Use Your Head

One occasionally sees in Dublin an immigrant woman balancing a considerable load on her head. This is an effective method of bearing weight and was common among working women in pre-Famine Dublin. Apparently, for loads of up to 20 per cent of body weight, there is no additional expenditure of energy.

The elimination of rough ground and narrow alleys in the poorer areas of Dublin in the later nineteenth century allowed for the emergence to dominance of the handcart and the gradual decline of the old custom; bakers’ trays, still frequently carried on the head, are a rare survival of what was once a ubiquitous form of portage in the city.

The practice, of course, is still widespread in many parts of Africa. Interestingly African modes of infant-carrying have been adopted by some of Dublin’s more advanced mothers, so perhaps it would not be so surprising if head-carrying were to take off as an alternative fashion. Potential practitioners, however, ought to be aware that burdens should best be kept light, initially at least, as studies have shown that a particular style of gait is required and that this only comes with practice; indeed it is best learned from childhood. It seems that head-carrying, when pursued by non-acclimatised westerners, can give rise to acute pain in the neck region.

An episode of sexual harassment I witnessed recently on Wicklow Street brought to mind a similar incident which was reported in The Dublin Evening Post in 1828 and which involved a woman who was carrying goods on her head.

The young woman in question was making her way down a street in the Liberties ‑ I think it was Carman’s Hall ‑ supporting a tub of offal on her head. The tub was of such a size that she used both raised arms to ensure it remained balanced. At the same time a number of young men in good spirits and from a more prosperous social stratum were making their way towards her. One of them took advantage of her situation to fondle her breasts, which naturally displeased the woman; indeed she was so displeased she sacrificed the value of her load and tipped it over the young gentleman. He was in turn greatly upset, not least because his friends found the turn of events hugely amusing. Somewhat venomously, he insisted on having the girl arrested and brought before the police court and charged with assault. Evidently he believed – and it must be said with some cause ‑ that the law could be used by the well-off to impose upon the poor. In this case however it was not to be; indeed the magistrate found that the girl had acted reasonably, to the great pleasure of all in the court and to the further humiliation of the young buck.

The Wicklow Street incident had some similarities. A group of Dublin “lads” (average age forty) was sauntering past the International Bar in cock-of-the-walk manner, passing remarks right and left as they progressed. Their comments upset an alms-seeker who was one of that subset which signals homelessness by wearing a sleeping bag as a cape. The manner of these mendicants is often insistent but rarely aggressive and it was therefore surprising to hear him shout insults after the ambling gallants, who laughed loudly, clearly finding his discomfort great gas altogether. As they drew alongside Cornucopia, a woman around thirty years of age passed them, having been obliged to walk on the street to do so; she elicited the loud cry in a pretend American accent “Go on baybee! Shake it.”

Surprisingly, the woman spun on her heel and went for the one who addressed her; she then drew back and let fly with the plentiful contents of a paper cup she was carrying drenching the culprit and his friends and very much taking the wind out of their sails, an outcome not hidden by their desultory attempts at laughter and muttered claim that the woman was “mad”. Those on the street who witnessed the incident seemed pleased and there was a short outbreak of nodding accompanied by little noises conveying approval.

But as is often the case in events of this sort, there was some collateral damage. Examining the wet patch on the sleeve of my coat later, I was able to determine that the liquid was a herbal tea. Mindful of the Carman’s Hall incident, I reflected that it could have been worse.