The Harness Maker


It’s long gone now, of course, the old Harness Maker’s shop in Lower William Street, Listowel. Yet every time we visit Ireland we still make a point of taking a mini pilgrimage to Listowel to spend a few reflective moments in the street where it once thrived.

Coming out through the archway from the old cattle market near Tae Lane, we look across the narrow, wet street to where the big glass window with the words Harness Maker written across the middle of it in big dramatic letters used to be. If you concentrated hard enough you could almost see the top of Moss Scanlon’s head, encompassed in a halo of light created by the early evening sunlight, bobbing about inside the shop as he crafted away on something exceedingly important.

A faded image shimmering in the fog of those hazy bygone days, the shop only exists now in the memory of those of us who can still recall a time when the horse was the lifeblood of the rural Kerry community, and Moss Scanlon, Harness Maker, provided an essential service to most of them.

Back in those days people depended on the pony and trap for their basic everyday transport. Bigger horses were crucial for ploughing the fields and pulling the haycarts, and the donkey and cart was the best way for getting the milk to the creamery.  Needless to say, all of those animals required a huge assortment of leather goods to enable them to do their jobs properly, and the necessary saddles, harnesses, blinkers, straps, and a whole variety of other bits and pieces were usually made, and repaired, in the local harnessmaker’s shop.

Many were the times that my sister Jo, my brother Maurice and I took the bus from Tralee to spend a couple of weeks of our summer holiday with our Uncle Moss Scanlon, Harness Maker.

As the bus clattered to a halt outside the hardware shop in the town square, we would bounce down the steps and into a cloud of pulsing diesel smoke, carrying a little brown suitcase between us. The street always had a bustling activity about it as we rushed excitedly past the amazing Maid of Erin figure that sticks out from half way up the front of a pub, and we would practically slide around the corner into Lower William Street.

And there it would be across the road, the door wide open and wonderfully inviting.

The first thing to greet us was the chirping of the two songbirds in the cage above the door, then the wonderful aroma of leather would waft over us, heavy with the scent of dye and a sprinkling of wood shavings. It was magic.

‘Aye, aye,’ Moss would say, looking down at us over the top of his glasses.

Moss was a man of very few words but that didn’t matter because his nephew Mick made up for it. Mick worked in the shop with him, and when Mick wasn’t talking he’d be singing, usually some obscure song that nobody had ever heard of before. Or was it the way he actually sang them that made them so unrecognisable?

Anyway, we’d go straight through to the small back room to say hello to our grandmother, who was usually sitting beside the big black range that always had a kettle puffing steam on top of it, and a teapot with tea in it that was as thick as tar.

Dropping the suitcase in a corner we’d hurry back out to the shop and perch ourselves up on the counter where we could casually observe the general activity of the day, both inside the shop and outside in the hustle and bustle of the busy street.

We were already well aware that the shop was a magnet for all sorts of colourful characters who regularly wandered in for a chat and a bit of jovial banter. The legendary Bryan MacMahon himself once corrected my grammar.

‘It’s not different to,’ he told me sternly in his headmasterly voice. ‘It’s different from.’

Market Day was on the Monday and it was always a riot of activity with assorted animals haphazardly scattered all over the street; horses and carts tied to lamp posts, ducks, chickens, pigs hemmed in by farmers with long sticks, dogs snapping at each other, farmers snapping at the dogs, cows with their rear ends slap up against the shop windows, groups of men disappearing into the inviting atmosphere of the numerous pubs and emerging later in a much better mood, bursts of riotous laughter, lots of animated banter, the odd person playing on a fiddle and bringing a rash of foot tapping and sporadic hand clapping, deals done and sometimes begrudged, and a steady stream of people wandering into our shop with odd bits and pieces of leather equipment that needed repairing.

Some bits, of course, were way beyond any hope of resurrection and then we’d revel in the wonderfully entertaining scenario of Moss Scanlon trying to convince the sceptical farmer that they should be replaced with new ones.

‘How much would that be?’ was usually the first thing that the farmer asked, and no matter what figure Moss quoted, it was always followed by an unbelieving yelp of ‘How much?

You’d immediately assume that this was going to be another ‘Mission Impossible’ and that the farmer would storm off in a huff. But Moss Scanlon was good, and more often than not the farmer went home carrying an excellent piece of handcrafted kit tucked reverently inside his jacket.

I’m sure Arkwright in ‘Open All Hours’ was actually based on Moss Scanlon, Harness Maker, Listowel.

