By Collette Bonnar
As I was driving to Derry last summer, I took a right turn at Rossgeir on the outskirts of Lifford. Directly in the line of vision at this crossroads is a picturesque pub, Rossgeir Inn. It looked resplendent with window boxes and hanging baskets.
Purple and pink petunias in full bloom created a blaze of colour cascading from the window sills on the facade of the pub. Wooden tables and benches were dotted outside the Inn to facilitate punters who enjoy a drink outside on a sunny day.
After admiring this impressive establishment, I concentrated on the road ahead but my mind wandered back to the original Inn at this crossroads. It was a quaint, thatched pub which had an open fire in winter. It also doubled as a grocery shop. The lady who ran it, was known to us as ‘Mrs Mac’.
When Uncle John would give us a sixpence, my siblings and I would call to the pub to buy a treat. It was either Mrs Mac or James French who served us. Mrs Mac was a very polite, ladylike woman, with great patience, who’d smile as we dithered over what to buy. On the high wooden counter, a selection of batch bread, Paris buns, liquorice pipes, boiled sweets and other goodies were on display.
Local farmers would gather there on winter nights to discuss cattle prices, the harvest, and of course the Egyptian Inspector who’d visit Derry to examine the potatoes for export. Among the punters would have been uncle John, having his favourite tipple – a Powers whiskey chased by a bottle of Guinness.
One day coming up to Christmas, Uncle, was in a very bad mood, which was rare for him. A few of us were lurking in the pantry, eavesdropping on the conversation between himself and my father.
“You’ve got to stop them, Barney, before they shame us around the whole parish.”
“John, calm down, what are you talking about?” Daddy asked.
Uncle John raged; “I was in the pub last night and a man from Porthall was saying that he had mummers in earlier in the evening. He told me that despite the masks, there was no mistaking the voices of Enda and Desmond. Your two sons – my nephews, out mummering. This is akin to begging, get them stopped.”
Through the seam in the door, we could see uncle’s face was blazing as he stormed off.
Needless to say, that put an end to the mummering. The level of mummering my brothers engaged in, as uncle saw it, was a form of begging – taking money from hard-pressed families. My brothers’ mummering was a far cry from the highly entertaining and talented form that ‘proper mummers’ performed at the time.
Among the fond memories of the pub at the crossroads were the Sundays when children could be seen sitting outside on the window sills drinking their ‘beer’ – McDaid’s Football Special – a mineral which frothed up like real beer and had a flavour all of its own. Their fathers would be inside the pub having a bottle of stout and chatting to the handful of locals who’d call in for a ‘drop’ and a chat.
I remember one very lucrative visit to the pub. I was about seven-years-old and Aunt Nellie had sent me to the pub to buy some tea and Plug tobacco for Uncle’s pipe.
When I entered the pub there was a tall, well-built farmer standing at the counter. He looked at me in amusement and asked; “Who are you buying the tobacco for? Not yourself I hope.”
“No, it’s for uncle John,” I replied. I could see by his face, he’d twigged straight away who ‘uncle John’ was – uncle lived just yards from the pub.
“I know your uncle John well,” he said as he withdrew two shiny half-crowns from his pocket. “This is for you, you’re a good wee girl, now mind yourself crossing the road.”
My eyes were out on stalks as I thanked him very much. In my excitement, I nearly dashed out of the pub without the tobacco and the tea. To a young child this was a mighty windfall altogether!
However, my exuberance was short-lived.
When I returned to aunt Nellie’s house, I told her about my good fortune. My jaw dropped as she turned to uncle: “John would you have five single shillings? Collette will be sharing this with the others.”
Needless to say, my brothers and sisters had gathered around, delighted with aunt Nellie’s magnanimous declaration. “Share and share alike.”
Now, over five decades later, the memories of that bygone era and the quaint hostelry are still vivid in my mind.