This story featured in the May 24, 2016 edition.
JOHN Aylward was born into the pub industry and he remains in it 72 years later. The publican grew up in the centre Waterford, a city drastically different to its modern self. Resting on a corner of Arundel Square sat his family’s pub, he vividly remembers “J. Aylward’s” scribbled over the door. Today he stands behind the bar at The Wander Inn at Johnstown like his father did in his own pub many moons ago; he has perfected the art of making conversation with all who walk through its doors.
The Wander Inn was purchased in 1959 having formerly been known as O’Hanlon’s, and in 1982 John opened The Beer and Bite in the city, bringing the family’s pub portfolio to three. After his father passed away and his mother decided to step back from the operations, he attempted to juggle the three at once but found himself chasing his own tail.
“It’s more like a club here and that’s the kind of atmosphere I would foster. Conversation is gone in most pubs. The two sides of the bar here are quite different. The older groups come in here (the Eastern half of the bar) to sit up at the bar and the counter lends itself to conversation. If they want they can go into the other side of the bar where there’s the television and that form of conversation is completely different. You might have people talking but they’re talking about what’s on the screen.”
Reared at Arundel’s Square, he remembers a happy childhood with plenty of friendly figures and elders to look up to.
“In that area there was two football teams and I think six of the Fitzgeralds in the area made it onto the Waterford soccer team; Jack, Denny, Tommy, Ned, Paul and Peter. They were in Arundel Lane, Seamie Halpin lived in High Street and John O’Neill was on Peter Street which in now City Square. They would been a bit older than me so me and my friends had these fellas to look up to. Bobby Whelan was another who you would love to grow up to be; was great at dancing, he was able to roller-skate, he could do it all!”
In the bars as a child he heard his share of mick-taking as well; listing off some of the finest witty quips he remembers at the drop of a hat.
He asks “Do you play darts?”
“Very very rarely”, I respond.
“What’s a 26 called?”
“A 26? No idea.”
“Well everyone knows a 180 or that a shanghai is a triple, double and single 20, but a twenty, a five and a one is called a Louis Whelan! That’s Louis’ claim to fame!”
Educated at St. Stephen’s under the Lasallian ethos, he moved onto De La Salle College at secondary level. John is a well-spoken and well-read man; long after the tape recorder has been switched off he discusses the US Presidential Race and presents you a book on Harry Truman with passages he found interesting marked by a yellow highlighter. It comes as no surprise that he enjoyed his education.
In 1969 he married Mary, a teacher from just outside the city in Kilmacow who worked in a number of local schools before taking up the position of Principal at Kilmacow Girls National School.
“I remember I saw her with her brother in a garage on the Quay one day; Scanlon’s Garage. Then one night soon after in the Olympia I saw her at the dance and that was it. The ballroom of romance! I’ve been happily married to her and she hasn’t got rid of me yet! We have been lucky enough to have three children.”
Despite growing up in the city centre, John’s passion lays off the coast at sea. He was one of the first club divers to be certified in Ireland by the Irish Underwater Council, a passion sparked by the documentary films of Hans Hass which fascinated the 72-year-old in his youth. In 1967 he visited Cuba for the World Spearfishing Championships and has climbed Skellig Michael in Kerry as well as dropping 150 beneath the water of the island.
“Swimming, sailing and boating were my passions. I founded the Waterford Harbour Sub Aqua Club in 1965 alongside Gerry Stokes. I spent my summer holidays out in Dunmore with Paddy and Annie Power; he was a coxswain on the lifeboat and during the war he was a diver’s mate. I think my love of it probably came from seeing the underwater scenes in films. I remember buying a mask and the smallest pair of flippers I’ve ever seen down in the sports shop from George Goodfellow. I loved to read books and magazines on diving and that’s how I learned.”
Naturally, he has witnessed drastic changes in the pub culture throughout his life and laments the increase in what he calls “drinking for the sake of drinking”.
“The modern pub has to encourage people to drink because they’ve paid so much for the pub and sales is the driving force. There’s a number of pubs like ours around, I won’t call them old-fashioned, but they’re places where conversation and craic and joking is the name of the game.”
“People never drank to get blotto; first of all because they didn’t have the money to. There were five young lads in here recently who were going up to some DJ in one of the nightclubs and they were paying €15 to get in which is roughly the same as the £10 it took people to get from a week’s work back in the day. I remember 18 large stouts cost a pound but you couldn’t get the pound in the first place! If you had 10 shillings going to Tramore on a Sunday night you had one hell of a night!”
While the pubs may not be as busy as they were, John is perfectly content with life; he was smiling when I walked into the bar as he looked into his paper and he was smiling when I left. After decades at the helm of the successful pub, he deserves to. Rather than blow his own trumpet, he modestly passes the praise to those on the other side of the counter.
“The atmosphere must have been somewhat special in the pubs we have had because if that wasn’t the case we wouldn’t have lasted the length that we did. I would say that the thing that was really special about them was the people who came into them; like any business if you have the right clientele coming in through the doors of the pub it will last.”
In conversation with Ronan Morrissey