Sadly, even ways back then, times were already changing. And in Moss Scanlon’s view, not necessarily for the better, either.

First came the tractor, followed quickly by the combined harvester and then the threshers and bailers, and slowly but surely the traditional ways of working in the Irish countryside was succumbing to the relentless drip, drip of progress. Gradually the farmer became less and less dependent on the harness maker and his expertise.

Of course it took a good few years for these machines to filter across to the west coast of Ireland, and initially few people could afford them anyway. The cost was much too prohibitive. Then someone created the Co-Operative and they spread like a rash, and the farmers were delighted.

For Moss Scanlon, though, they brought with them the whisper of advancing doom.

Unfortunately Moss Scanlon became ill sometime in the late sixties and he was forced to spend many weeks in hospital, and he never really recovered sufficiently to go back to work full time. Mick made a gallant effort and soldiered on regardless, but eventually it all became too much of a struggle for him, and eventually the business faltered.

Moss died sometime in the early seventies and Mick had no choice but to put up the shutters on the big window with M Scanlon, Harness Maker written across it, and close the door for the final time.

There’s still a shop and a big window there, of course, but this one has a Barber’s candy striped emblem outside it, and there’s absolutely nothing at all to indicate that once upon a time a completely different way of life ever existed there. Life has moved on regardless, confining our little bit of history to a few grainy photographs in an old leather album. You try to inject enthusiasm into them as you point out relevant details to the kids but, regretfully, those delicate, elusive moments belong only to us. And even they are beginning to fade, getting harder to recall as time takes its toll on us as well.

I take out a handkerchief and blow my nose, and I wipe a sudden speck of dust from my eye before wandering back through the arch.


The End


Picture this

Picture this – a cup of coffee on a small table that’s decorated with a cute Christmas cloth, and me with a vacuum cleaner set on turbo. I did NOT know this had the same thrust as a Boeing 747 starboard engine at take-off, and I swear I was no nearer than ten inches to that table! Anyway – flump! – the cloth disappeared up the spout.

Now I’ve seen magicians pull a tablecloth from under a whole dinner set without even rattling a spoon. But me? Naw, the cup leapt into the air, did a spiteful pirouette and sprayed everything within a ten foot radius – the ceiling, the walls, the curtain on the other side of the room, the settee, the carpet, the rug … the poor cat will be traumatized for the rest of its life.

I’m only glad we haven’t got a dog – the doghouse would be crowded with both of us in there for the foreseeable future!


Sheepish …

We saw the strangest thing today as we were walking along the Newport Canal. The sky was clear and the birds were chirping happily as we looked down over a sloping meadow where sheep were grazing. Suddenly one sheep charged another and butted it so hard it flipped right over. As the stunned creature staggered to its feet the first sheep slammed into it again, knocking it back down.

Then as it attacked for the third time all the other sheep came racing across and joined in too, piling all over the poor sheep on the ground.

Somehow the victim managed to scramble out from under the pack and bolted off down the field, throwing itself into a lean-to in the corner. The mob raced after it and charged at the shelter, pushing and shoving to get in. This went on for what seemed like ages until, just as suddenly as it had started, they appeared to lose interest and wandered off back up the field to continue grazing.

Then the mugged sheep came sauntering out as if nothing had happened and it too continued grazing.



Interview for the Seumas Gallacher Blog

Interview for the Seumas Gallacher Blog

1 – Tell us about your connection with Wales:

I was born in Tralee on the west coast of Ireland and came to the UK when I joined the Royal Navy at 18. It was while I was on a course in Portsmouth that I met a beautiful Welsh girl, Jennifer Marshall, who was on holiday from Newport, South Wales. After a short romance we got married and when my service contract ended we went to live in Newport to be near her family. We’ve been there ever since.

2 – Tell us about yourself as a writer and as a person:

When I won my first writing competition I was so excited I ran all the way home. I was about eight years old. The Fun Fair was coming to Tralee – our little town on the West coast of Ireland – and apart from Duffy’s Circus which came in September, this was the highlight of our year. Our English teacher asked us to write an essay about it, and I won the only prize – a book of ten tickets for the fair.

So writing was in my blood from a very young age. I loved essays and English literature

My grand-uncle Moss Scanlon had a small Harness Maker’s shop in Lower William Street, Listowel – a rural town in Kerry that was just a bus ride from Tralee – where I spent some wonderful summer holidays. The shop had a magnet for all sorts of colourful characters who’d wander in for a chat and a bit of jovial banter. One famous storyteller who often popped in was John B Keane, and I asked him once where he got his ideas from. He told me that everyone has a story to tell, so be patient and just listen to them.

