TO MANY of her friends who know her since childhood, St John’s Park lady Lily Ryan is known as Lily Williams, but she wears her marriage name with pride.
Like many across Waterford, Lily met her husband in the Olympia Ballroom and she still swoons, smiles and sniggers at the thought of the two together. “The minute I saw him,” she says sinking back into her chair like a schoolgirl, “I fell in love with him straight away”.
“I’ll never forget it. I couldn’t believe the night he came down and asked me to dance. He was tall, handsome, I didn’t think I was as good looking as other women who he could have danced with.”
Lily was born on Lower Thomas Street, or Vulcan Street on March 19, 1943 to Cait McDonald, whose father was a Scottish sea captain, and Arthur Williams, a well-known radio and television engineer from Barrack Street who was on call every day of the year due to the rarity of the profession. The pair had met in the bar of the Tipperary Hotel, which was owned by Lily’s Grandmother’s sister Nora Thornberry, where Vulcan Street met the Quay.
Lily grew up on High Street and can still recall the local businesses which neighboured their home, with one mischievous tale standing out from her time living in the heart of the city.
“Sullivan’s had a brewery on High Street. At the top of High Street there was Power’s Poultry, then there was Morrissey’s butter factory, then you had Barden’s locksmiths and then there was Halligan’s which was a bicycle shop. Daddy did all the electrical work in those buildings and we lived in the house next door. It was a brilliant place to grow up – we were in the park every day.
“We saw the telephone exchange being built, which is now the Post Office. In those days the brickeys had baskets and ropes to pull the bricks up to the top and my brother Joe decided one Sunday morning to get in the basket and pull himself up! The fire brigade had to take him down from the top of the building!”
The elder sibling of Joe, John and Rita, Lily “had to bring the three of them every place”, with weekly trips to the Colosseum every Sunday. If they got into trouble she got into trouble but they were blessed they had each other after moving out to St John’s Park and away from their pals in the city centre when Lily was 13.
Each morning the kids would go to half eight mass in the cathedral with their mother before school and during the summer they would go on picnics together, although St John’s Park was more feral than it is today.
“Mammy would make sandwiches and she wouldn’t let us go big distances, she had to be able to see us because naturally she was nervous! She also didn’t know anybody from out here – the move away from the city impacted her social life as well. There was nothing here apart from the German Road and our 31 houses. There was no roads, no lights, nothing. Once it got dark you were buried because it was so dark.”
Lily, who like her father has a great interest in working on her family tree, left school following the Intercert and was asked to work in Anna Phelan’s cake shop across the road from St. John’s Church after Agnes Pheasey left to get her appendix taken out. From there she moved on to Waterford Crystal, a job she absolutely loved.
“I was packing in there. Every glass had to be a certain height and I was doing the measuring. The next girl was wrapping them and then the last girl was packing them. We used to go out to Woodstown for a picnic on Saturdays when we worked from 8am-1pm. There were a few girls like Anne Doherty who had to cycle in from Passage, often worked until 9pm with overtime and had to cycle back out afterwards. They’d still be in the following day.”
Life outside of work and family centred around the Olympia and by this stage she had made no shortage of acquaintances in the area, many of whom remain great friends today. A social creature by nature, Lily includes surnames for almost everybody she mentions during our chat, the exception, of course, being her beloved Joe.
“Beryl O’Neill was my age and she was next door, she only lives across the road now. Phyllis Sheehan, Joan Gough, Margaret Sheridan, we all intertwined and would go to each other’s houses on a Monday night. I went to school with Joan and Peggy Doherty, Anne and Breda O’Meara, Rita Whelan, Teresa and Margaret Shortall. Joe used to dance with them because they were able to jive. I remember Peg Tebay used to leave us use her sitting room where they taught me to jive in case he might ask me out to dance.”
On Tuesday, Friday and Sunday they would take to the ballroom and after Joe made her the happiest woman in the world, he would walk her home after the dances before traipsing back to Morrison’s Road, although she would always try and pay him back in a sense.
“I had a bicycle for work and I would try to sneak the bicycle outside from the hall to give him it so he could get home quicker. My father would hear and would be shouting down from upstairs ‘you needn’t think I didn’t hear that’!”
After marrying, the Ryans lived on Castle Street for 11 years before moving back out to John’s Park, a move which delighted her then and today. Their family grew after the birth of daughters Jacinta, Mary and Paula while Lily and Joe later welcomed son-in-laws Mossie and Niall into their family.
Joe died at the age of 65 in 2007, breaking Lily’s heart. You never ‘get over’ the death of a loved one, she agrees, you can only learn to deal with it, and Lily is thankful he got to meet their two grandsons Joe and Jay before his passing.
Hearing others detail how much they liked Joe helps make it a small bit easier to live without him – sometimes she will meet friends of his who tell her they can’t enjoy their pint because they’re waiting for him to walk in the door of the pub – but it is the memories of the two together that she cherishes, and will continue to cherish, for the rest of her life.
“We were 40 years married in the December before he died in March and I loved him right up to that. When he was dressed up and I was dressed up I’d be saying ‘I’m so lucky’. No matter where I went, once he was on my arm I felt like a queen.”
In conversation with Ronan Morrissey