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Con Houlihan: Gambling pride on price of the piglets

The Feast of the Ascension used to be a great occasion in our town: it was the market day and it was a day for going to Mass -- it was a time for buying and selling and the old town had a lovely atmosphere from about nine o'clock.

You could buy all kinds of plants and shrubs and infant trees, not to mention fish caught that morning, and periwinkles and seagrass picked not very far away.

There was only one kind of animal on sale that day. People came to sell bonhams and to buy bonhams. In those days nearly every rural household, and some town households, kept pigs. The bonhams were always on the southern side of the street for a good reason. Pigs have very sensitive skin and the buildings protected them from the sun. The bonham market usually took up the middle third of the street. They came mostly with horsecarts or, in later years, in vans.

Thinking back on those days evokes a certain kind of smell: it was a fusion that came from cabbage plants and fish and pig manure. It was a healthy smell. On that day the men had a kind of licence. Provided they went to Mass they could stay out a bit longer as they went around to do a little bargaining to buy or to sell. In simple language there was no hurry home. You could say it was a day of dispensation. It recalled a line from Robert Burns's most famous poem Tam o' Shanter: "When drouthy neighbours, neighbours meet."


We all loved to walk around in our little kingdom meeting old friends and perhaps making new friends, and perhaps buying something that might come in very useful, such as an instrument combining a penknife and a bottle opener and a device for taking stones out of horses' hooves and a packing needle that you could use if you were posting a turkey or a goose.

There is one day especially deep in my memory because I bought a rail of bonhams on which I gambled. If that gamble failed, status would be lost in my community. We were a very tightly bound lot and there was great rivalry about such things as to who would have the first of the early potatoes or be the first to have the turf out of the bog, and most important of all, who would be the best at buying bonhams and selling pigs. That was the great test. And if you fell down there, you lost prestige.

On this morning long ago I was on my way to second Mass and as I passed down the southern side of the street, found myself talking to a neighbour who had his horse and cart backed up against the footpath. He was selling a litter of 12 bonhams half-covered with straw. He was more than a neighbour -- he was a good friend. We talked about different things for a few minutes and then he said: "You might take a look at the bonhams." His name was Tadhgeen Mike Denis. He was known in the voters' list as Timothy Murphy.

I took a good look at the bonhams. To me they looked very young to be on sale. He explained: "We cleared them out of the house to make way for a new litter that will be born in a few days time." I liked their appearance. They had long backs and deep ribcages. That is always a good sign. Then I pinched the skin of one between my thumb and forefinger. It was silky. That was another good sign. By now Tadhgeen could see that I was thinking of buying and he said: "What do you feel they're worth?" And the answer was: "Not quite what you have in mind -- they are very young. And as we are old friends, we won't haggle over the price. There is £50 into your fist. I'm going to Mass. You can take it or leave it." He smiled a roguish smile and took the money and gave me two pounds back for luck.

And I said: "Our piggery on the left-hand side of the road is empty. Give my mother a shout and she'll mind the horse while you are putting the bonhams over the gate." That was that.

Next morning I didn't feel like a full Irish breakfast, content with a mug of tea and a few slices of bread. My mother was untypically silent. I knew what was coming. Eventually she said: "What did you pay Tadhgeen Mike for the leprechauns?" When she heard the price, she said: "You must be out of your mind but it's your own money. You'd need to have your sight examined."


Of course, our neighbours had to come and see the new arrivals. They all agreed that I had paid far too much. I was losing prestige but said nothing. Time went by and the bonhams were such good thrivers that you could almost see them growing. Even my mother was repentant.

By now you'll have gathered that I was becoming very confident but there was still a catch. The price of pigs, at least in those days, could vary quite a lot and when the day came, the market could be bad. Luckily it wasn't. A legendary pig buyer from Limerick, The Cock Reid, lost little time in making a bargain. I was so pleased that I said: "Don't give me cash. Give me a cheque." And I kept that cheque in my pocket for several days so that I could show it to my neighbours.

It was a small triumph but it meant a lot to me in that competitive society. It was a world that is hardly known now when neighbours knew one another intimately and they loved to be better than the next man especially when it came to judgement in buying bonhams and selling pigs.

There was an old saying and it referred to far more than pigs. You could quote it in the context of picking a football team or voting in an election or in many other fields: "The day you buy your bonham is the day you sell your pig."

Fogra: Heartiest congratulations go to one of my favourite people, Colin Costello, who made a great return to Athletics by winning the 1,500m at The Irish Indoor Championships in Belfast last Sunday