ESSIE Collins can’t recall when she officially became the Sacristan at Sacred Heart Parish in Ferrybank, but she started carrying out the role’s duties when she was around 14. Whenever her mother would be looking for her at home she’d be met with the response “she’s down in the chapel”, with a priest eventually asking her to take up the position.
“I love that church,” she said of the building she can see from the front door of her cosy Rockenham home last week.
The eldest of six kids in the Ryan family, the 87-year-old grew up in Lower Ferrybank across from the flour mills when the estate she now resides in was nothing but fields.
“We used to go up there and the young fellas would be robbing the apples out of a big house up there – Graves’ owned it and they had a big orchard. The young fellas would go up in the night-time and two would go in and six would be watching. They’d fire out all of the apples, I was only a child and they used to give them to us afterwards.”
Living in the village all her life she can recall a lengthy list of local businesses from across the 20th century like Corcoran’s Pub in Lower Ferrybank and McCullough’s Coal at Salvation Lane off Sion Row.
“Drohan’s and Kinsella’s were shops and when I was a child Mrs. Sutton used to have a little huckster shop with penny sweets and tuppeny chocolate. The sweets were lovely but the money was scarce. You had Kathy O’Brien’s (Briar Rose) with a running pump out front. She’d have a window full of apples and if you were in for a penny’s worth you’d get about 10.”
The north bank of the Suir, she remembers, was never vacant – with locals gathering there across the year and making the most of big wooden green seats decorating a promenade along the river.
“The Boat Club was built and my three brothers Gerry, John and Tom rowed on that river. People used to come down from UCD, Cork and the North to row on it. The Regattas were a big event and that went on every year. They’d have marquees along the river and all of Ferrybank would go down to it. That night there would be a big dance in the Olympia and we’d all be left go. All the crews would be there.”
Essie’s uncle helped her and a friend pick up their first job in the Foundry at 14 and they would cycle across to the city together each morning or evening depending on which shift they were working on. While it wasn’t exactly a night at the ballroom, it never lacked entertainment.
“When we’d be doing the night work we’d go in at around 11pm and knock off at I think one o’clock in the morning for a break. Jimmy and Johnny Drohan who played in the Olympia worked there and they would bring their instruments to play music during the break and we’d all be dancing like we were at a barbecue. The doors would be open at two o’clock in the morning and we’d be dancing before going back to work until half seven.”
At that time, youngsters would be earning for their family and get a couple of pence back from their parents, but Essie’s disposable income jumped having moved to Clover Meats after a couple of years in the Foundry. In addition to more frequent trips to matinees in Waterford’s picture houses, she got to see what life was like beyond Waterford and one trip alone to Swansea and London in her late teens sticks out.
“The big station was thronged with people. People said ‘you’ll get a shock when you see all who’ll be in Paddington Station’ and I did get nervous but my aunt was there to meet me. She was great and brought me everywhere – Buckingham Palace on the first morning to see the changing of the guards. She brought me to everywhere I should see. I had never been any further than Waterford. It was the best three weeks away I ever had.”
Essie smiles looking back on how her pleasant wages allowed her to “be done up” heading to town every Saturday with a friend of hers, who would be picking up some messages while pushing along her brother’s pram.
Speaking of one such day, she recalls: “This lovely blondie fella was on the meat counter in Breen’s, one of the butchers. I wasn’t taking notice, I was holding my friend’s pram looking after the child. She went in on the Wednesday and he said to her ‘who’s the lovely girl who does be with you every Saturday’. She said that’s my friend Essie Ryan. He said ‘fix me up with a date with her’.”
“She sent down her brother to my house. ‘Is Essie there, Mrs. Ryan? When she comes home from work tell her my sister said to go up’.”
“‘I will boy,’ my mother said to him.”
Sitting on the windowsill two doors down from her friend’s house, Essie was informed of her new admirer, although her reaction suggested there was no chance of any courting on the cards for young John Collins.
“‘Tell him I wouldn’t be bothered,’ I said, and there was no more said about it.”
Or so she thought. Her friend informed John that her friend visited the Tech on the Mall every Wednesday night and as she was looking in the window at Kelly’s on the Quay one such evening, he willingly bumped into her. John, who passed away in 1997, walked her home to Ferrybank before asking her to the Regal the following night.
“I realised he was a lovely chap.”
The pair were married for almost half a century and together adored their five daughters and two sons throughout their life. While Essie jokes that she used to kill him over the GAA given his interest and involvement with Gaelic Games, she could relate to his passion for it. She had her own love too – the Church.
Locking up each day, one of her Sacristan duties, never bothered her.
“I would say ‘bye’ and ‘see you tomorrow’ (to the Lord) each day when I left,” she says with faithful pride.
“Even when I tell the doctor I haven’t a pain or an ache he’ll say ‘by God, there’s someone looking after you’. I’ll say ‘there are, the Lord above looks after me’.”
In conversation with Ronan Morrissey