Ballinasloe Boyhood in 1940/50s Ballinasloe
Chapter 9 - Sex and Hunterbuck
by Declan Burke
By coincidence, as I was contemplating writing this chapter, I was tuned to RTÉ (I regularly listen to Radio Telefís Éireann on my computer via the Internet here in Virginia.) when I came across a recorded interview with John B. Keane, (d. 2002), that marvelous Listowel word-smith, that I found very relevant. He said the same thing I was thinking.
I touched briefly on this subject in a previous chapter and I was astounded to hear him refer to what we called "THE SERMON" during "Mission Week" as "Murder Night", certainly a lot more colourful than my phrase, but then again, he was a real writer.
I knew right off that he was not referring to homicide but the subject of sex and Irish Catholics.
He told a hilarious story about a retort from a local man when questioned by the local priest in the company of the two missionaries, but that is his story. (I will say that those Kerrymen were not all that "priest-ridden").
Each year in late May a pair of "Pros from Dover" (Redemptorist Fathers) would appear on the scene in their robes and, contemporaneously, a pair of huckster's tents would arise on either side of the entrance of St. Michael's church.
And the lads and lassies began to squirm, especially those of us who were aware of the changes that had occurred in our bodies since adolescence.
"Murder Night" would be a 90-minute long harangue hurled at the unisex audience about the evils of, but not actually saying precisely what, the sinfulness of those lumps and bumps we had been experiencing on odd parts of our bodies and the urges that arose therefrom. How anyone could talk so loud and so long around the subject and not actually say what it was, beats me, unless the object was simply to implant a guilty conscience. And all that without a microphone! These guys really sweated a lot. The servers had to supply them with towels to mop their brows.
Confession might get a bit more precise when enquiries were made into whether you had entertained "bad" thoughts?
The answer, although I know of nobody who actually said so was: "No, but they sure entertained me".
The men and women got the same treatment in their unisex weeks and how do I know that?
As a mass-server I was present for both sermons and had to endure both. I did not know then what he was talking about and I still do not know. But, whatever it was, I was wrong.
Birds and the Bees
There was an incident where a friend of mine (JMC) told me he had to take an Maynooth-bound 'priestling' aside (in the Senior High school year) and explain to him the "ins and outs" of human sexuality as best he knew them. (Reviewing events from the present day and through the lens of a practicing gynaecologist, I must say JMC made a reasonable presentation that day in 1956.)
The young man in question was appalled by the thought his parents might do "that" but was placated by the thought that "it" only happened once until he began wondering about his younger brother's arrival. Nevertheless he went on to Maynooth and ordination and presumably the ability to counsel others troubled about their sexuality. This young man's parents were not ignorant folk as his father was a successful professional in the town.
Right enough, it is difficult to imagine flaming passions between that couple, but you never know.
Maybe that kid should have hung around more with "bad company" like JMC and me.
My personal theory about a lot of the problems of sexuality and the Irish and the priesthood stem from that vignette.
The priests as spiritual counselors who were foisted on the Irish folk were victims themselves. It is monstrous to take 17 year-old boys and dragoon them into seminaries without any exposure to the real world.
And dragooned, they were. I saw the "nice" treatment anyone who expressed an interest in having a "vocation" got in Garbally College*, the local "feeder-farm" for Maynooth**. Of course there were a few 'blackguards' who pretended to have a vocation in order to get the private tea and cookies with the priests and whatever else they got , but then they would bail out when the time came to "fish, or cut bait".
In retrospect, it should have been the opposite. If they had put as many obstacles as possible in front of these teenagers and see if they could overcome them, then they might have had a healthier product.
Please do not get me wrong. I am a regular communicant, active in my local Catholic parish and I think the 2000 year-old organization called the Catholic Church is a major force for good in the world, and it has survived many crises, but as a people-run outfit, it is flawed in the same way humans are. I do not think the Man Above will let things get too far out of hand, but He sure knows how to test our mettle.
Breaststroke in the ... cinema
The walls that were erected between the sexes, fair enough, did some good. Unwed pregnancy was rare and "for better or worse" marriages tended to stay together. It is not altogether bad to keep horny teenagers in check, but it was surely frustrating.
For their part, the contemporary young women our crowd grew up with were well aware of the crushing social penalty that accompanied unwed pregnancy and were expert at side-tracking the wandering hands of their avid dates. No hand may land on "No-Man's Land" without a serious commitment.
The back row of seats in the cinema was reserved for "try-outs" for the Olympic swim team as they were always practicing the breaststroke there.
Our imaginations had to do most of the heavy lifting.
This was aided and abetted by the frequent "commerce" with England with the "Jobs in London" each summer.
