‘I am an old woman now, with one foot in the grave and the other on its edge’. For many, these words may send shivers down the spine. They mark the opening paragraph of ‘Peig’, the astonishingly bleak auto-biography of the County Kerry seanachaí Peig Sayers. For the many generations of secondary school students who were compelled to study ‘Peig’ in Irish, the book represents a low point of their educational career. Remarkable as it is, ‘Peig’ is just not the sort of book one should inflict upon teenagers.
Born in 1873, Peig Sayers was fourteen years old when she went to Dingle to work as a family servant for her fathers cousin, James Curran, and his wife Nell. James had opened a shop bar on the town’s Main Street in 1871. This was where Peig sometimes worked. However, her main role was doing household chores and taking care of the Curran’s children as well as James’s mother, Nan. Although the work was hard, Peig said she was treated well and felt like a member of the family. At the age of 16, ill health obliged her to bid the Currans farewell and return to her family. She later married fisherman Pádraig Ó Gaoithín and moved to the Great Blasket Island where the majority of her book is set.
When the original James Curran died in 1907, the business passed to his son John, one of the co-founding chairmen of the Irish Volunteers in Dingle. After John’s death in 1926, his widow Mary ran it with her elder son James. Following James’s premature death in 1940, she turned to her youngest son Joe who gradually took over the business before her death, at the age of 91, in 1966. When Joe died in 1990 it passed to his son James, the present owner.
Like so many of Dingle’s fine pubs, Curran’s has always doubled as a general merchant. ‘They sold everything long ago’, says James, pulling out one of the old ledger books. Ledgers such as these provide invaluable archive material for those seeking to track their forbears. In the 19th century, Curran’s supplied every business in town; the ledgers are stuffed with billheads from all manner of harness-maker, tailor, newsagent, chemist, baker and clergyman. Trawling through the names, James shakes his head and remarks: ‘They’re all gone now, every single one of them gone’.
When James says they sold ‘everything’, he is not far off. The products listed are endless – ropes, twines, seeds, ales, buckets, hams, jams, fishing nets, flowers, lawnmowers and ladies rubber heels. Their drapery was perhaps their greatest business; ‘we sold plenty of cloth caps, shirts and boots for the farmers’.
The farmers would pile into Dingle on fair days and load their carts with sacks of meal for their animals. The Currans themselves had a small farm outside Dingle; one of the farmyards remains intact to the rear of the pub.
James closes the book and says: ‘Potatoes, cabbages, carrots and coal’. As if to emphasize the odd one out, he tells a tale of a farmer who once purchased a sack of flour and a sack of coal.
‘He put both sacks on the one cart but it rained heavy on his way home and the coal and flour came together. They decided to make a cake using the black flour anyway. He ate it and when it didn’t kill him, they all ate it’.
‘There isn’t a whole pile of these pubs at all’, he says. The temptation to sell must sometimes itch. When David Lean’s production team came to Dingle in 1969 to film the controversial epic ‘Ryan’s Daughter’, they tried in vain to buy his Valentia slate floor, offering to replace it with any floor he wanted.
In more recent times he has declined a substantial offer, which would have seen his pub transported in its entirety to the USA as a ‘genuine Irish bar’. That said, he’s heard tell of an exact replica of the pub somewhere in America.
In terms of replication, Curran’s would be straightforward enough. It is a single, square room, a traditional cocktail of tobacco-stained wallpaper and tongue and groove, with snugs in three of the four corners. Shelves stacked with shirts, caps and boots line one wall; he removes them at weekends when the pub tends to become swamped with those looking for a sing-song.
Along the walls hang a portrait of his late father Joe Curran and images of Dingle in older days – the horse-races, coursing greyhounds, street scenes – and a chart showing the tariffs for the long-gone local railway back when you could get to Ventry and back for four shillings.
The shelf top is lined with a mish-mash of oddities – milk churns, brass spraying machines, binoculars, weighing scales, a manual for Victor lawnmowers and miscellaneous cigarette and whiskey advertisements. ‘I put things up there as a I gather them’, says James. ‘Other than that, it’s never changed since it opened. And it’ll not change with me either’.