There was an evening during my years in Dublin when a group from the parish went out for a meal before going to the theatre to see Brian Friel’s play, Philadelphia, Here I Come! One member of the group, a businessman who had grown up on his family’s farm in the west of Co Wicklow stood looking reflective after the play. Finally, he spoke, “he got it right, Ian, that’s the way things were.” The Dublin audience, who had laughed at some of the lines, had missed the deep pathos in some of what had been said.
The central character is Gar O’Donnell. He works for his father, the village shopkeeper in a community in the rural Donegal of the early 1960s. Gar aspires to marry the affluent, middle class Kate Doogan, daughter of a member of the Irish Senate. Kate is anxious that Gar will have an income sufficient to support them.
“You’ll have to see about getting more money.”
“Of course I’ll see about getting more money! Haven’t I told you I’m going to ask for a rise?”
“But will he -?”
“I’ll get it; don’t you worry; I’ll get it. Besides I have a – a-a source of income that he knows nothing about – that nobody knows nothing about – knows anything about.”
“Investments? Like Daddy?”
“Well … sort of … You know when I go round the country every Tuesday and Thursday in the lorry?”
“Well, I buy eggs direct from the farms and sell them privately to McLaughlin’s Hotel for a handsome profit but he knows nothing about it”.
“And how much do you make?”
“It varies – depending on the time of year”.
“Oh, anything from us 12/6 to £1”.
“Every Tuesday and Thursday?”
People at the theatre had laughed, but many people growing up in rural communities on both sides of the Irish Sea would have been familiar with the extra bit of income brought in by keeping chickens. Here in somerset, my Nan kept free range hens that laid big brown eggs, these were collected each day and carefully wiped clean before being placed into cardboard trays. Each tray held dozens of eggs – the filling of them demanded hours of caring for hens and collecting and cleaning eggs. Every so often the egg man would come and collect the eggs, presumably to sell to somewhere else in the manner of Gar O’Donnell.
Having earned money doing jobs like selling vegetables, painting chicken houses, pumping petrol, cutting plants and hoeing fields at various times during student years, there were plenty of moments when an extra pound in the pocket at the end of the week would have been something very welcome, and a pound in the days of Gar O’Donnell was worth a lot more than a pound in the 1970s.