The Tailor And Ansty, Sixty years on


By Seán O Sullivan




2002 marked the 60th Anniversary of the publication of "The Tailor and Ansty", a book which caused a big controversy in the early 1940s.


The Tailor was Tim Buckley, who lived with his wife, Ansty, in the townland of Garrynapeaka, near Gougane Barra. He was a well-known storyteller and Irish speaker and the couple’s house was a popular place for ‘scoraiochting’, where neighbours and friends would gather to talk, sing and pass the long evenings. By all accounts the Tailor and Ansty were great hosts and they loved the company and news brought by visitors. The Tailor had a crippled leg from childhood so his mobility was curtailed in his old age thereby increasing the visitors’ importance to him.


Many visitors holidaying in the area also came to the cottage in Garrynapeaka.

Eric Cross was one such visitor. Cross came to live in Gougane Barra around 1939, having holidayed there in the 1930s. He visited Garrynapeaka regularly and wrote down some of the Tailor's stories and observations on life.


In February 1941 an article by Cross titled "The Tailor and Ansty" was published in "The Bell", a literary magazine edited by Seán Ó Faoláin. This was followed in later editions by two more articles titled "The Tailor and the Cleverness of Animals" and "The Tailor on New and Old". Cross was encouraged to publish a longer version of his writings about the Ballingeary couple and "The Tailor and Ansty" was published in 1942 by Mercier Press when the Tailor was 79 years of age.


Later in 1942 the book was banned by the Censorship of Publications Board for being "in its general tendency indecent". The banning was condemned by many people who felt it highlighted the flawed nature of the Censorship of Publications Act of 1929, which they had been fighting against for 13 years.


As Frank O’Connor relates in his autobiography "My Father’s Son", ‘it was a staggering blow for that kind old couple, who had no notion how their simple country jokes and pieties would be regarded by illiterate city upstarts’.


The Senate Debate


The book reached national prominence on November 18th 1942 when Senator Sir John Keane used it and two other books, as examples in a motion he put before the Seanad;

That, in the opinion of Seanad Eireann, the Censorship of Publications Board appointed by the Minister for Justice under the Censorship of Publications Act, 1929, has ceased to retain public confidence, and that steps should be taken by the Minister to reconstitute the board.


An ill tempered debate followed as Senator Keane attempted to show that ‘The Tailor and Ansty’, ‘Land of Spices’ by Kate O’Brien and ‘The Laws Of Life’ by Halliday Sutherland, didn’t fulfil the criteria laid down by the Act.


Senator Keane, (who had opposed the original Act in 1929), quoted from the Tailor and Ansty, which he described as. "a book dealing with local country life. It contains the sayings of country folk in rather a remote part of Country Cork, the sayings of an unsophisticated but, nevertheless, rather interesting and racy couple—the Tailor and his wife, Ansty."


Senator Keane said the book indicate that "country folk, talking around the fireside, are somewhat frank and, perhaps, coarse in their expressions", but that this could not be viewed as indecent. He then quoted a section from the book about the Tailor’s reaction to a visit to the cinema in Cork.


Professor Bill Magennis, Senator for the National University and a member of the Censorship Board, suggested to the Chairman that "before Senator Sir John Keane reads the remainder of the passage an instruction should be given to the official reporters not to record it. Otherwise, we shall have some of the vilest obscenity in our records, and the Official Reports can be bought for a few pence."


As a result of this the official record contains the line "Here the Senator quoted from the book," instead of the actual passages. Senator Keane quoted liberally from all three books but throughout the debate it was "The Tailor And Ansty" which received most attention from opponents to the motion.


The debate continued on December 2nd, 3rd and 9th 1942, with lengthy contributions from a number of Senators, most notably from Prof. Magennis. Some Senators stated that while they didn’t think Tailor and Ansty should have been banned, the wording of the motion before the Seanad meant they would vote against it.


