There are many things that were once part of everyday life in Ireland which have now disappeared. Some for the better and some, in all honesty, that have left a large sentimental hole in community life. One day last week I happened to be walking through my hometown when I met an old acquaintance of mine that I had not seen in many years. He was sitting on a wooden summer-seat outside the Church, which dominates the Centre of the town. It was a place between two memorials built to memory of the dead of two world wars and had always been a place where the older members of society sat and enjoyed the sunshine when it showed itself. Settling myself comfortably beside him I asked how things were with him. “Well,” he answered, “I am still putting one foot in front of the other.”
He always did have a dry sense of humour and sometimes you would never have known what way to take his comments. But I laughed and told him, “Well, ‘Banty’, don’t you be dying before Tuesday, for that is the day the pension comes to me, and it is the only time I can afford to buy a ‘Mass Card.’”
Banty laughed and answered with, “There’s little chance of that happening, and me waiting for you to go first.” And in this manner the banter between us continued, and we reminisced about the old days and the people we had both known but were no longer with us. “Do you remember Felix Ryan?” he asked.
“Felix Ryan, by God? Sure, Felix would be a hard man to forget,” I told him. “He was one of the greatest corner boys that this town ever reared. Sure, the man was a wonder who never deserted his post come Autumn, Winter, Spring, or Summer. He was always there from the sound of the factory horn in the morning until the town clock struck six in the evening. Seven days a week and fifty-two weeks in the year he would be on that corner, resting only on Christmas and Easter Days.”
“And the twelfth of July! He wouldn’t stay on the corner when the bands marched through the town,” ‘Banty’ reminded me.
“Aye, you’re right, ‘Banty’. It was a vocation to the man and not a job. It was a vocation to which his father had also devoted a lifetime to, and handed it down to Felix, may he rest in peace.”
“Well, Felix is gone now, too. God be good to him,” ‘Banty’ told me, and my heart sank a little. “Look down at the corner now. It’s empty now, for the first time in many years. No Felix and no corner boys to take his place. It’s sad.”
Looking down at ‘Berwoods’ Corner’ I could see pedestrians walking by it, but not a sign of a corner boy. It had been called ‘Berwoods’ Corner’ from before I was born and was known as that because of the large furniture store on the site that had once occupied three floors of the impressive Victorian structure. The main doors of the building still opened on to the corner and gave an observer a complete view of the almost half-mile long main street comprised of ‘High Street’ and ‘Market Street.’ Even the street opposite and the street adjacent to the building were clearly visible. Not one thing, or one person could escape the sharp eyesight that Felix Ryan was famed for.
“The bold Felix died last week,” ‘Banty’ informed me, “and was buried last Thursday, beside his da.”
“I never heard one word of it, or I would have been at his funeral, “I answered truthfully. “Do you know, I am living only six miles away and it might as well be China for all the news I hear about my hometown.”
“Well, that’s them all gone now,” sighed my friend. “Felix was the last one.”
The terrible truth suddenly dawned on me at that moment. In a town which, at one time, had a ‘corner boy’ on every corner along the main street, and occasionally two ‘corner boys’, fifty years ago, now had none. They had all gone from the scene and had left us to look back on better days when we could laugh and enjoy their antics.
The ‘Corner Boys’ might never have done an hour’s work in their lives, but I cannot recall a time when they were without a cigarette to smoke, or a newspaper under their arm. There were none that I can recall that looked as if they were in need of food or a bed in which to sleep. In the case of Felix Ryan, there never was a day that passed when Felix would be seen on his corner wearing a well-pressed suit, a clean shirt and tie, and on his feet a pair of highly shined black brogue shoes. With his hair well groomed, Felix could well have fooled anyone, who didn’t know him, that he was a professional businessman, except for the copy of the ‘Daily Mirror’ he always had folded and tucked under his arm. He would call that paper his ‘Racing Bible’ and the horse racing section was the only part of the paper that he read. At one time I asked him why he didn’t read ‘The Sun’ and he told me, “That paper is full of Pornography, Sex and lies. Why should I want to pay for that when I can get it all at home for free?” It is my hope that his long-suffering wife had not heard him say such a thing.
When I was in my early teens I remember talking to Felix and him telling me that he believed schooling was a waste of time and that he had learned all he needed to know from the racing pages and the ‘Bookies’. From the time that he was ten his father taught how to read from the racing pages and taught him mathematics by showing him how to work out the odds shown for each horse on a betting slip. There must have been many, who didn’t know him or speak to him, that thought he was an ignorant man. But if they had taken the time to know him, they would have discovered him to be a man who had many important comments to make about the world and what was happening.
