Thursday, June 20, 2019

Billy O’Sullivan told Ronan Morrissey of the Waterford News & Star about struggling with confidence as a child, his sporting life and the Press Gang’s unlikely success on stage.

IT CAN be difficult to link Billy O’Sullivan with the youngster he once was. A well-known Waterford face, he has been involved with martial arts for around 40 years and in addition to running the School of Kickboxing in his name, he conducts a street awareness programme in St Angela’s and gives free self-defence classes. Back in the day, however, he was a keen follower of fashion, donning suede jackets, dapper suits, and bell bottoms – comically bragging that he was the first man in Waterford to buy a pair of the flared pants from Fitzgeralds.

“I laugh at myself every day,” the 68-year-old says with a smirk.

Billy was born on Browne’s Lane, around the corner from his Closegate home, at a time when people had nothing but each other. A stew cooked in one home could feed two houses over a couple of days and sugar, milk and butter changed ownership freely. His Dad worked on building sites, spending time in England, while his mother Maggie May grew up in the soldiers’ houses at Rathfadden Villas.

“She worked in the Sack and Bag factory for 50 years. Willie Watt the opera singer owned it and they were mad about my mother because she only ever took time off to have us – she’d be back in work a couple of days later. She never bought anything for herself, it was all us. I remember when my father was working in England she walked me down the Yellow Road in her coat. We had no money. I’ll never forget she bought me a gun and holster on Christmas Eve when I was around 10.”

The only boy of four children, Billy’s main childhood memories are from the Yellow Road where the O’Sullivan’s moved to. Unfortunately, he jokes, he got his height from his mother’s side and while he can joke about it now, he struggled with confidence as a child partly as a consequence of a speech stutter. As a result, school was torture – he would sometimes give the incorrect answer to questions solely because his mouth couldn’t get the right one out.

“The Christian Brothers at the time were very cruel and instead of teaching us they put fear into us. I remember there was a shop called the Marian, it’s where the chip shop of the same name is now. A lovely man named John O’Connor owned it and I remember standing outside it one day for ten minutes practicing ‘can I have an orange please’. When I went in the shop was packed and John asked what he could get me.”

“’Can I have an orange please’,” he happily said.

“I was delighted but he bent down and said ‘what did you say’. I panicked and couldn’t say it. I eventually asked for an apple. I went outside and hopped it off a wall.”

In his teens, Billy was a member of the Press Gang, named as such because many of his friends worked as paperboys for local publications. He got a job in Coad’s shoe shop in town and while he enjoyed it, he was happier messing about with friends.

“I was wild. I had long hair down my back. We used to wear the flowers in our hair – we were hippies for want of a better word. We were also mods, rockers – it was the generation of the Kinks, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones. You had Bob Dylan, James Taylor, all the legends whose music is far better than what we have today.”

The group remain close today and he says the best sign of their friendship is that when they pass each other in town they don’t always need to stop and reminisce – some days they will but on others they will merely nod at each other. Members of Our Lady’s Youth Club, he laughs that the nun and priest attached to their club both ended up leaving the church and had seven children each – “we drove them off their heads”.

“You had Tops of the Town but there was also Tops of the Clubs which the youth clubs would enter. They asked us and we said ‘g’way, we’d be like Nancys on the stage’ but we said we’d do it for the laugh and we ended up winning it. I made up a dance to Martha and the Vandellas’ Dancing in the Street with who ended up being my best friend’s wife. The so-called thugs of the town won the Tops of the Clubs. Richard Cleary’s brother got awarded the Best Actor on the night for playing a drunk. What they hadn’t realised was that he was in the horrors on the stage! He didn’t know what he was doing.”

Crediting sport for keeping him on the straight and narrow, his first passion was football. His Dad brought him back his first leather ball and football boots and jumpers, regardless of how new, were often used for goalposts on the streets around the Yellow Road.

“Johnny Walker of the chipper used to take a team down to the park and we’d play. His brother Tommy was involved with a club called Maryville too. Then I moved on to Southend – we had a great team. Nicky Cody, Titch Power, Bouncer Barnes, Johnno Douglas of Douglas Engineers was a great striker and I was a small winger. Most of the players back then were small guys, Johnny Giles and Billy Bremner for Leeds, they had great balance. I scored 50 goals in one season, I was just fast and loved Georgie Best.”

After hanging up his boots, a friends introduced him to karate and having acquired an appreciation for martial arts, he ended up loving the physical challenges presented by kickboxing. To this day, he has helped produce around 30 World Champions in addition to European and national winners, thanking the club’s trainers.

“It has changed my outlook on life. I became calmer. We did karate in his house but then a guy opened a club across the road from the Credit Union, St John’s. Denis Davis, a black man from Birmingham. Maybe I felt that being small would never inhibit me in sport. It was a challenge to me and I overcame it. I got the idea I wanted to be a black belt and I got it after about 10 years before opening up a club in Lisduggan. I’ve seen parts of the world I never thought I could see. We do a lot of work for charity through the club and we love it.”

In addition to the titles, he loves helping local youngsters, who he insists will give you respect if you give them their time. As an added benefit, he can do it from the heart of the city he loves.

“I love the people of the city and the county. When I go away I can’t wait to come back. From the minute I’ve landed somewhere – “I want to go home”. When I’m packing the night before coming back I’ll be excited, like a child.”

In conversation with Ronan Morrissey

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