Senator Professor Tierney said "personally, as the question of that book, The Tailor and Ansty, was so much discussed, I feel bound to say that if I had been a member of the Censorship Board I do not think I would have banned the book—not perhaps for the most obvious reasons. I do not regard it as an indecent or obscene book in spite of all that has been said about it…………… I did not find myself able to finish the book because it was so dull, to my mind at any rate. I have heard other people say they enjoyed the book very much, but all I can say is that that was not my experience. I think it should not have been banned, for two reasons: first of all, it was too unimportant to ban, and secondly, to my mind at any rate, it could hardly be said to be, in its general tendency, indecent or obscene."


The majority of the contributors, however, opposed the motion, some of whom had not even read the book.


Senator Goulding, from Waterford, said "I know the Irish people, and I know the people of the Irish country districts a bit better than Senator Sir John Keane. I have sat by their firesides and I have listened to their fireside talk. Any man who dared to use the language used by the character in the book referred to by Senator Sir John Keane would be thrown out from their firesides."


Senator Mrs. Concannon had this to say when defending the Censorship Board, "I imagine it must make them almost physically sick to read some of the books they have to read. I was just thinking, when Senator Fitzgerald was speaking of Dante and the Inferno, that, if Dante came to life again and wanted to think of a really severe punishment for his political enemies, if he condemned them for all eternity to read a book like the Tailor and Ansty there could not be any torture that would get at their "innards" more fiercely. This is the sort of thing that our censors have to read. They do it from a sense of duty to their country and a sense of duty to God."


The motion before the Seanad was defeated 34 votes to 2, with only Senator Keane and Senator Joseph Johnston voting in favour.


The publicity in the national newspapers surrounding the Senate Debate caused a lot of trouble for the Tailor and Ansty. The local parish priest, Fr Michael Murphy and one of his curates, Fr. Jack Murphy called one day and made the Tailor burn the book in his own hearth, an experience which must have been humiliating for a proud couple. This clerical bullying caused people to stop visiting for a time. What Frank O’Connor called a boycott twenty years later in the introduction to the 1963 edition of the book is something which is strongly denied by local people who lived in the area at the time. A certain amount of annoyance was directed towards Eric Cross and the other literary people who seemed to use the banning and the Senate Debate for their own campaign against censorship. One occurrence, when two local youths (going home from cards in Gougane) put a stick through the latch of the cottage door, was directed at the visiting Frank O’Connor and his friends and not at The Tailor and Ansty. However, this irresponsible act frightened the Tailor and Ansty but was seized on by O’Connor as an indication of the local response to the book. In relation to the neighbours reaction to the book, in a 1999 letter to The Irish Examiner journalist Eamonn Sweeney, Ina O’Sullivan (nee Cronin), at the time a young neighbour of the Tailor and Ansty, said "the local people could not understand why the book was banned, why the book was burned and why there was such a venomous debate by people who did not know the old couple."


The Book itself


By today’s standards it is hard to understand how "The Tailor and Ansty" was banned. There are a number of passages that could be called ‘bawdy’ but nothing that could be considered indecent.


A number of short sections were singled out in the Seanad as having possibly influenced the Censorship Board. The following is the Tailors reaction while watching a film, with Cross, in The Astoria Cinema in Cork.


"……….very soon the hero and heroine (in the film) were engaged in a shy love scene.

"Hould her! Hould her!" said The Tailor, "You’d think by the shaping of her that she did not like it, but I tell you that they are all that way in the beginning. It is a way they have of letting on that they don’t like it, when all the time they like it as a donkey likes strawberries".

…… "Thon amon dieul! Man, if I was twenty years younger, I’d come up there and give you lessons"

The heroine was altogether too young and skittish for him. He transferred his affections to her mother. "A nice class of a woman ….. a man could do worse than to marry the likes of her. He could knock a winter out of her comfortably"

…….A fat lady was not exactly to his taste "A divil of a great pounder of a woman. She’d make a handy door for a car-house. She’d stifle you in bed. People think that fat women are warm. I tell

you that they are not. They make a damn great tunnel in the bed, and a man may as well be sleeping in a gully"

In another section when the conversation turns to King Solomon, it is mentioned that the King had 10,000 wives. The Tailor "reckoned it up and no matter how frolicsome a man might be it would take him nearly thirty years of nights, without having any holiday at all, to get his conjugal rights from the lot of them"

