My father Michael (Mick) Cunningham (1910-1987), would have listed his occupation as “Farmer” on any Census of Ireland form that he completed as head of family. However, he had other skills and could easily have earned a living as a carpenter, history teacher and shoemaker. He also had a modest reputation as a barber.
One of my earliest childhood memories (and traumas!) was sitting on the kitchen table one night and having my hair cut by my father operating a pair of manual cutting machines that were very blunt and tended to yank the hair out of my head rather than severing the folicles cleanly without any pain, which is what an electric cutters would have done with ease. My Cunningham cousins in Colgagh – Martin, Micheal (RIP) and Joe – were also subjected to this painful ritual every couple of months. Eventually we all grew up, rebelled, and acquired enough sense to hop on our bicycles and solicit the services of a professional hairdresser in Sligo town.
As a barber, Mick was an advocate of what became known during the late sixties as the “skinhead” look. Simply put, he took “short back and sides” to the extreme by shaving the hair off right down to the scalp, leaving what is now known as a “number two cut” on the top of the head i.e. hair about an inch long. An example of this cutting style is shown in the photo of me, aged 12 at the time.
Ireland in the time of the so-called Economic War was a poor country. Ordinary folk had very little money and every effort was made to save hard-earned cash. During this time Mick offered a gent’s hair-dressing service at low cost – or even gratis – to friends and acquaintances who were in need of a haircut.
He was fond of telling a story about one man from Sligo town who was not a satisfied customer after leaving the barber’s chair. The finished product did not meet the client’s expectations. To make matters worse, the disgruntled individual had the nerve, and stupidity, to openly criticise my father’s handiwork and made his grievance well known in certain pubs around Sligo.
As is typical of a small town, word leaked back to my father that he had not performed well on this particular occasion and, as a result, his reputation as a barber was somewhat tarnished. He was a bit miffed to say the least. The next time that this hard-up client returned for a haircut, Mick greeted him warmly but exacted his revenge by carving the chap’s initials neatly on the back of his head without his knowledge!
In hindsight, it is fair to say that my father was well ahead of his time as a trendsetter in the rapidly changing world of hair styling. The practice of carving letters, symbols and other exotic designs on both male and female heads became popular and acceptable some seventy years later, along with other anatomical adornments such as body piercing and tatooing.