This article was printed in the April 12, 2016 edition. We returned to the same stools two years later to hear more of Gerry’s tales and this will be uploaded next week.
ONE of the joys of life in Waterford is the presence of real characters no matter where you look. Often all you need to do is give them a gentle nudge and off they go; recounting tales from their rich bank of memories in addition to painting a picture of the town they grew up in.
Last Tuesday evening, a group of such gowlers gathered around the bar at The Tap Room in Ballybricken and all you had to do was sit back and listen to them bicker between each other. As you sit between them under the television screening the day’s horse racing, they have no issue extending their slagging in a newcomer’s direction.
“Do you know Jack Doyle?”, asks Gerry Quinn.
“I don’t”, you reply.
“You want to be a reporter and you don’t know Jack Doyle? Ah go and get yourself a job in a coalmine.”
The 83-year-old is out for the day from Havenwood in Ballygunner but he has the whole bar’s attention when he speaks. Gerry’s life is bookended by Waterford; born and reared in the city, his accent fails to betray his roots despite spending much of his life in London.
“This is the first time I’ve ever met this man” says visiting Kilkenny man and All-Ireland winner Liam Walsh, “but I’d say he has lived a storied life.”
Gerry was born in the heart of the city and vividly remembers his childhood which he spent living around the corner from one of Waterford’s greatest ever athletes.
“I remember John Keane, one of Ireland’s greatest ever hurlers, living around the corner from me in the thirties and my father used to do the studs for his boots. He would never charge John for the work and when they were finished I would run around the corner with them and John would always give me a few pence to go to the cinema or something. Even as an eight or nine year-old I remember him as an absolute gentleman. He was only about 23 at the time but very kind. As a child you couldn’t help but look up to him.”
Nostalgia can often mask the grim reality but Gerry remembers how difficult life could be in those days. After his father passed away he was sent to St. Joseph’s, an industrial school in Cork.
“The memory I have of Waterford before I left was when the jail wall fell down in 1943. I remember going to school the following morning where St. Patrick’s Church is now. One of the kids who was killed was in school with me. What I remembered about Waterford when I was in London I didn’t like. I came from a very large family and I learned how to be hungry before I was born. You can’t compare the Waterford today to the Waterford I grew up in; the gap is too great to make the comparison.”
In England he forged his own career, initially as a carpenter then an accountant and finally a shop owner. Part of the reason he has the bar wrapped around his finger is the fact he never worked a day of his life in Waterford; he tells stories on a world a long way away from the top of the town.
Now, he’s back to the Deise for good and joking at his own expense.
“My idea of a dolly bird is a women of around 80.”
Jim O’Brien’s memory doesn’t stretch back as far as Gerry’s but he you can smell the city he describes. He would regularly travel back to the city to visit his Grandmother at Gas House Lane in Johnstown from England.
“The houses weren’t really fit for living; you had the Hannigans living next door to my Grandmother and there must have been 14 or 15 living in a lot of the houses. You had the front room, the back room and the all-in-one living room with a stove; that was it. You had a tap and a toilet outside with no running water inside. You’d have one person coming in to go to bed and one person getting out: that was how everybody slept.”
Health and safety regulations dictate that the activities of the children of that area back in the 70’s wouldn’t be permitted in Waterford today without a subsequent court summons.
“I remember the houses down at O’Grady’s Yard which are all gone now. There was about 14 houses there, a communal toilet up the top of the estate and a hand-pump. I used to go over there with friends. I would’ve been seven or so and we’d be swimming in the river at Johnstown; there would be poo and everything in it and we would be diving in off of the bridge into filth. Everything would be in there! We wouldn’t have the money for the bus to Tramore so we’d hang around there all summer.”
Since moving to Waterford full-time in the early 90’s, he divides his time back here in three sections; the boom, the bust and the succeeding period where things failed to take off again in the city.
“The Kings was some bar for music, you would have trad music on every night in T&H’s, the upstairs disco in Egan’s where Penneys used to be. The downturn in the economy really knocked Waterford and the thing is it hasn’t come back. You look at the rest of the country, Galway or Kilkenny; it’s hopping. There’s nothing coming back here.”
“Cheltenham was on last month and back in the good times when there was work for people we would sit down in the back during it and to get to the toilet it was quicker if you walked out the side-door, pushed through the front door and went up the stairs because it was packed to the rafters. Waterford before used to be one huge community and I fear it has lost that. Everyone knew everyone on Ballybricken. Now you find there’s no real local places people go to; they do their socialising at home while they used head to the shops.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the humour. As well as the locals, one of the Tap Room’s owners Jenny Walsh passes through and joins in on the banter. Jenny has graduated from the school of life with a Masters in slagging acquired from the years she has spent behind the bar. “A fella comes in here and says we’ll all be dead in 100 years even the children”, before turning to Gerry to add “knowing you you’ll be here for another 150!”
As I stand to leave, Jim continues to reminisce at the bar.
“There’s been a complete turnaround today, you don’t see things like sing-songs anymore.”
Jenny jumps in: “Well you don’t in here anyway”!
“Not with the dictator in this place,” jests Pierry Power.
“We don’t allow it here.”
“Why not”, asks Liam.
“Because it causes rows Liam! If you’re going out for a night and you’re after paying a babysitter the last thing you want to see is three auld fellas drunk at the bar singing songs! And the fellas that want to sing are never able to!”
In conversation with Ronan Morrissey. We returned to the same stools two years later to hear more of Gerry’s tales and this will be uploaded next week.