Johnny Barnes and ‘The Nationalist’ are both jumbled in my memory. Although he was a young adult, he was always known in our streets as “The Paper Boy.” He distributed ‘The Nationalist’ every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday in the dark wartime suburbs of Clonmel. He was a constant: as my mother used to say - “you could set your clock by Johnny Barnes.”
He was a small lithe man, who styled his very black hair in a Brylcreamed slick. He wore a thin two-piece suit, winter and summer, making no concessions to the seasons, except, perhaps, a scarf in very cold weather. He ran everywhere, around corners and uphill, barely stopping to make a sale. I am sure he had the ability to become a champion sprinter, but wartime Ireland was not a place for the encouragement of talent.
It was, however, Johnny Barnes’ unique voice, the echo of which still resonates in my memory. As he turned the corner of our street, he would cup his hands around his mouth and yell - NANNE-CHELL-EST. That was the cue for mothers to send children into the streets with money in hand - a penny for midweek and tuppence for the weekend editions. Johnny would hand over the paper and then resume his running, calling out an abbreviated NASH - NASH .. as he went.
I thought of him the other day - and said a prayer for him - as I sat in the County Archives in Thurles - The Source - while researching through the copies of this newspaper which he sold in 1940-1942. It was difficult to keep my mind focused on the precise area of my research (the decisions of Clonmel Corporation during that period), because, as anybody who has ploughed through old records will know, it is all to easy to become side-tracked and diverted.
I did, occasionally, allow myself the luxury of distraction, telling myself that nowhere else, other than in a local newspaper, could one find a direct reflection of a time, of social mores, of what was happening in a place, and the circumstances in which it had happened, than in the day-to-day reportage of local news. Despite all the newer, and sometimes more immediate soundbites of modern media, historians of the future will still find their greatest source of information in the printed word.
Readers of this column might well say: “Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she!” But, it seems to me the old axiom that faded ink is more enduring than the longest memory, is still valid.
In my occasional straying from my research, I did find some nuggets of news which reflected that time when Johnny sold ‘The Nationalist’ in Clonmel streets. There was, for instance, the importance of the bicycle when supplies of petrol were severely rationed. A soldier was imprisoned for two months, and got a severe dressing-down from the Judge, for the larceny of a bike in Thurles. By the time he was apprehended he had cycled to Abbeyleix. All the garda stations had been informed by telegraph of the theft.
His Grace, the Archbishop of Cashel and Emly, was very concerned about late-night dancing, of the behaviour of boys and girls while dancing, and even more worrying, what they did afterwards. And there was a very sad reminder of the fact that suicide was still a designated criminal offence. A man (full name and address given) was prosecuted before the criminal courts for attempting to take his own life. Evidence was given that he “had been suffereing from his nerves” but had since had medical treatment. While the Judge could have sent him to prison, he advised him “not to do it again.” The unfortunate man promised he would not.
The comprehensive “Nationalist” reporting of meetings of local authorities is now a most useful source when looking at the business of Clonmel Corporation during the early years of World War II. That authority had an important function in the maintenance of vital supplies such as gas and fuel, at a time when imports of coal were very restricted. While a most welcome archive of local authority documentation and records has now been established in Clonmel, there are some glaring gaps in these records, much of which have not survived. Minute books record decisions but these give little detail of the process of arriving at those decisions - the pros and contras, the debates, all of which would be lost to history if it were not for the work of the newspaper reporters.
Most of these, very comprehensive reports, contained verbatim passages of dialogue, which, read 70 years later, reveal the concern, irritability, good humour, logicality, and sometimes pig-head-ness, of a group of men (no woman was on the Council at the time), all genuinely concerned about the welfare of the town, at a time of emergency.
All gave voluntary service. Fees or expenses were not paid. The Mayor was allowed a modest sum to cover his expenses. At the time, the newspaper was the only means of access to information by the public, on the work of local authorities.
During the period a “Nationalist” editorial, in explaining the reduced size of the paper, said that only a few rolls of newsprint remained in the print works, future supplies were anticipated but not guaranteed.
In so far as it is possible to get a colour, a “feeling,” about a town at a bleak period in its recent history, then the black and white of the printed word in a local newspaper is the nearest we now can get. It is an invaluable source for those interested in local history, and it is a source which is now available in The Source (County Library) in Thurles.
And when I think of it, Johnny Barnes was also a source, an immediate conduit in communication, during those dark days, and in his own time and in his own way.