Bloody teeth extractions are what I remember from fair day

Family Fortunes: a travelling dentist treated people in our diningroom in the 1940s

Fair days in my home town were like fair days everywhere in Ireland in the 1940s: bedlam on the street, carts upended, pigs squealing and at the head of the street, cattle and sheep being bought and sold. Dung and sheep droppings everywhere.

But my favourite memory is of Mr Brown who was a kind of travelling dentist, or so I thought, who dropped into town every fair day to extract teeth or drill holes in them.

With our diningroom swept out and the big table (where we’d just had breakfast) pushed back against the wall, the place was cleared for the realignment of my father’s own big chair. This was a deep low chair, lined with red velvet and big enough to hold two of us small children should we ever get the chance to occupy it but on fair days, the chair was given up entirely to Mr Brown.

Pushed in front of the big window, which had neither curtain nor blind and faced right onto the yard where we played hopscotch, the chair now became the setting for bloody extractions and drilling.


Jaws wrapped in flannel

He must have been very adept at his work for he did it all without running water and only a bucket for a spittoon but at least he had plenty of broad daylight which would have been better than our electricity supply at the time. Skilful he had to be, but his patients were, almost literally, out of this world as they waited outside the diningroom door, in a narrow passage on wooden forms: a silent row, white-faced or with jaws wrapped in flannel.

Of course, we were forbidden to go near that passage or to enter the diningroom while he was there but on occasion we made some excuse to pass the window and, from the yard, just sneak a glance at the chair. But we didn’t dare linger although badly wanting to discover the exact working-out of his ministrations, along with the identity of that particular, piteous client.

Then around five o’clock, with the fair over and Mr Brown and his patients all gone, we’d creep back into the diningroom: here with the table laid for tea and boiled eggs and the chair back in its place awaiting my father and his supper-time pipe, normality reigned: all tidied up, no shiny instrument left behind by mistake, no nasty swab, just once a long-rooted tooth, neglected, under the window-sill.