to his very foundations. Otherwise there was hardly anything to him but we should be forewarned that things change just when it seems that they will never change.
Johnny Muller was a resolute corner boy. He spent that part of his life which he didn't spend in bed, at his corner. When he first took over, after the previous incumbent had expired in the wake of a one-sided contest with a carelessly-discarded banana skin, he foolishly believed that he would have little to do save pass the time and be mindful of his protectorate. It wasn't long before he learned that his responsibilities were legion.
Dogs had to be chastised and moved on. Querimonious and uppity passers-by had to be studiously ignored. Patrolling Civic Guards who stopped to rest up awhile had to be hummed and hawed upon their constitutional way. There were other duties too numerous to mention.
When he arrived at his chosen corner at nine o'clock each morning, he would first look up the street and then look down. He would then address his attention to the adjoining street and, satisfying himself that all was as it should be, would thrust his hands deep into his trousers pockets and submit himself to a comprehensive bout of scratching. He would withdraw his hand after a while and draw upon the lobes of his ears, the point of his chin and the end of his nose. He would rub his shoulder blades and his behind against the wall at his rear. Finally he would scratch his ankles and his heels with their corresponding ankles and heels. Then and only then would he relax and enter into a period of meditation. He would be roused after a half hour or so by the chiming of the parish clock.
HE was about to return once more to his reflections when he beheld, out of the corner of his eye, a most uncommonly attractive creature coming his way.
As she passed by, a wonderful fragrance assailed his senses. Johnny noticed the elegant figure, the glamorous eyelashes and the beautiful blonde hair which fell gracefully over her slender shoulders.
"No chicken!" he whispered to himself as he roused himself totally to concentrate the better upon this enchanting apparition. "But then," he concluded as he finished his initial survey, "no old maid either."
By his reckoning she would be a young 60. By my mother's, I discovered later, she would be nearer to 80 than 70.
When the visitor turned on her heel and retraced her steps Johnny Muller gave her the nod of friendly salutation and also the nod of absolute approval. An almost imperceptible smile appeared on her angelic features. From the look on Johnny's face it was clear that he was smitten. He was overcome by an unfamiliar giddiness. It was the kind of giddiness that overwhelms characters of Johnny Muller's ilk once in a lifetime. He had, up until this time, been fond of saying to himself "I wouldn't give tuppence for a woman, any kind of woman" when an attractive member of the opposite sex passed his corner.
Suddenly she had stopped and was looking straight into his eyes. A sparkling smile had now spread itself across her heavily made-up face. She had noticed him before, not once but several times and always from a distance. She was certain that he had not seen her. He would have reacted if he had. Now that it was Christmas, she would make the most of her chance.
"What do you do here all day?" she asked gently. It was the way she said it that hastened the melting process which had already begun in the underworked furnace of his heart.
Normally he would never answer when a strange female addressed him but now his reply was warm and instant.
"I keeps an eye on things," he told her. A puzzled frown appeared for a moment on her shining visage. Johnny was quick to notice that perplexity added to her allure.
"You sort of watch over things?" she suggested. Johnny nodded eagerly and then, to give substance to his role, his features assumed a deadly seriousness as he looked up and down and hither and thither, as he scanned the faces of passers-by in search of evildoers. Satisfying himself that his bailiwick was secure, he favoured her with a smile of unconditional reassurance.
"Do you watch over me?" Her voice quivered as though she would burst into tears.
"You above all," Johnny found himself saying.
"Me above all!" She repeated the words as though they were the last line of a prayer. Johnny nodded reassuringly as they sought to solve the mysteries in each other's eyes. Her next move was to take him by the hand. He followed without a word until they reached the entrance to a clothier's called The Man's Shop.
After they had entered, some female onlookers, his mother among them, commented on the incident. The conclusions they drew were interesting. Johnny Muller always had an untouched look about him. It was certain that he had never been touched by a woman's hand, at least not since his infancy when he submitted himself to his mother's ministrations.
"That woman's search is over," my mother spoke with assurance. "She always knew what she wanted and she's found it at last."
When the happy pair emerged from The Man's Shop, there were gasps from the onlookers. Gone were the shabby clothes, the greasy cap and the worn shoes. Resplendent in his new outfit, Johnny Muller took his fiancee's hand and led her across the road where he bade goodbye to his corner of 40 years.
What the onlookers would remember most was Johnny's face. It was the complete product at last. For her part, she radiated happiness. Her new partner was a far cry from the shop-soiled assortment she had put through her hands over a lifetime.
Neither of the happy pair was seen again in the locality but the locals evinced no surprise.
"It's that kind of town," my mother would announce modestly whenever Christmas came round and the subject of the disappearance was drawn down


  1. "Mathew James a corner boy was fined 10s 6d for abusive language". I remember Mattie James well. He was a small cranky fellow wearing a great big (British) Army coat down to his angles and he was the Town Crier. Now that I think of it, we didn't take any notice of the provenance of his coat - he had served in the Great War. He went around ringing his bell and making announcements e.g. "the water will be cut off between 2 & 5o'clock". This was before the era of Mobile Phones, Tweets or Blogs. I think he was employed by the Council on our behalf to keep us up to speed. caballkay@gmail.com

  2. Thank you for that Kay. It seems lots of people remember him and a few of the other corner boys as well.