My first job was working in a hardware shop in Letterkenny during the early 1970s. I was sixteen years old. This was a large shop with several different departments. In the front of the shop was the Toys and Ornaments, Paint and Wallpaper etc and next the Hardware department. We started work at 9am to 6pm Tuesday - Friday. On Saturday we worked from 9am until 9pm. Monday was our day off.
The boss showed me around and introduced me to the rest of the staff. He said 'we have no central heating yet so your first job in the morning is to light and maintain the Paraffin Heaters.' The old Valour and Aladdin Heaters were very temperamental. They had to sit dead level on the floor and the wicks had to be cleaned daily for best results and to achieve the safe blue flame. A yellow flame meant it was too high and was considered dangerous, so you had to keep adjusting the wick to get the perfect safe blue flame. After lighting the heaters I had to brush the shop from top to bottom and then tidy up all the shelves and so on.
The boss told me to read the labels on the products and learn about them, then you'll know what the customer wants. This was the early 70's and a lot of rural places in the surrounding area still had no electricity, so they relied on paraffin lamps and heaters, especially the Tilley Lamp, The Aladdin Lamp and the older Bi-Aladdin lamp and of course the Tilley Pressure Iron.
We stocked all the parts for these lamps and heaters; parts like pumps, plungers, washers and vaporisers...all neatly stacked on shelves so if someone asked for a part, it was easy to get, simple...not really. People had their own names for things and that's where the craic started.
One day a man came in and asked for a globe for a Bi-Aladdin Tilley Lamp, and a lady asked for a Tilley Bar. After quizzing the man I found out it was an Aladdin Lamp, and the Tilley Bar was a vaporiser.
One day at the Paint and Wallpaper Department a lady came in and asked for some wallpaper pattern books as she was doing up her living room. After about an hour she finally agreed on one and asked for three dozen rolls. 'Three dozen rolls?' I thought to myself, 'It must be a castle she lives in'. All the wallpaper was stored upstairs so I went up and counted out three dozen rolls trying to balance them on my arms as I came down the stairs, nearly tripping in the process. 'Where are you going with all those?' she asked. 'I only want three dozen'. The boss overheard and called me aside and explained that one roll of wallpaper is equal to twelve yards so when someone asks for one dozen its one roll they want.
Another time a man asked for a 2lb tin of blue paint and a 4lb tin of white paint. 'How complicated can things get?' I thought, as paint was sold in pints and quarts etc. Then the boss explained that paint used to come in powder form and you mixed it with linseed oil! It was sold by the lb hence the 'lb tin' and so on.
One day this tall farmer came into the shop. He must have been over 6ft tall and hands like shovels. He banged his walking stick on the counter 'give me a snaffle' he grunted. 'A what?!' I said, 'are you sure you're in the right shop?' 'Give me a snaffle right now!' he said, 'I have a thran* bull in the byre and I can't get him out!' Then I knew what he was looking for; a bull leader, a device that attaches to the bulls nose with a handle so you can lead the bull anywhere safely!
We also sold rabbit snares, rabbit traps, traps for badgers and foxes, mouse and rat traps...in fact any vermin with four legs and a face we had a trap for it. All illegal now of course. The rat cage was another type of trap. What happened was you placed some food in the cage, the rat would enter the cage and eat the food but couldn't get out again. Then another rat would come along, go into the cage and realise there is no way out. So it was survival of the fittest then, sometimes you could catch three or four rats or more. An old man told me one time that he had a rat cage. He caught two rats one night, he checked the cage again in the morning and there was nothing in the cage only two tails! Then one day this lady came rushing into the shop, 'Hurry' she said, I need a mouse trap I want to catch a bus!
Last but not least I remember this old lady standing at the bottom of the shop. She had an alarm clock with her and she asked where could she get it fixed. I wasn't familiar with any watchmakers in Letterkenny, so I called up to the boss who was in the office 'where can this clock be fixed?' I shouted. 'Balls!' he shouted back. 'Where?!' I called back. 'Balls, Balls!; he roared. The girl in the office gave him a dig in the ribs and then he shouted back 'Balls Jewellers!'**
*thran = stubborn
** C.T. Balls Jewellers, Main Street, Letterkenny