There used to be 32 pubs in Abbeyfeale, the old Limerick market town that borders Kerry. Or was it 41? Actually, it was 50. Yes, definitely 50... or possibly 52.
Nobody in Monday night’s documentary Abbeyfealegood, which hung out with the staff and customers of some of the town’s hair salons and barbershops, seemed to know for sure. Unlike the proverbial rolling stone that gathers no moss, the more the question rolled on, the larger the number grew, finally settling at 60. Or perhaps 64.
It’s academic now anyway, because many of the pubs have closed, driven out of business by changing times and changing laws. The post office has gone too, along with a lot of the small shops.
Once the big supermarket chains came in, life got hard for the local retailers, just as it’s been hard for them in every small Irish town.
“You can’t buy a pair of knickers here any more,” said one female hair salon customer, suddenly giggling when she realised what she’d just said. The humour was infectious, and her friend started giggling too.
“Abbeyfeale is going downhill slowly,” said another woman, more gravely.
There’s been talk of a bypass, which would makes things much, much worse. “If they do that, the town will be dead,” she added.
But Abbeyfeale’s hair salons and barbershops are still there, 16 of them – more than in any other town in Ireland – spread across two streets and serving a population of just 2,023.
They’re thriving; or at least they were when this documentary was made, before the Covid-19 restrictions deemed they weren’t an essential service and had to close.
This lovely, funny, gentle, frequently heart-warming, but just as often quietly heartbreaking, film by Alex Fegan – who made Older than Ireland (about life through the eyes of centenarians) and The Irish Pub (self-explanatory) – made the case, unintentionally or otherwise, that they are essential.
Now more than ever, in fact, and not just because you fear that awful hairstyle you thought you’d banished forever in the 1970s will come back to reclaim its territory.
Anyone who uses the same barbershop or hair salon every time (which would be most of us) knows that getting a haircut is about far more than just getting a haircut.
It’s about sharing – news, good and bad, triumphs and tragedies, fears and worries and hopes – with a trusted friend and confidant(e).
In a small town where other places to gather socially are gone, it’s about human contact.
“Some of my customers don’t meet each other ‘til they meet here again,” said one hairdresser.
“Everything is trashed out in a hair salon,” said a customer. “It isn’t just beauty, it’s life in general. It’s politics, it’s sex, it’s marriage, it’s divorce.”
As if to prove it, another one talked about her husband leaving her after 30 years: “A woman came to buy a pony and took the horse.”
“She took the stallion, you mean,” cackled her friend.
People talk about anything and everything when they’re getting their hair done, even things they might not talk about to anyone else.
The presence of Fegan’s camera seemed to liberate rather than inhibit them, even when the subject was deeply personal and painful.
A stylist recalled the death of her daughter when a car hit theirs while they were driving on holiday. “I thought she’d just fainted,” she said, not realising the child in her arms was dead.
Two male customers also spoke about losing their children: one, a nine-year-old girl, in a car crash; the other, a young man of 19, to suicide.
It must be the hardest thing in the world, unimaginable to those of us who’ve not suffered it and never want to.
Elsewhere, the conversations ranged across spirituality, life and death, mental health, bullying, forgiveness and love.
This was a gem of a film, beautifully shot and brimming with humanity. Make an appointment.
Abbeyfealegood is available to watch on RTE Player.