And I was there when John B’s very first story was read out live on Radio Eireann. I can still remember the buzz of excitement and the sheer pride of the people of Listowel. And the seeds of storytelling were sown in my soul.

Another source of encouragement was Bryan MacMahon, one of Listowel’s finest writers and a schoolmaster to boot, who was a very easy person to talk to.

Anyway, I left school at fourteen and went to work in hotels in Killarney, and I quickly got caught up in the excitement and colourful buzz of the tourist industry – remember, this was in the 60s when the Beatles were creating a heady revolution and engulfing the youth with hopes and dreams of a wonderful future – so I felt no great urgency to write. I dreamed of being a writer, of course. I wanted to be a writer – but somehow life just got in the way.

When I joined the Royal Navy at eighteen I was sent to the Far East. I spent the first three years between Singapore and Hong Kong, and again I was having so much fun I didn’t get to write anything, although there were loads of stories bursting to get out.

It was only when I got married and the children came along that I made any serious attempt to put pen to paper, and the result was Dark September, an alternative history novel set in Newport during WW2.

I loved writing it – I always write in longhand – but I hated having to type it. After working a ten hour day, I’d be clattering away into the early hours on an old Olivetti typewriter and getting on everyone’s nerves. Then I’d scream in frustration when I’d discover that hours of hard work were ruined by some horrendous typo error, and I’d have to start all over again.

Amazingly, I found an agent almost immediately but she insisted on some major changes so I spent a year re-writing it.

Unfortunately my agent died suddenly and the agency closed. It took ages to find another agent, but he too demanded even more changes. It became too much for Jennifer and the kids, so my manuscript hibernated in the attic for a few years.

Then Jennifer bought me a computer for Christmas – with Spellcheck!

This time finding an agent has proved impossibility – they only want to represent people who’re famous for just being famous – but now I’m delighted to say the book has been accepted by Tirgearr Publishing and I’m delighted with the result and all the hard work they’ve put into it to make it a great success.

In the meantime – while my book was languishing in limbo – I discovered that writing short stories is amazingly therapeutic. I get a great buzz from taking an idea and developing it, often watching it evolve into something completely different from how it started out. And I realized too that great ideas are all around us. Little gems are waiting to be harvested everywhere we look. I found myself listening to what people are saying, and the way they say it.

For instance, the Irish are famous all over the world for their colourful and exaggerated expressions, always using a dozen words when one would have done. So I build on that and set all my short stories in Ireland. The names are changed, of course, because I don’t earn enough to survive a lawsuit. I’ve written hundreds of stories, most of which are still stuffed in drawers somewhere, but I did manage to get more than twenty of them published over the years, in anthologies, e-zines and magazines as well as web sites.

DREAMIN’ DREAMS, published as an eBook with Smashwords.com and in paperback by CreateSpace – contains twenty of my published stories, of which I’m very proud. They’re all based on real people who passed through my life at some time or other, or events that actually happened to me. Enhanced, of course, and sometimes exaggerated out of all proportion.

The title comes from something my father said years ago, when I got poor grades at school. ‘What do you expect?’ he said to my mother. ‘He never does any studying. He just sits there, dreamin’ dreams.’

The image on the cover is the statue in The Green, Tralee’s town park, and it represents the characters from the song The Rose of Tralee.

3 – Why did you decide to write in your chosen genre?

My favourite reading material has always been fast paced thrillers, murder mysteries, war stories. I write what I think I would like to read.

4 – Tell us about the concept behind your first book

The idea for Dark September came to me when I was in the Royal Navy and we were on exercise in the Brecon Beacons. I wondered what it would be like to be running for your life through such inhospitable terrain from someone who wants to do you a serious injury.

Later on I saw some disturbing footage of Nazi guards disposing of people with special needs and I felt tremendous sympathy for their families. How would I react if I was in that position and Germany invaded the UK? Where would |I take my child? Being Irish I felt it would be natural to gravitate to Ireland, which was neutral during WW2.

Of course once I started writing the story it took on a life of its own. Characters reacted in ways I never intended. People who were created as decent characters turned into monsters half way through a chapter, even a sentence. It was exciting and disturbing all at the same time, and I enjoyed every moment of writing it.

