‘People never bought an item for the asking price be it a cooker or a cow'

Bargaining and the secret of marital harmony

Traditional fair days in rural Ireland were one of the most vivid images of our custom of bargaining. But this custom also applied to shops and other services. People never bought an item for the asking price, be it a coat, a cooker or a cow. The transaction was far more complex as buyer and seller had to strike a bargain. Anyone found not to do so was regarded as rather naive in their local community.

Bargaining usually involved much to-ing and fro-ing, the buyer appearing shocked and incredible at the high price being charged and the seller lavishing extravagant praise on the worth of the item for sale. Such an interchange could last a long time, depending on how badly each person wanted to do business. Then gradually the asking price came down and the buying price went up until a fair compromise was reached, without either person losing face, the seller claiming he was giving it away and the buyer claiming that he would be bankrupt.

In the 1960s my parents were in a second hand furniture shop in Ballina, Co Mayo bargaining over a dressing table, or rather my father was doing the bargaining, as my mother did not hold the purse strings. The pair had narrowed down the price to £6 and £5. But my father would not budge and walked out of the shop. This was another tactic and if the seller was still interested, he called the buyer back and they split the price.

As my father showed no signs of coming back, my mother got worried that there would be no deal. She had only one pound. So quietly she said to the seller if I give you one pound and we say nothing to himself, you call him back and he gives you £5, do we have a deal? Certainly, replied the seller. So my father was called back and told he could have the item for £5. And everyone was happy.


Later on, my mother had to endure my father’s boasting: “Didn’t I tell you I’d get it for a fiver?” That dressing table still serves many useful purposes in our family and contains within it the “secret” of traditional matrimonial harmony.