He had died in hospital and one who knew him recalled his final days. ‘He would be quick to pick up on people’s vulnerabilities, waiting for a chance to be nasty. One day one of the kitchen staff said something to him and he snapped back, ‘what would you know about it? You’re just a potwalloper’.
Where had he even heard the word? His education had not extended beyond sporadic engagement with primary school and he would have admitted to being functionally illiterate. Perhaps it was a term that he had heard the teacher use in those days when primary schools taught children as merely younger versions of adults. He might have remembered the word from schooldays, but, if it was something he had been taught, he had not remembered its meaning; a potwalloper was never someone who worked in a kitchen, it never related to the washing of pots.
Prior to the 1832 reform of the parliament in London, which ruled Britain and Ireland, there were parliamentary constituencies which were slightly more democratic than those where a handful of people chose the member of parliament. Some had a franchise that extended quite widely, (well, quite widely if you happened to be male), allowing a vote to those who had a house with a hearth big enough to permit the boiling of a cauldron or pot. The eleven boroughs in Ireland allowing such a franchise were referred to as potwalloping, those who voted as potwallopers, but none were anywhere near the farm where the man had been born and had lived his entire life, never travelling further than Dublin.
The word had featured in lectures I attended as a student on 19th Century British history, but it really only remained in my memory because we had holidayed each summer in the North Devon village of Westward Ho!
A potwalloper in Westward Ho! was someone who gathered pebbles to throw back onto the great pebble ridge that protected the common grazing land along the coast from the incursions of the sea. The activity had originally been undertaken by potwallopers in the political sense, those who had votes in the local parliamentary constituency of Bideford, the common people who had grazing rights on the common land. On holidays, we would pick up the huge pebbles that lay around, and heave them as far as possible toward the ridge, and refer to it as potwalloping, an activity very far removed from washing the kitchen utensils in an Irish hospital.
It’s a pity he is dead. It would have good to have been able to tell him about the pebbles. He would have responded with his casual dismissive look and his usual question, ‘what would you know about it?’