Each returnee could be counted on to bring contraband back. The condoms ("French letters") he kept for himself, but a paperback copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover would pass through many hands.
Who could ever believe the acrobatics of John Thomas and the lady? It must be because they were English, we thought with an air of superiority and then, envy.
The English Sunday papers were regularly denounced from the pulpit, with the News of the World leading the pack, as they all found the need to publish some lovely young thing in her skimpy swimsuit on the front page, with "more on Page 3". I remember the News was outright banned but the soft(er) core porn of the People got though, unscathed.
That was because it (The People) did not have the same court accounts of divorces and sexual assaults and the number of times some miscreant "became intimate" with someone other than his lawfully wedded and vice versa, stories which abounded in the (dastardly?) News of the World.
As newspapers, they stunk, but nobody read them for serious content anyway, mainly because there was none.
The (Irish) Sunday Independent was sought mainly for its £500 crossword prize, and in cash-strapped Ireland of the 50s, that was indeed a fortune. Crossword clubs were set up and multiple entries submitted after much debate on agonizing choices between "would" and "could".
If anyone in Ballinasloe ever won, I never heard of it, and the newspaper did wring all the publicity it could from any winner.
To give you some perspective, the price of a new Volkswagen then was £499. (£449 if you purchased the stripped down version with a "crash" (non-synchromesh) gearbox and cable brakes).
Did I digress … again?
Hunterbuck and mittens
There was a colourful character in town named John Lindsay, a Mayo-man and a bachelor (writ large) whose language decorated the place. His occupation was that of agricultural inspector.
His word for activity in any way related to sex was "hunterbuck" and all married women were addressed as "mittens". John eventually married and he lived happily ever after.
Presumably there was lots of "hunterbuck" with his mittens.
John was a "character", a word which in this case, "covers a multitude". I wish I could recall some of his more colourful phrases, but it has been at least 50 years since I last heard him. Naturally, his synonym for sex stuck in my mind.
About the only physical interaction that occurred between the boys and girls that was approved were céilí dances and classes that were held in the Town Hall on wintry Sunday afternoons. I became an expert on "The Siege of Ennis" and the "Fairy Reel" but the intricacies of the "Reel Set" proved a tough nut to crack. I seem to remember nine different parts). Nevertheless, there was a chance to "chat up" our female peers and deal with them in a non-sneaky way, something we all enjoyed and anticipated. The exercise was healthy too and as we were done fairly early in the evening, there was little opportunity for any "hunterbuck". I think the girls liked it too.
Our only other place to get together was outside Swanick's Central Cinema on Society Street. There was a practice of placing a dozen or so 8 by 10 inch photographs ("stills") of scenes in the movie on display in the foyer.
The teenage boys gathered there after school and became instant film critics, based on those "stills", whether we had seen the film or not.
Well, you had to work with what you got.
And by the strangest of coincidences, teenage girls of our age, seemed to just "happen along" and got caught up in the conversation, and there we all were, chatting intently, leaning on our bicycles till it seemed very obvious to all that we were not all that worried about Hollywood after all. Tsk, tsk.
The upside was that you might get to chat with the girl who was your whole universe that week, the downside being that you wouldn't.
Ah well, better luck next week.
Of course, it was not all purity and sunshine. There was a scandal when some taxi men organized a system where they ferried 'johns' to various addresses in the hinterland where their "needs" were met on a commercial basis. Somebody spilled the beans and put an end to that. Probably.
Bikinis reach Ballinasloe
Another time, in the early or mid 50s, the shapely wife of a bank official (Mrs. Mc****y) in the Mount Pleasant area, donned the first bikini Ballinasloe had ever seen and sashayed down town to do her shopping wearing it and an umbrella. It was a remarkably sunny day. We were all (officially) shocked. Of course we were.
Let me wind up with Woody Allen's answer to the question:
"Is sex dirty?"
"Only if you are doing it right".
*Garbally: Garbally Park, a demesne (large tract of land and manorial residence) acquired by the Catholic Diocese and used as a Secondary School (High School), subsidized by the Bishop and intended to be an incubator for future priests for the diocese. It is contiguous with the town of Ballinasloe.
**Maynooth (College); A degree-conferring University, near Dublin, but mainly conferring B.A. degrees only and at that time, exclusively male and devoted to ordination of priests.
The Bachelor of Arts degree was useful in gaining employment for those who dropped out of the priest track if they stayed three years. These were known as "spoiled priests"
In the United States, such local "spoiled priests" made up a major part of the FBI manpower in its initial years.
Declan Burke is now a medical doctor and lives in Culpepper, Virginia, USA.