Felix may have been a ‘Corner Boy’ but this did not confine him to standing on the corner for hour after endless hour without relief. The man had his drink breaks, food breaks, toilet breaks, and betting breaks in the Bookie’s shop. Another important feature also was that Felix never was without company on his corner. He was not the type to call someone over for a talk, but there were not many in the town who did not know him and would not pass him without engaging him in conversation. He was not a man to be rude to any person who approached him, nor did he give any man the cold shoulder. Well, to be honest, there were only two types of people that Felix did not like, and he would waste little time in telling them to make themselves scarce.
The first group that he disliked were those people whom he called ‘innocent bystanders’ and considered them to be troublemakers and, in his own words, “interfering wee bastards.” He told me one time, “You here about terrible things happening to people who are described as ‘innocent bystanders.’ But allow me to tell you that an innocent bystander does not exist in ant shape or form. They are just people who enjoy hearing about or watching other people in trouble so they can pass on gossip. It was only two Saturdays past that that ‘Tommy the fruit seller’ was half-cut after winning a big bet in Paddy McGurran’s Bookies Shop. Holy God, but you could have heard Tommy and roaring and shouting before you could see him, using some very choice words in his anger. As he came close, I could see who the cause of Tommy’s rage was. It was that little weasel, ‘Tapper’ McVey and he had his hand out, tapping the man for a few pounds for drink. Tommy was never one to beat about the bush and he was telling ‘Tapper’ to go away, very impolitely. When they got to the corner here, I knew that there would be tears before the row ended.
By this time a group of these ‘innocent bystanders’ had gathered to watch the action and heard Tommy tell ‘Tapper’, “Will you just feck off!” At that moment one of these bystanders stepped forward and moved between the two warring men asking, “Do you have to …” The man didn’t get time to finish, for as quick as a flash Tommy lifted his fist and buried it right between the stranger’s two eyes, dropping him like a bag full of spuds. Both Tommy and ‘Tapper’ walked off together, leaving the man unconscious on the street. Now, how was he an innocent bystander?”
Felix had no sympathy at all for ‘Tapper’ McVey, because he was a member of the second group of people that he could not tolerate on his corner. ‘Tappers’ were considered by Felix to be the lowest of the low, for they were men who usually slaves to alcohol and were constantly begging to get the money for their next bottle of anything that contained alcohol. They never appeared to wash, shave, or change their clothes and as Felix put it, “They had neither in them nor on them!”
‘Tappers’ had no shame, and would beg, borrow and steal for their daily dose of alcohol. They had no care where they asked for money and had given ‘corner boys’ a bad name because ignorant people branded them alike. Felix told me that ‘Tapper’ Tim McVey was the worst devil in the town and, one day, when Felix was on his corner the ‘Tapper’ approached him and asked, “Could I tap you for a fiver, Felix?” Felix told me that rather than be rude, although he was shocked by the audacity of the man, he simply smiled as he told ‘Tapper’, “For a fiver Tim, you could hit me over the head with a brick!”
Laughing loudly at this, Felix told me that ‘Tapper’ didn’t move an inch or show any expression of understanding. The man had the skin of a rhino and a brass neck on him, and public rejection was not something that would deter him from his aims. “You’re a funny man, Felix,” he said at last. “But are you going to give me a fiver or not? Surely, you won’t see an old friend go short for a bite to eat?”
“Sometimes being nice just doesn’t work,” Felix told me, “And you have to choose rudeness. Without a second thought I jumped into the battle and told him, ‘Firstly ‘Tapper’ you are not, never were, and never will be any kind of friend of mine! Just look at the state of you, man. I have smelled better sewage farms than you! You are no good ‘Tapper’, and you never will be, so why would I give you five pounds? It’s not food you long for but drink. You would just by yourself a bottle of ‘Buckfast’ or something, guzzle it down, and piss it up against some wall! I risked money on a horse and won those five pounds, and if anyone is going to have a drink, it will be me. Now, ‘Tapper’, Feck off, before I put my size twelve boot so far up your arse, that you’ll be chewing leather for six months!”
That was Felix Ryan, and I felt sorry that I would not see or hear him again.
©2021, Jim@Pinebank Publishing.