TWICE a week, 88-year-old Mary Kelly will take a seat towards the back of the Gingerman alongside friends to enjoy a drink, but more importantly a chat. The tradition has taken the ladies across the city centre and they could be considered the Grim Reaper of the pub scene in Waterford. The group used to meet for an hour in the City Arms, Egans, the Belfry and T&H’s – all of which closed after they decided to grace the establishment with their presence.
“We walked into another pub one day and the bar manager said ‘oh my God my job is gone’, remembers Mary’s lifelong friend Annie Foley alongside her. It isn’t just pubs they have the hex on.
“We went to Rome and saw the Pope on a Wednesday,” Mary says of their 1978 trip to the Vatican, “he was dead by the Friday!”
Mary grew up on Hennessy’s Road and remembers it as a great place to spend your childhood. Surrounded by an almost endless amount of children due to the collection of young families residing nearby, she was never short of things to do. Cars were only seen on the roads if there was a wedding or a funeral and she would often wander down to Annie at Castle Terrace where they would sketch houses into the street using chalk.
“We used to play Rock Salt up on the castle. You might get a piece of glass, you’d climb it and hide it up there. Then the people would come up behind you and they had to try and find it. We had Follow the Can as well down Castle Street. One of us fired a can down it and whoever got it first would get to throw it the next time. At Easter we’d have spinning tops as well and in another season we’d have hoops from an old bicycle and roll it along.”
“I remember I got roller-skates and went down Convent Hill one day. Mrs Hurley who lived at the end of it was sitting on a chair in her kitchen and because I couldn’t stop and her door was open I ended up in there with her!”
Her own mother ran Joe Doyle’s shop at the beginning of Hennessy’s Road street and when asked whether she ever was called in to lend a hand she replies bluntly “I didn’t I hated it”.
She explains: “My mother would say to my ‘why don’t you like the shop’ and I would say ‘I hate it because when I wouldn’t want to smile I’d still have to smile’. Hickey’s used to bring the milk into the shop – the donkey would go around town and knew where to stop from doing it every day.”
To this day, she still says ‘they’re crying like Hickey’s Ass’ whenever referring to anybody crying and the saying has been passed down through the generations to her grandchildren. One of five, Mary and the Hamilton kids were reared during the war years while their Dad came and went as his job on the sea took him across the Atlantic regularly.
“We had coupons for sweets and everything was rationed like coal. There were no nylons. My Dad used to bring in small things like tea, sugar and ribbons for your hair when he came back. He was on the Irish Rose and different ships. He used to go to Montreal and back – that’s where they traded from. My mother was a tough woman to keep us at home.”
People were forced to do what was necessary to navigate their way through life and Mary remembers one regular to the shop who, while it may seem alien to today’s standards, was only preparing her child for life ahead.
“This woman had a young fella who was an only child. She loved him now, but he was wild. She used to say to my mother ‘it isn’t because I hate him that I bate him, but to show my authority over him’.”
Sympathy was in short supply at the Sisters of Charity on the Mall where Mary was educated where the sole source of heat during the winter came from a turf fire which the teacher, many of whom were prone to cracking the whip, used to surround.
“We would be perishing. I remember one teacher Mrs O’Gorman – she was a divil. We all hated her. There was one girl in our class who used to get her hair permed. If Mrs O’Gorman asked her a question she would always say ‘oh I shouldn’t have asked you that, you get your brains permed out of you’. I remember a day she was going to belt someone with a ruler but it was caught in her necklace and broke her pearls.”
Unfortunately given she was not a woman to mess with, the class couldn’t even giggle at the schadenfreude, instantly dropping to the floor to assist her in picking them up.
Having left school at 14, Mary picked up her first job at the polish factory in the Applemarket and enjoyed it immensely. With around 15 people working there, the staff struck up a tight bond and they would pass the days singing whatever music was out at the time while they worked, something which she admits was never too strenuous. A social creature to this day, Mary was always the first to commit to gatherings with friends whether it was with friends made through work or the church.
“Each church would have a social down in the Olympia – Ballybricken, St John’s, St Patrick’s, all different ones. We all needed to have new dresses for them – we’d be asking each other ‘what are you wearing’. We loved the music and dancing. At that time they had no microphone and they used to sing out through one a non-electric megaphone.”
While she is an avid watcher of the soaps, you can’t ring her between 7-9pm on weekdays, Mary always makes time for her family. She appreciates that life is probably for the better in the modern era but she wouldn’t trade her own background for that of a child today. While they may not have had phone, computer games and whatever else the modern youngster demands, the difficult war years helped instil plenty in the people of Waterford during the war – kindness, consideration, perseverance.
“Neighbours were neighbours. Friendliness costs nothing and courtesy doesn’t either. The people of Waterford were all tough people back then. Everybody helped each other. Annie’s grandmother used bake cakes and send them up to the neighbours. You used to be doing the washing in a barrel. It was tough during the war but we didn’t know anything different. We had our own little things and that kept us going.”
In conversation with Ronan Morrissey