My favourite character is Danny O’Shea – vulnerable, naïve, basically honest but thrown into a situation that he has to face into or go under. I see a lot of myself in him. Not sure who could play him in a film – someone who was sensitive – Aidan Turner, perhaps. The theme tune would be Running up the Hill by Kate Bush, all thudding drums and loud pulsing music.

One concern I did have about the story was making Cerys and Bethan Frost direct descendants of the famous John Frost, a treasured character in Welsh history. They started out as beautiful, kind and loving girls but they got corrupted by both love and promised riches. But so far I haven’t had any negative feedback on that aspect, although some people thought the sudden sex and brutal violence should have been flagged up in the blurb.

5 – Which Welsh person would you like to invite to dinner and what would you serve?

John Frost. I would love to know what makes a man stand out from the crowd and put himself in harm’s way while pursuing a principal. What did he think about the justice system at the time, and people who were steeped in religion but oozing hypocrisy from every pore? And I would serve Welsh lamb, carrots and new potatoes with Welsh Ale from a keg.


6 – What’s the best thing about Wales?

Its similarity to Ireland. Parts of West Wales are so like the places where I ran as a lad in Kerry. Listening to Owen Money every Saturday makes me laugh. The warmth he displays fascinates me – I could be listening to Kerry Radio. And of course my wife …


7 – What are you working on now?

I’ve just finished self-publishing another thriller called Gallows Field. This one is set in Tralee during WW2. A crowded pub. The music is loud. The singing is louder. Joe McCarthy is shot dead. And no one sees a thing. Available through Smashwords and Amazon.

8 – How did you find the experience of self-publishing?

To be honest I always hoped my work would be snapped up by a main stream publisher who would take responsibility for the sales and advertising. But the reality is totally different. Most publishers now demand that the author does as much self-promotion as possible while imposing restrictions on pricing. I love the writing aspect of it all, but I’m not comfortable pushing for sales and reviews. There are companies who will promote your work for you but it cost more than you’ll ever make in sales. But if you want people to read your stuff you have to put it out there so the world will notice it.

9 – What’s your advice to new writers?

If you are a budding writer, or just thinking about trying your hand at writing, remember to have fun with it. Be aware that very few writers make it to the top of the tree – those that do will tell you that it involves a copious amount of self-publications and a shed full of luck. And of course a good story too.

Yes, take your craft seriously – it’s a God given talent and it’s your duty to share it with the world – but enjoy it too. Just don’t get so immersed in it that you lose track of the people you really care about, the ones you’re proud to show it to first. (And listen to them, as well, even if what they’re saying isn’t what you want to hear!)

And keep working at it, even if it’s just 100 words every day, because every time you write something, you’re fine-tuning your skills.

10 – What are you currently reading?

Val McDermid Wire in the Blood. In paperback.

11 – What’s your favourite book?

So many it would be hard to whittle it down to just one. The Wind in the Willows had the most magical effect on me – I lived in that story and still get the feeling whenever I sit on a riverbank. I also remember running home from school to listen to Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe being read on the radio. In my teens I was hooked on Mickey Spillane and Zane Grey, but now I have to say Val McDermid is my all-time favourite. Followed closely by Ann Cleeves and Andy McNab.


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What’s in a name

Lyracrumpawn! I love that name. I love the way it rolls off the tongue, smooth and rounded like a spoonful of Strawberry Pavlova.

I think I must have been about five years old the first time I heard my father mention it, and the wonderful, resonant tone of it attached itself to my brain like a limpet.

And it stayed there for many days, rolling around in my mind like one of those endless music tapes, waiting for an opportunity to display itself, and then when the chance did come I let it just trip out as if I knew exactly what I was talking about.

Nobody else did, of course – they thought I was a bit of an eejit having some sort of a fit.

Anyway, I quickly tried to redeem myself by repeating the story that I’d heard my father tell about Lyracrumpawn, a humorous tale that went way over the head of a child but nevertheless drew a spurt of laughter from everyone else.

Apparently the local priest had been invited to represent Ireland during a rare conference with the Pope in Rome, and all the parishioners were anxious that he didn’t go there empty handed. So they had a special collection at Mass every day for a month. They collected a fair amount of money, and when the priest was eventually introduced to His Holiness the Pope, he presented him with the envelope.

‘From the people of Lyracrumpawn, for the love of God,’ said the priest.

The Pope hesitated for the briefest of seconds.

‘For the love of God,’ he queried, ‘where’s Lyracrumpawn?’

OK, on paper not so hysterical, but imagine it being told in a full-bodied Kerry accent, the singsong tone emphasising each nuance to perfection.

