You can forget the Book of Kells and other illuminated manuscripts of medieval times in all their glory. Perhaps the most famous, most loved illumination for many Dubliners is the “Why Go Bald” sign on the corner of Dame Lane.
It’s surreal, iconic and idiosyncratic, and it’s among the ghost signs on buildings that pop up as a motif in my Ghost Flight novel. Strictly speaking the “Why Go Bald” sign isn’t a ghost sign though. The business concerned – the Universal Hair & Scalp Clinic (“Est. 1960”) – is still very much a going concern.
The neon sign was erected in 1962 and lovingly restored around the turn of this century. My photo above doesn’t do it justice, as it only truly comes alive at dusk. Arching an eyebrow, Yer Man is surprised at his hair loss, then equally surprised but pleased at its sudden, miraculous reappearance.
The great cartoonist, painter and writer Tom Mathews has a charming story about the sign and how he came to write the poem “Beneath the ‘Why Go Bald’ sign”. But other ghost signs, by their nature, tend to fade into the background and demand a second glance.
Take 101 North King Street in Stoneybatter. Once a fishmonger’s (and not to be confused with the V. Muldoon fish shop on nearby Manor Street), Annie Muldoon’s still has an “A. MULDOON” sign over the door.
The products that Annie “monged” from this tiny shop included not only fish – fresh cod, herring, mackerel, kippers and other smoked species – but also poultry and rabbit. A lot of rabbit. Oh, and she kept a small bird in a cage in the shop window – nowadays the Food Safety inspectors would have kittens.
The building would have been a couple of centuries old by the time Annie finally closed the shop in the early 1980s. She continued to live on the first floor, though she must have been in her nineties by then. By the start of this decade the place was in a rotten state. It had sprouted vegetation and graffiti, the top windows were boarded up, down pipes were crumbling, the slate roof looked in bad repair.
Then earlier this year someone halted the dereliction. I’m not sure if it’s a complete renovation within, but the front exterior is spruced up and repainted, the branches removed, the cracks and roof and guttering repaired, new railings added to the downstairs front windows, cleaned-up first-floor windows, and spanking new signage – still saying “A MULDOON”.
And there the “shop” still stands defiantly, sandwiched between two nondescript modern blocks, still holding out against the “apartmentification” of the entire universe.
More on mongers
Annie Muldoon’s old shop got me thinking: you rarely see the word “monger” on its own, do you? Normally it’s combined with the word for the associated trade: “fishmonger”, “ironmonger”, “cheesemonger”, “costermonger”. Though probably not (as with the “Why Go Bald” people) “hairmonger”.
Besides a monger of fish, iron or cheese, occasionally you might stumble upon a monger of ballads, carpets, news, fashion, flesh, whores, words or even hope.
When Barack Obama tried to plant his flag on the word “hopemonger” – it was around autumn 2007, in the lead-up to his first presidential campaign – the choice of words was always going to be risky. As any doom-monger might predict, it could backfire and get a cynical twist: a hopemonger as someone promoting false hope. And so it came to be: the new President soon found himself facing negative headlines about his foreign policy (random sample from 2011: “Obama and Libya – from hopemonger to warmonger”).
In American English, as opposed to the more “British” and “Hiberno” kinds of English we prefer on this side of The Pond, the “monger” suffix is rarely used to denote an ancient trade. It’s more likely to be attached to a derogatory practice, as in “hatemonger”or “rumourmonger”.
Wars, scares, hopes and fears are also things that are habitually mongered. With “hopemonger” as a possible rare exception, this particular set of compound “mongering” words have negative connotations, as if mongering itself were a Very Bad Thing. Maybe it’s down to a subconscious association with “mongrel”, or with a rude word in there somewhere.
In Another Case in Cowtown I slipped in a mention of “monger” as a single word. It’s in Moss Reid’s description of a tabloid journalist:
Digger of dirt, monger of scandal, Harry had an army of snouts and cops to barter with in his favours economy.
Maybe the effect would have been less effective if the first three words were missing. Or should I have reversed the order to delay the alliteration? Maybe “Monger of scandal, digger of dirt” does sound better…