The conversation later turned to a man called "….Rajah Ben Salaam and he had a hundred wives…… (he) had a lot of men looking after them – a queer kind of men, like wethers. I don’t know … if they were born that way or if they had been ‘burzeroed’ the way you would do sheep"


Most of the book however is Eric Cross’ account of the couple’s life, the Tailors philosophy on life and the stories told around their fire, living their lives by the Tailors maxim, "The world is only a blue bag. Knock a squeeze out of it when you can". It was the welcome afforded to one all that attracted visitors to their house and marked them as a unique couple .


The Tailor, Tim Buckley died in 1945 at the age of eighty-two. Ansty passed away three years later. Both of them are buried in Gougane Barra under a headstone sculpted by their good friend Seamus Murphy of Cork


The following are two examples of stories told to Eric Cross by The Tailor.



The Cleverness of Animals


Did you know that it was because of the instinct of an animal that the indigo dye first came to Ireland? 

I'll tell you the history of it, and divil a lie is there in it, though most people won't give in to it. 

Years ago there was a boat came into Bantry harbour, and the captain of it came into the town. He was on his way from India. He had a few drinks and fell into conversation with some of the people in the town, and got intimate with them.

He was a decent, conversible type of man, and, as the evening was coming, they asked him to play a game of cards, and he said that he would as he was staying the night anyway. They were playing for some time and the light was failing as the night came. One of them lit a piece of a candle and put it on the table. But with the banging and the thumping of the cards in the excitement of the play the candle kept falling down.

Then one of them said that he would go and look for a sconce, but the captain of the boat said 'No', for he had a better sconce than any one they could find in Bantry town.

He had a bag with him, and he pulled the bag from under the table and took out a cat. He put the cat sitting at one end of the table and put the candle between his paws. It was one of the neatest bits of business you ever set eyes on. All the town came in to look at it, for they had never seen the likes before.

The captain explained to them that he had trained the cat in this business, for when they were playing cards in the Indian Ocean there were terrible rough seas, and no candle would stand up for them.

All the town marvelled except one man, who said that it was well enough, and he had admiration enough for the captain and for his cat, but that nature was a greater thing than training. The two started an argument, and they almost came to blows. Then they decided to bet a wager on who was right. The captain bet a cargo of indigo blue that learning was greater than nature, and the man from Bantry bet a farm of land that nature was stronger than learning.

They carried on with the game, and when it was over, the captain put his cat into the bag and went away with himself to bed. He stayed the following day, and that night they all played cards again, and the cat was at the end of the table with the candle between his paws.

The man who had the wager bet with the captain was playing too, and half-ways through the game he took a mouse out of his pocket and put it on the table. As soon as the cat saw it he dropped the candle and chased the mouse, and the man from Bantry won his wager and proved that nature is stronger than learning. The captain paid him the cargo of indigo dye, and that was how the indigo first came to this country.


Johnny Jerry's Sow And The Eel

There are people who walk through the world who see nothing and hear nothing and learn nothing and know nothing. I don't know why they are alive at all. There are animals learn quicker and have more sense than a deal of human beings.

I saw a curious thing in this line myself a few years ago. Did you ever know that a sow is a very intelligent animal?

I was on the road to this side of Tureendubh. There is a pool there at the side of the road, and a 'johnny the bog' (joanie the bog i.e. a heron) had caught an eel in the pool and was swallowing him. The 'johnny the bog' is a strange kind of bird. He has only a straight gut.

Well, he was swallowing the eel and he wasn't making much of a hand at the business, for the eel ran straight through him, and the 'johnny the bog' kept swallowing him and losing him again.

Johnny Jerry had a sow at that time and she was always on the side of the road. She came along and she stood for a while and watched the 'johnny the bog' go through the performance several times. Then she made a grab for the eel herself and swallowed him and clapped her backside up against the wall!

Now wasn't she a cute and a quick scholar? Yerra, don't be talking. A man can see a new wonder every minute of the day, if only he has the intelligence to know a wonder when he sees one.