Sunday, 11 November 2018
Mrs Kinsella's Boot
I live in a wonderful country. Yes, we've had wars but thankfully we now exist in a time of peace. We have an economy where anyone wishing to make a living can do so and the majority of our population lives in relative comfort.
Now I do say relative because all things are relative. I hear people complaining about the hardships they're enduring and there are hardships for sure. There are people who are homeless, some people have to spend days waiting on hospital trolleys for a bed to become available. There are those who suffer from addiction, mental illness, disadvantage and economic degradation. There are problems and many who are suffering from them.
But how do our problems stack up against those experienced in other countries or even Ireland a hundred years ago?
Today, most of the homeless can access emergency accommodation in the short term and eventually be placed in social housing long term. Those waiting on hospital trolleys are getting treatment, even if in less than comfortable surroundings. In this country there are services for all manner of struggles and most of them are free. All in all, I think we're not doing bad at all.
What brought this to mind was a story I heard about a woman called Mrs Kinsella. Mrs K lived in Dublin around the year 1918. Those were tough times, real tough times. I think today's pampered kids would have a heart attack if they had to live there for even one day.
To set the scene for you, Dublin had just been through a bloody uprising that saw the city turned into a shooting gallery, women over thirty were just getting the vote, unions were battling the tyranny of powerful industrialists, work was hard and poorly paid, education was a luxury not a right, money was scarce and if you didn't have a job, well, you starved.
The Kinsellas had been married about seven years, the first of which were spent squashed into a small bedroom in Mr Kinsella's mothers house. Two kids later, that room was about fit to burst. The day they put a deposit down on a tiny two bedroom house of their own was one of the happiest of Mrs Kinsella's life. They moved in carrying all they owned in four small cases but felt like the richest people on the earth.
The house was close to the center of Dublin and only a short walk from Mr Kinsella's factory. Within a year, another little mouth had appeared in the Kinsella home along with an ominous bump forming under Mrs Kinsella's petticoats. Mr Kinsella was working all the hours he could and even became involved with the union to ensure a better life for his family. Despite all this there wasn't enough money to go round. Wednesday often found the cubbards bare with two days till pay day. The preasure was growing on the family and it had caused more than a few heated discussions. Mr Kinsella was a proud man, he wouldn't go begging to the church for a hand out, nor from his family...banks were for people who already had money, not the ones looking for it so the only way of getting a few bob was to visit the pawn broker but Mr Kinsella wouldn't hear of it.
"No wife of mine will go begging to those bloodsucking moneylenders," he declared when Mrs Kinsella suggested it and she had little choice but to forget about the idea. Women had just as much pride as the men in those days, but it was they who had to tend the kids as they cried themselves to sleep with their ribs tickling their back bone. Mr Kinsella was a prideful man but he had the good fortune to marry a woman who was brave enough to do what was right, no matter what the world, or husband, would say.
The amazing thing about having so little is how much value little can have. The Kinsellas weren't unusual in this time, nobody had much. A winter coat was a treasure when the rain was driving down on your back, and an even greater treasure if it covered a thread-bear jumber. The first years of the century were good times to be a Pawn Broker. People would turn up with a clock, a watch, a suit of clothes...practically anything. The article would be wrapped in brown paper, tied with string, and put on a shelf for safe keeping while its owner went away with a few shillings jingling in their pocket. Friday was a busy day because it was payday. The people would arrive to the shop, repaying their loan with a little interest, and reclaim their property.
The first time Mrs Kinsella went down the Pawn Brokers she returned without her boots. Mr Kinsella went ballistic. He ranted and raved until she promised she'd never shame him like that again. Her words agreed but in her mind she simply decided to get more creative.
First thing she did was to change her name. All the woman of the time were doing it. She might leave the house as Mrs Kinsella but when she placed her package on the counter of the Pawn Brokers, Mrs O'Connor was scribbled on the brown paper.
After a while she became a regular in the shop and the man behind the counter stopped checking what she had brought in to trade. He was always sure she would be back on Friday...regular as clockwork. Mrs K took to bringing neatly washed and folded bed linen. Mr Kinsella never missed them. And after a while she kept a special set of older sheets, worn away in the center but folded in such a way that they looked perfect on the shelf.
She had pawned Mr Kinsella's good suit a few times, the one he wore for union meetings and mass, before he spotted it and started locking up the wardrobe. That suited Mrs Kinsella just fine because she simply took the back off the wardrobe and crossed her fingers that Mr Kinsella wouldn't have a union meeting on a Thursday or Friday morning.
But the thing that really made Mrs Kinsella famous was her habit of pawning one of her boots, only one. The man behind the counter never asked why only one boot...but often wondered as he watched the lady limp away from his shop. If he had asked, he would surely have labeled the woman a genius.
Mrs Kinsella dressed like all ladies in those days, in gowns that brushed the ground. Once she had left the Pawn Shop, one boot on, one boot gone, she would make her way around the shops and get what she needed. That night she would feed her brood, and Mr Kinsella of course. Once all the kids were in bed the couple would sit each side of the fire and discuss the happenings of the day. This was when Mrs Kinsella's one remaining boot became vital. Mrs K would deliberately stick the foot with the boot out under her skirt, making sure Mr Kinsella got a good look at it. Once she had seen his eyes glide over the booted foot she could relax in the knowledge he wouldn't question the origin of the bit of bacon they had just eaten for dinner.
I have to tell you every word of this story is true and it makes me sure of one thing. The men of 1918 drastically underestimated the ladies in their lives and I'm fairly sure things haven't changed much in that respect in 2018.