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

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