TONIGHT, World War Two veteran Jim McManus will don on his dancing shoes and travel to Treacy’s Hotel to tango the night away. Tomorrow he will spin to the Brandon House for another date with a dance hall while he’s booked in to strut his stuff in Wellington Bridge and the Rhu Glen on Friday and Saturday night respectively. 99 next month, he’s showing no signs of slowing down.
Jim’s gentle Glasgow accent fails to betray his upbringing in the town of Paisley but he grew up conscious of his Irishness. He attended Catholic school where most if not all his classmates were of similar heritage and the McManus clan would visit the local Hibernian Society where they could engage in several facets of Irish culture. With a Fermanaghman as his father and a mother from Sligo, neither a Tango stronghold, he would leave Scotland in the summer to visit family and be roped into helping on his uncle’s crop farm.
Any geographical distance a Waterford native would have with him is rendered obsolete when he describes his own childhood – he would walk out towards the countryside like kids would venture out to Skibbereen to pick blackberries and if his Mam was too busy doing the washing he would have to take his younger sisters for a stroll in their buggy despite only being seven or eight.
In his teenage years, Jim joined the Territorial Army, or the reserves, although the primary reason for this was to enjoy a two week camp they went on each summer which he saw as a free holiday. Armed with youthful naivety, he was unperturbed at being mobilised two months before World War Two began and can recall tensions with the Germans heightening gradually from there.
“On September 1, 1939, I was on guard duty on the banks of the Clyde at a fuel dump which was a prime target for somebody to hit, when a mate of mine came up and said ‘I’ve just heard on the wireless, we’re at war with Germany’. I said ‘oh, fantastic’ and threw my rifle up in the air!”
“We got whisked right down to the south of England to a village on the seafront just west of Brighton. All the locals had been moved away and the Government had taken over their row of bungalows. We were barracked in there and had to do guard duties along the coast because an invasion was expected from Mr. Hitler. If they had we’d have had it. All we had was rifles. We wouldn’t have had a chance had Hitler invaded straight away but he made a big blunder.”
The German planes would fly so low over the beach on reconnaissance missions that their facial features could be seen by the soldiers and he was later sent to France as part of the Northumberland Fusiliers after the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders were split up.
It was after this move that he was sometimes exposed to the grim realities of war, something he still laments today.
Jim, who today lives in Slieverue, states: “What a bloody waste. All of those men, I had some good friends killed. I seen a bloke killed, he had his head almost blown off, he was sliced. It was a German mortar – they had about 8 barrels coming over us at once and if they hit television wires, which they did in this case, then it exploded immediately and shrapnel would go everywhere.”
“Things happen so quickly that you get into this routine. Firstly you just jump to the ground and search for a bit of cover somewhere. Let’s be honest, you get scared then. There’s something wrong with you if you don’t.”
Following the war, his training as a wireless operator came in handy and he had his fees paid for a radio officers course which ended up taking him all over the world, exposing him to how other people in the world lived.
“First of all I did a stint for a few months on the weather ships. Two of them used to leave the port of Greenock and they would spend two weeks at sea before coming back to port. They had weather observers on board, radar which was new at the time. Balloons would be sent up that would observe the wind speed – there had these little transmitters which sent back data to the shop. We’d send them back to London and it would be used for the weather forecast.”
Following this, he worked on board a passenger ship to East Africa, Mombasa and a Royal Navy crude oil tanker which sailed to Jan Mayen Island in the Arctic where he was met by piercingly cold 100kmph gusts on deck.
Later in life, Jim would holiday along the south and west coasts of Ireland and following retirement, he fancied a move back to the land of his roots. Waterford, which he had passed through many times, was the preference.
On January 10, 1994, he left Plymouth with his partner Patricia Lusby and having landed in Rosslare, the couple remained in Wexford for a year – although it didn’t offer enough to two nimble movers with no intention of slowing down.
His interest in all styles of jiving was borne from visits to Burton’s Tailors in Paisley as a 16-year-old where youngsters would try wear in their newly purchased stylish suits on the dancefloors which rested over the store.
“There’s more dancing in Waterford,” Jim remembers saying, “why don’t we move down there?”
In 1995 they moved to Ferrybank which made it easier to make up for the seven years of dancing he lost to the War. Tragically, Patricia died of cancer in 1998.
“That was a big blow. If she was alive we’d still be into the tango, we’d be much better at it too. It was very tough to continue to dance after that. She had a little dog and we would walk him every night. The dog would be sniffing around the hedges and we would be in the middle of the street practicing the cha-cha or samba underneath the lights.”
Thankfully, he never allowed the grief to corrupt his passion and he is as active a dancer today as he ever was, with a trip to the home of the Tango, Buenos Aires, hopefully on the horizon next year.
“You get to meet people, it’s very social. I didn’t think about it when I was younger because I was active anyway but it’s important to do it now that I’m older because if not you’d sink into a seat and it’s a spiral to oblivion.
“I love the music. It gives you a buzz and when you’re moving right in time with it… it’s hard to describe it. It’s a feeling of happiness.”
In conversation with Ronan Morrissey