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wm_jac093[1]               Old style Jacob’s biscuit tin. (Photo – South Dublin Libraries)

Our village shop stocked everything, groceries, knitting wool, small items of clothing, even toys. Ice cream was a specialty. In Tulladerry in the 40s and 50s it was a social centre where local women lingered to chat when they had made their purchases. The proprietor and her daughter were friendly types who enjoyed the interaction with neighbours Two sides of the counter were lined with large Jacob’s biscuit tins with glass lids, of a  type and size no longer seen today. They were slotted into frames which were tilted outwards. Loose biscuits were sold from these according to weight.  Marietta, Custard Creams, Mikado, Ginger Nut. Some tins held tiny packets of biscuits costing four old pence each, wrapped in a kind of parchment paper. Mother found these useful for silencing small children while she listened to Mrs Dale’s Diary on the BBC Light Programme.

Women from the council houses known as ‘the cottages’ would lean against the biscuit tins smoking their Woodbines, exchanging opinions and giving advice to all  comers. Some lived in the village council houses. Others of the sisterhood cycled to the village, their hemp ‘message bags’ slung from the handlebars with the youngest offspring on the rear ‘carrier’. They addressed each other as ‘Mrs’ rather than Bridie or Stasia even though they might have been schoolfriends. Each’Mrs’ was known by the first and last name of her husband. The married title might have been hard earned. One woman never lost the opportunity of reminding the others that her nuptials had been no hurried affair. Paddy was willing. A barely suppressed competitiveness over trivial things was always evident .

The biscuit tin women discussed the customers who came and went. Who was expecting or thought to be expecting. Who didn’t look the best and who was ‘failing’. When there was an announcement of pregnancy sympathy was duly extended.  Much was attributed to fate. ‘You’ll have your number Mrs’, they sighed.  Advice asked for and unasked was doled out. One woman heading to England for her daughter’s wedding was exhorted to get her hair done. She said she had never washed her hair since she married and would hate to do it now. They were very much opposed to long hair on small girls.Their own daughters, for convenience, had the short slashed hair of the fifties fixed at the side by a hair clip. Only  the garda sergeant’s daughter and the present blogger had long hair. Mine was straight and limp unlike the fair curls of the sergeant’s daughter. ‘Why don’t you cut her hair?’ they would inquire of my mother in a tone of disapproval. I suspect that having a surfeit of daughters they had not the time to spend coaxing curls into place with pipe cleaners and perhaps the remarks were born of resentment.

The biscuit tin women had large families. They managed as best they could on sparse funds. Some husbands were good providers. Others less so. Some liked ‘the drop’ though it always seemed to me that local farmers could be greater offenders in this regard. The latter were more inclined to slope guiltily into the pubs, caps pulled forward, one shoulder up . There was pity for those who ‘had to lie down beside the smell of porter’. Employment was erratic. Many cottage women worked seasonally at potato harvesting (‘cutting seed’) and on the bog. Others worked in farmers’ houses but the days of the ‘servant girl’ had largely passed by this time.

They liked a whooly. Women turned out in their best finery for any local dance and in the absence of menfolk would swing happily together in a Cashel set. Getting the household tasks done in time for a social event in the village hall could put them under pressure.  ‘I suppose Mrs, you drove childer in all directions’.

Ireland’s oldest woman, Mary Kate Byrne from Co. Laois, died last week at the age of 108. She was singularly fortunate in her long life. Not many of those who gossiped at the biscuit tins enjoyed anything approaching such longevity. The Woodbines took their toll. Large numbers of children and hard work may not have helped either. Sifting through the memorial cards in my archive it came as a shock to realise that the mother of ten around the corner was a mere forty-two at her demise. No great wonder was made of this at the time. It would seem that life dealt a mean hand to the biscuit tin women and yet they knocked what hilarity they could out of any situation. They could never have imagined that their grandaughters would have cars, washing machines, shiny kitchens, family planning and all the opportunities that go with free secondary education. ‘In my father’s house there are many mansions’. Let us hope the biscuit tin ladies are ensconced in one of the better mansions having a chinwag and dancing the odd Cashel set.