Knockcroghery forges ahead in a changing Ireland

Batty O’Brien on cricket, characters and…knife sharpeners

The directions were spot-on and I arrived at the gate as the postman was filling the old metallic US Post box attached to it. Beyond the gate there was a slightly overgrown driveway leading up to one of the most splendidly unusual houses I had ever seen. Made of blue corrugated metal, it stood apart from its surroundings, while also strangely fitting in.

  Well-known former publican Batty O’Brien, who was 59 last birthday, answered the door as I fumbled around for a notebook. “Ah you made it! Did you get lost?” came the greeting. I had barely made it inside when he started telling me a story from the Knockcroghery of his youth.

  “You have to use your imagination now,” he began. “There used to be a travelling knife sharpener and he’d flip the bike over and attach a stone disc to the wheel…” Batty demonstrated with his arms. “My job would be to spin the pedal and my father, Hubert’s butcher knives would be sharpened.” Batty couldn’t remember the man’s name but told me there were many “journey men” like him who travelled throughout the countryside looking for work and they’d sometimes turn up at his father’s butcher shop in the village. Batty assured me that his schooldays in the village also contained their own highlights: “Our headmaster was big into the FCA and every summer he’d go off to camp and his son, Lochlann – who was an artist – would take over our class for two weeks. In the morning he’d organise cricket and we’d play up until lunchtime right? Then in the afternoon he might decide to do art and that was our day! Sure he might decide to teach us rugby or cricket for the day and it’s those kinds of things that form a child.” Batty clearly had very fond memories of national school and his formative years in the village.

  His home is dotted with pieces of art, some his own work and some given to him by friends. Unusual and unique, the pieces suit the home and add to its character. There’s no time to ponder the weird and wonderful creations however as Batty soon has us back in the village of his youth.

  He describes the scene: “Sounds are important…I remember when I’d wake up and hear the sound of the forge – across the road was George Coyle’s forge – and on Saturdays when there was no school that was the place to congregate to watch the action. You’ve men, you’ve horses, you’ve metal, fire and I remember watching George making a horseshoe from start to finish.” Batty reminded me that this was before the days of health and safety. “Some days he’d let the kids bang the metal with the hammer and it was fascinating to watch that.”

  One story leads to another and more daring acts from the village blacksmith, Batty continues: “There was a friend of mine called Timothy Nash, who one summer came home from Manchester to see his cousins. Now Timothy had this massive wart on his hand right? And somebody convinced Timothy that George could burn the wart, and George said that it wouldn’t hurt that much and he’d burn it off. Anyway, we all assembled and Timothy – brave man right? – George put his hand on the anvil and got a bit of molten metal and put it on the wart. Now I’ll never forget it, Timothy screamed and fainted, and we f***** ran. I’ll never forget that, Timothy came around anyway and the wart was gone. About a decade ago I met Timothy in the village one night and he said he’d never forget the craic in the forge, he said the scar was still there but the wart was gone!”

  It was watching things being made that led to Batty taking an interest in crafts and making things himself. School was about getting grades and getting by and getting out.

  The conversation stays with authority for the moment as Batty remembers another great story: “There were three full-time policemen right – I wondered why – but there was a sergeant and two guards. Now, there was no crime, well, except once. There was an elderly lady and one night she drove to Mass, then Mass was over and she walked home. She had forgot that she had driven in the first place. So anyway, she went home to her house and she saw no car at her house. The poor woman was convinced that her car – it was a white Escort – was stolen and word went around the village. The rumours were ‘Jesus there’s a crime in Knockcroghery, Mrs. Tierney’s car was stolen!’ So there was a big police investigation and an hour later someone noticed the white Escort up at the church. That was big news in the village!”

  Global news at times brought a sense of danger to Knockcroghery as Batty recalls: “Remember in the film ‘The Butcher Boy’ during the Cuban Missile Crisis when the women in the shop thought the world was going to end? Well in our shop at home it was the same thing, they were convinced Armageddon was on the way. That night it was a longer Rosary than usual – we had the Rosary in the house anyway – but whatever happened the world didn’t end!”

  I had been there for almost an hour and we still hadn’t touched upon the “Rock ‘n’ Roll years” of bars and nightspots as Batty described them. He did touch on a topical issue however – membership of the EU – saying that while the village has changed since “joining the EEC”, most of the changes have been for the better.

  Before I left he showed me an old photograph of himself and his mother, Elizabeth, reading Enid Blyton books and that, along with the wonderful stories he had shared with me, made me question whether all of the changes had indeed been for the best. I pulled out off the overgrown drive and left Batty, a man who fondly remembers the old village of Knockcroghery – warts and all – behind.