IN MY YOUTH I was friendly with an old woman who owned an unusual pair of reading glasses. Her name was Kate Lannigan and she greatly treasured these spectacles but was not above loaning them to close friends when occasion demanded it.
In those days when money was scarce and national health still on the horizon, if a man broke his glasses his only solution lay in borrowing a pair from a neighbour.
Sometimes these helped and sometimes they didn’t. Kate Lannigan’s glasses however were different because everybody could see through them. The odd thing is that they cost only two-and-sixpence in a hardware shop in Tralee.
I was often sent by old people to borrow Kate’s glasses when their own were undergoing repairs or were broken altogether.
She kept them in a large tin case when she wasn’t wearing them. They were made of solid steel and when she handed them over she always entreated me not to open the box in case they might come to harm.
Being young and heedless at the time the first thing I always did when I left her house was to open the box, extract the glasses and put them on. I could see and read with them and best of all they made other young lads of all my age jealous.
Looking back it’s a mystery to me that I didn’t break them. They lasted many a year and at one time or another resided on the noses of every elderly person in the community.
In those far-off and uncomplicated days spectacles were on sale in all respectable hardware shops.
Chemists shops sold them too but here there were would be difficult questions and when the chemist was in doubt he would give no glasses but recommend an eye doctor. This was the last thing the customer wanted.
For one thing the eye doctor might find something serious the matter and for another he was in a habit of charging ten shillings just for having a look at the person’s eyes.
The wealth of these eye doctors was a source of great disputation and many happy hours were spent arguing about the amount of money they possessed.
Young scholars were advised to take up eye-doctoring as a livelihood and marriageable girls were told that they could do worse than to marry an eye-doctor.
Be that as it may Kate Lannigan’s glasses were always there in case of an emergency.
Then one fine day an American exile returned to the parish. He was anxious to do something good for the old people of the district so what he did was to borrow Kate Lannigan’s glasses.
The next thing he did was to hire a motor car and the next thing was to instruct the driver to aim for the city of Limerick.
In Limerick he sourced the hardware shops until he bought up every pair of glasses which had the same reading strength as Kate Lannigan’s.
The reading strength was exactly nil for the lenses were made of plain glass. When he returned he gave a pair of these glasses to all those who were in the habit of borrowing Kate’s.
He explained as he did that they were only plain glass but nobody believed him for all the pairs he purchased not one was as good as Kate Lannigan’s.
People accepted the fact that the glass was probably the same but they argued that it was the way Kate’s glasses were thrown together that made them unique.
All the glasses bought by the kind-hearted Yank were discarded and people took to borrowing Kate Lannigan’s glasses once more.
In those days too nobody wore glasses all the time. This was considered wasteful and very taxing on the frames, although to tell the truth, when the frames broke it was not uncommon to see a man working away over his newspaper with the lenses held up to his eyes.
This, however, was necessary only when Kate Lannigan’s glasses were not available. Then one sad day the inevitable happened. Kate Lannigan’s glasses were out on loan to a neighbour who would have lived a healthier and happier life if he kept his mouth shut when studying the horses aided and abetted by Kate’s glasses when another neighbour rushed into the house and struck him between the two eyes in return for a derogatory comment passed some time before.
The result was that the glasses were smashed to pieces. The man who struck the blow was known thereafter as the man who broke Kate Lannigan’s glasses. He never lived it down.
Time passed and the glasses came and went, but none could vie with Kate’s. The glass may have been without strength but, as I said earlier, it was the way they were thrown together.