Friday, November 30, 2018

Gerry Quinn has no shortage of stories from his time rubbing shoulders with the upper echelons of society in London.

This featured in the April 3, 2018 edition. Our first encounter with Gerry and Jim is available here.

TWO years ago, a young journalist walked into The Tap Room in Ballybricken hoping to find a jovial character or two for a new newspaper column. On that April Day, he sat alongside Waterford native Gerry Quinn, who had only recently returned from a storied life in London and had no problem drawing in the patrons with stories of the city he grew up in before regaling them with jokes – “my idea of a dolly bird is a women of around 80,” he smirked.

The column included memories of the Waterford Jail Disaster, the great hurler John Keane and the societal difficulties of that era, but it was impossible not to feel that many of Gerry’s stories were still being held in reserve.

Last Tuesday, I returned to the same bar in the hope of finding the same man and having opened the door, he was thankfully there on the very high-stool with the same ruby-coloured pint of Smithwicks inches from his right paw.

“They slagged me non-stop because they said you had a bad photograph of me,” he says playfully yet still holding a straight face. “I had forgotten all about it until somebody told me and another person brought me over a copy of the paper. I said ‘the next time I see that Ronan guy I’m going to shoot him’ not for anything other than getting my age wrong. Women don’t like 83-year-olds!”

Gerry, who turned 84 on Sunday and jets off to Portugal for a nice break this morning, possesses a peculiar but easy-to-listen-to linguistic lilt; a Waterford accent married to a rich English one. At 16, he moved to London as a “rebel Irish boy” but soon found that the English, contrary to what he had been told in his home country, were in fact nice people.

“There’s an example of one over there,” he says pointing to Jim O’Brien over his right shoulder. Jim, who also featured in the first Morrisseys People, grew up in London during the 60s after his family, originally from Johnstown in the city, had left for work. Despite never living here, he always identified as Irish and referred to Waterford as home – with the family regularly enjoying red lead they could pick up from a kiosk at Tooting Market.

“You’d go to a Catholic school, you’d have your Communion and Confirmation, you’re in a miniature Ireland for all the world because everything around you is Irish. The other side of it is, where I grew up, I was out on the street playing with Jamaicans, Indians, Pakistanis. There was no creed or colour though, everybody was treated very much the same. We were all in the one melting pot.”

At 29, Jim grew fed up with the pace of life in London, which is a fabulous city but can be a lonely place he stresses, and made the move back to Ireland, although some habits were harder to overcome than others.

“I wasn’t having to wake and say ‘get up, move, you have to do this, you have to get here,’ people were much more relaxed here. It almost used to irk me, I’d be thinking ‘we need to get a move on’ but people would say ‘it’s grand, we’ll do it in a minute’.”

While the hectic lifestyle grated on Jim, the busier his friend Gerry was the better, from a work perspective and socially. Originally an apprentice carpenter, he created Chelsea Decorations and as a company owner and member of “the professional Irish”, was sought after by an Irish Club which opened in Eaton in 1948.

“Throughout the years I met a lot of interesting people there who were either Irish or wanted to meet the Irish. I drank with Brendan Behan, he was a quiet man. We had a similar background but he had the advantage of going to prison! Noel Purcell as well, my favourite was Jackie McGowran who was an actor as well. I became a friend of a couple of the Ambassadors as well and enjoyed being invited to their dos.”

Thanks to the high standard of work, he was equally adept at making contacts professionally working for former Prime Minister Ted Heath, the Duke of Westminster, as well as working on the current Irish Embassy. On one job for two sisters in Knightsbridge, an affluent area north of the Thames, he was enjoying a cup of tea while being paid for the weeks work when a well-spoken, petite woman turned and asked ‘you’re Irish aren’t you’?

“I nearly said 10/10 being smart but I didn’t! She asked where was I from and I said a little place in the South East called Waterford assuming she wouldn’t know. ‘Oh yes, where they make marvellous crystal’ she said. We were talking away and I said to her ‘I have a funny feeling I’ve seen you some place before’ and she said ‘well you probably have’.

“After I got paid I’m walking down the stairs when the penny drops – it was the Queen Mother! I should have known sooner, it is said that the Queen had two cousins who were supposed to be a little bit loose in the head, there was a documentary on them, but they were the women I was working for.”

That’s not the only time he bumped into the royals through his work – in the early 80s he was working on a flat at Coleherne Court which was later bought by “some fella called Shand Kydd”, with three girls later moving in.

“One of them asked could I run her down the road to the hairdressers in South Kensington. I had the old van outside with paint tins and everything in it. They were closed but they had a branch up on the Fulham Palace Road so I drove her up there and she had her hair done. She had a part-time job looking after children at Bolton Gardens. I was reading the paper about six months afterwards and she was engaged to this clown, Prince Charles! And you can print that.”

“You can’t put that down Gerry”, The Tap Room’s Jenny Walsh reprimands him, “he might sue the News & Star… and everyone knows he’s a clown anyway.”

One of his most enjoyable London friendships however, was to Sarah Churchill, also known as Lady Audley and daughter of Winston. He still owns a painting of her which is signed above the eyebrows by its artist, her lover Lobo Nocho. He casually drops in that he would drink champagne with her some mornings and one night, a friend of his taught her how to sing Irish rebel songs.

“I remember saying to her ‘Sarah that old man of yours will be turning in his grave’ and she laughed.”

Despite his cherished memories, he moved back home in recent years having been told by so many fellow emigrants that if he was to die, he should make sure he does so in Ireland.

“I thought it was time to come back and learn a bit about my own country. When I was away I didn’t come home a lot. I had a lot of resentment for Ireland, I had a difficult time in an industrial school in Cork. There was a time where I thought I never wanted to be in Ireland, but that changed.”

When asked when that was, Jenny chimes in: “it changed when the Labour Party got elected in!”

“The one pleasant surprise to me since I’ve come back is Waterford County. I never realised as a child what a beautiful county it is. I don’t think a lot of Waterford people appreciate it. I was coming back from Dungarvan one day and I had the Comeraghs on one side and the sea on the other. The lovely green colours – you don’t appreciate that when you’re younger and I hope I continue to do so.”

In conversation with Ronan Morrissey

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