“Have you ever seen a bad hair day in Abbeyfeale?” asked the woman having her do coiffured in one of the 16 barbers and hairdressers in the Limerick town. And with that many premises serving a population of just 2,023, nobody in Abbeyfeale had any excuse for having a bad hair day.
Well, until now, that is, the lockdown forcing the closure of all 16 establishments and no doubt leaving the residents, no more than ourselves, looking much like Wurzel Gummidge.
Hairdressers and barbers haven’t, of course, been deemed essential services, but seeing the role they play in these people’s lives on Abbeyfealegood (RTÉ One, Monday, 9.35 pm), they probably should be. And not just for haircuts.
No more than most rural towns, Abbeyfeale has had it tough in recent times, so many of its businesses, as well as the local post office, closing down. “You can’t buy a pair of knickers here now,” complained one resident.
How many pubs did it once have? In a rib-tickler of an opening scene, the story grew in the telling, the various estimates: 32, 41, 50, 52, 60 and 64.
But with the closure of a host of “social places to meet”, said one salon owner, the hairdressers and barbers have taken on a new – and invaluable – role in the town. “There are some of my customers who don’t see each other until they meet in here again,” she said.
And once stylist meets client, they become confidantes and counsellors for each other, their chats cathartic. Not least for three of the contributors, Alisha, Denis and Martin, who open up to give harrowing accounts of the loss of children in tragic circumstances, and their struggles to carry on in the aftermath.
Florrie, a barber in the town for 60 years, listens as Martin talks of the 19-year-old son he lost to suicide, and the shame and sense of responsibility he felt. He dreams about him often, but he’s now arrived at a point where his son is “smiling and happy” in those dreams. And that has given him some degree of release. “It’s good to talk about that, is it,” asks Florrie, softly. For Martin, it is.
Directed by Alex Fegan (Older Than Ireland, The Irish Pub) and produced by Denis Dwyer, Abbeyfealegood is a warm, gentle gem, sumptuously shot. That it shows the power and value of human contact and good company makes it all the more poignant to watch in this time of social separation.
And the lives we heard about can be complicated, too. One client tells us her husband stayed with her for 30 years, “so that wasn’t bad.” But then “some lady came to buy a pony and she took the horse,” she says of the end of their marriage. “She took the stallion,” says the woman beside her.
She counts herself fortunate, though. The postman told her about a couple in a neighbouring village who had been together for 50 years, but only communicated through their dog. If the husband needed to ask his wife a question, “he’d tell it to the dog and she’d hear it, and vice versa.” But? “They were in awful trouble when the dog died. Because the new dog didn’t understand.”