But in answer to the Pope’s question, where is Lyracrumpawn? Well, it’s actually a small district in the rolling North Kerry countryside, generously dotted with an assortment of wonderful old villages that were once the centre of a thriving community with their churches and their pubs and their rows of diverse little shops.

Of course that was back in a more sedate age, long before the arrival of the motorcar and bulk buying, the fridge/freezer and the Environmental Health Officer. It was a time when the surrounding farmers and their families ventured into town on a daily basis to conduct business and exchange a bit of banter with the neighbours while gleaming important snippets of local gossip along the way.

Sadly, as the ever-increasing pace of modern Irish life demands a wider, straighter, faster highway, these sweet, sedate little villages are hardly ever seen nowadays, having been reduced to a blur through the window of a speeding car. They only exist to most people on roadside signs or as a dot on a map, and if you actually find yourself in one of them then you’re lost! You should have stayed on the big road with the white line down the middle …

But I digress! Tis names I was talking about, the wonderful, colourful local names that have many a visitor to Ireland struggling to pronounce but which invokes in every Kerryman a beautiful image of a rolling, rugged countryside cascading away gently towards the edge of the wild Atlantic ocean.

In fact some of the Kerry villages have such poetry in their names that they’ve been incorporated into many a music hall song. One of the most famous includes Abbeyfeale, Knocknagashel and Duagh in its title. I can’t swear to it but I think Listowel’s very own John B Keane might have mentioned it in one of his plays.

I’m well aware, of course, that every country on earth has its own collection of beautiful place names – here in Wales we have our fair share; Ynysddu and Pontllanfraith, Ynysybwl and Merthyr Tydfil. Wonderful sounds to all Welsh people who hail from the Valleys, of course, but it’s the names that linger in my own memory that taste the sweetest and invoke cherished moments of my childhood adventures during trips to the country.

My mother’s family lived on a farm called Patch, near the village of Duagh. You had to put Listowel in the address or nobody would find it.  So there’s a whole string of places all around there that often pepper her conversation when she’s reminiscing about the good old days.

Rightly or wrongly, the English get the blame for the corruption of a lot of names in rural Ireland. The names as they’re pronounced now bear no resemblance to the original Gaelic version. For instance Tralee is a corruption of Tra Lee. The direct translation should be Lee Strand, Lee being the river on which the town was originally built, and Strand being the stretch of coast where it entered the sea.

No one is sure if it was because the English were just lazy and couldn’t be bothered to learn the proper pronunciation, or if it was simply an administration decision to phonetically transfer the names onto the English version of their maps.

Historian will insist, however, that it was actually a weapon of suppression, deliberately instigated to antagonise and subdue the population by stripping them of their identity, but that’s material for another debate another time – and with people a lot more knowledgeable on the subject than me, I might add.

Anyway, getting back to names, how beautiful is the name Anascaul? Don’t ask me what it means; I just love the sound of it. We were out there a few weeks ago visiting my nephew in his most amazing house perched halfway up a mountain just outside the town of Anascaul.

Breathtaking is too simple a word for the scene you look down on. Or up, even, when you look out of the back window. The Dingle Peninsula sweeps away from you in a colourful concoction of mountains and troughs, pointing sedately towards America somewhere out there across the ocean.

And Ballybunion! Everyone has heard of Ballybunion and its famous golf course, where ex-president Bill Clinton is reputed to have lost his ball. Well, actually, it was the one that was used to adorn his statue, which stands outside the Garda station in the middle of town, erected to celebrate his visit some years ago.

A big bronze statue showing Bill about to take a putt at a … well, there’s no ball there now. Someone probably decided it looked better in an ornamental case in their front room, to be used as a conversation opener with the line; ‘Did you know I’ve got Bill Clinton’s ball …’

And the original sign over the hairdressers across the road has been restored, too. I mean, why would anyone think the name Monica’s was going to cause offence to a visiting American President? But still the sensitive town officials had it painted over anyway, just in case.

Now it’s famous in its own right …


Middle Lane Hogs

Has anyone EVER been prosecuted for hogging the middle lane of a motorway? Between Newport J26 and Cardiff J32 on the M4 I counted 14 cars strung out like a necklace in the middle lane and nothing on the inside lane. As I undertook each one I glared at the driver. Most of them were staring into the distance like zombies, totally unaware of the situation. One actually glanced up from her phone and had the cheek to toot at me and give me the finger. Bless her.  With the technology available these days isn’t there any way they can be given a zap of something to wake them up and force them to use the proper lane?