Tall tales, old wives’ tales and dog’s tail that wagged with lucky paw of cards

Poker-Playing Pooch
Poker-Playing Pooch

It’s probably a first for Roamer’s page but I’m lodging a complaint

I recently attended a meeting of the Upper Ards Historical Society in Portaferry.

That’s not what I’m complaining about – it was a most enjoyable evening.

My complaint is about myself, and a book that was very kindly lent to me by Ards Society president Gerard Lennon entitled ‘Around and About – The Roamer’, a compilation of stories shared on this page in the late 1980s.

Published by the News Letter and illustrated by cartoonist Ralph Dobson, its 90 pages are packed with readers’ jokes, reminiscences and photographs, up to a dozen per page, often using extremely small-sized print.

My complaint today is about the amount of time I’ve spent reading the old book when I should be sifting through a mailbox filled with current, up-to-date material.

I can’t help it, it’s an almost addictive book, though I suppose it’s mostly the fault of News Letter readers who’ve been sending Roamer such intriguing stories for so long.

Presuming that ‘Around and About’ was a fair representation of overall content, there were unquestionably more tall stories and jokes on this page 30 years ago than there are today.

This is interesting, because today’s page regularly carries a request for readers’ ‘yarns, jokes or japes’ but very few arrive in Roamer’s mailbox.

Are we getting more serious as the years go by?

For instance, under the headline ‘Plenty to Crow About’ an Armoy reader shared an “account” of a local farmer who was plagued with rooks eating his potatoes.

The farmer tried scarecrows, nets and all sorts of clever ploys including a shotgun, but the birds kept coming back and scoffing his spuds.

They always perched on a tree in the middle of the field, out of range of the farmer’s gun, before swooping down for a feast.

Then the farmer had a brainwave.

He got birdlime (an adhesive substance) and spread it all over the branches.

Next, he put “a hefty charge of gunpowder in his muzzle-loader and hid in a nearby hedge”.

Soon the rooks returned - “hordes of them” – and when they were settled in the tree “he let blinge!”

“Victory at last?” wrote Roamer.

Not so, according to the Armoy reader who told the story.

“Up went all the wings and the rooks flew away – with the tree!”

From the ridiculous to the sublime, and a story shared on Roamer’s page in December 1988, sent in by a Ballymena reader.

A minister was building a garden shed at the back of the manse and while he was hammering away at the planks he noticed a little boy watching him intently.

“Would you like to be a carpenter like our Lord?” asked the clergyman.

“Not at all,” said the lad, “I just want to hear what you say when you hit your finger a thump with the hammer!”

Amidst the many tall tales from three decades ago were readers’ stories sworn by their authors to be true.

A Tyrone lady told Roamer in January 1989 “my late father once saw a weasel funeral”.

This most unusual event took place in Raphoe, Co Donegal, where the letter-writer’s father saw “six weasels walking in the twos pulling a dead one in the middle. It was a rare sight,” she underexaggerated, “but it’s true.”

Animal stories, fact or fiction, were abundant when ‘Around and About’ was published.

One (presumably) tall tale recounted a dog that regularly played draughts with its owner.

A neighbour called in during a game and said to its owner “that’s definitely one of the most intelligent dogs I’ve ever seen. It could make a fortune for you at a circus”.

“Intelligent!?” exclaimed the owner, “it’s as thick as two planks. It hasn’t won a game yet.”

Headlined ‘Poker-Playing Pooch’, a Belfast reader shared a similar story with Roamer in 1989 about a guy whose friend was playing poker with his dog.

“That’s a clever dog you have there,” said the guy to the owner.

“He’s a stupid hound,” the owner replied, “every time he gets a good hand he wags his tail.”

A curious cure for baldness was recounted in the book.

Don’t try this at home!

The ‘stimulating lotion’ included “half an ounce of strong ammonia solution; half an ounce of chloroform; half an ounce of sesame oil; half an ounce of lemon oil and two ounces of the herb rosemary. Rub this into the remaining roots, morning and night”.

Apparently a “fine downy growth” will appear on the scalp!

But amidst all the jokes, tall tales and wives’ tales from 30 years ago, Roamer’s page shared many evocative stories from days of yore – a tradition that’s thankfully continuing.

A “very old lady who was brought up near the border when there was no border” described farming at the turn of the century.

The caption on a faded black and white photo in the book stated: “A tough grind, and you wouldn’t see young ‘uns doing it now.”

The old lady’s account reads like poetry as she explains: “I helped pull flax lint and tramped it down in the dam to keep it under the water and make it rot. We took it away in a horse and cart and spread it on the field to dry. It was stinking oul stuff.”