JOHN Molloy spent substantial portions of his life away from the land so he does his best to enjoy the lie of it nowadays. The 79-year-old passes some afternoons overseeing a few horses he owns in between checking up on some property across the city. In recent years he has discovered a passion for painting, with several of his creations overseeing his beautiful sitting room from its tall walls. Sitting snugly on a bookshelf in the room, are three books he penned himself – a completed goal he first drew up when he sailed around the world regularly.
John grew up at 42 Michael Street next to where the AIB ATM stands today and would run up Alexander Street each school morning at St Stephen’s BNS. He enjoyed an “absolutely fantastic” childhood as one of nine kids in the four story building, with his father running the butchers and grocery store on the ground floor.
“We played on the streets and there were lots of lads living on Lady Lane and Alexander Street. There were tenement houses with lots of families there and we would know all the kids. We would play football on the streets because it was very safe. There were few cars on the road, just horse and carts which would be used to deliver things.
“When I was growing up you had to do your time working in the butchers. We’d have to get cattle over on the railway and drive them up to Morrison’s Road where the slaughterhouse was or to land that we had at the Yellow House. We were always kept busy bringing them from place to place like the Fair in Ballybricken. We preferred being in the other store though! We were one of the first shops in Waterford to sell whipped ice cream which was popular at the time.”
The city, he gloriously remembers, was a bustling place, with traders at the Apple Market ensuring that Waterford was alive from the banks of the Suir to John’s River at Waterside.
Speaking of Michael Street, he says: “You had Boyce’s, they were a big family who had about five drapery shops. Then you had Moore’s which was a lovely grocery shop. Of course there was London Newcastle, Lipton’s, the Home of Colonial – they were all the old type of grocery shops, fabulous. Everything had to be handed out over the counter and they had a big display of biscuits on racks with glass tops so you could see them and pick out which ones you want. High Street and Arundel Square was a great place for fish. On Thursdays a lot of women came in from the coast and sold fish and cockles.”
Following his Leaving Cert, John became a deck apprentice with Irish Shipping, a job which he enjoyed immensely and took him all over the world having first left for sea in January, 1957.
Speaking of one two year voyage, he recalls: “We went from Galveston (Texas) to India. From India to Freemantle (Australia). From there through the Suez to Malta. Then through the Red Sea before Japan. We would go to New Caledonia, all around the Pacific and back to Japan for a year. At the end of that voyage there was trouble in the Suez so we had to go the whole way around the Cape (a detour around the continent of Africa).
“The lads on the ship made it. The comradery was great and most of the crew were Irish. On that trip we had Japanese, Germans, an English chap – it was a fantastic experience meeting these people.”
Letters from family, which would arrive via Irish Shipping Ltd. in Dublin, helped stave off homesickness and he recalls one fellow Deiseman Raymond Quinlan getting the local papers sent to him keeping him up to date with what was happening at home. Occasionally, depending how far they were to the Australian coast, they could pick up stations through their transistor radio, with Brian Hyland’s Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini being a big hit at the time.
“We’d anchor in a lagoon and we used to do a bit of fishing for sharks. We were able to swim there, the native fellas told us ‘sharks, don’t worry about them they have plenty to eat’. The only thing that were dangerous were sea snakes. We would fish every night over the stern of the ship – they were a silver fish like little herring.”
In September 1959 while loading in the Red Sea, John approached the ship’s radio operator with a rare request – “what are the chances of getting a broadcast of the All Ireland Final between Waterford and Kilkenny”? Through a shortwave radio station in Congo, every speaker on the ship blared out the commentary of Michael O’Hehir at 7pm the day after the drawn match. The crew listened to the replay a month later while powering up the China Sea, with the Waterford seamen on board enjoying bragging rights over a Kilkenny colleague, although there was no bad blood or drink on board.
This is one of many stories retold in Steady as She Goes, written almost a decade ago recollecting the bank of memories created from his travels around the world.
“I just said I’d put pen to paper. I wrote two more books afterwards. One is called the Atlas Murders. It’s a fiction book about crime committed by crewmen on merchant ships… the other is An Old Bed in Havana, that’s a modern day adventure thriller about a fella on holidays there. It was always something I wanted to do. We would never be without a book on the ships. I was in charge of the library on one of them – we changed the books every time we docked. We had no television so all crewmen read.”
When he returned to Ireland, John purchased a number of well-known pubs across Waterford; the Commodore where the Hub is today, the Old Ship which is now Azzurro in Dunmore East and the Thatch Pub at Carroll’s Cross. As somebody who relishes meeting and listening to people, he loved pub life and has some great memories of various characters who frequented his barstools.
Having spent huge chunks of his life away from them, he feels the people of Waterford aren’t aware of how warm and jovial they truly are, something he continues to appreciate whenever he steps out of his wonderfully whimsical William Street home.
“The people of Waterford are distinct because they’re very friendly. It was always a nice city to live in and you had the seaside nearby. I know so many lovely Waterford families. When we had a lot of shipping here there were a lot of people who came here from the continent, set up their businesses and stayed here because it was so vibrant. It’s a welcoming city.”
In conversation with Ronan Morrissey