This article featured in the July 19, 2016 edition.
EYEING up a line of taxis queueing outside the library on Lady Lane, I spotted a miniature pair of blue and white boxing gloves hanging from the mirror in one; a potential conversational starting point for a man with a story to tell. After explaining and introducing myself, I was hoping taxi driver Michael Kearney would be happy to chat.
Smiling, he pointed his thumb behind him and says that while it wouldn’t be his kind of thing, “there’s a man in the taxi behind me who will fill a page or two for you”.
Waterford through and through, father-of-five John Kerr was born on the Ballytruckle Road and now lives in St. Catherine’s Grange. The 60-year-old remembers growing up across the road from Garvey’s Pub in number 38 and is still perplexed as to why the houses on his street began at number 36 as opposed to one.
“You had Bishop’s House up there over a wall and they used to grow all sorts of vegetables in there. Potatoes, cabbage, any vegetable there was used to be grown up there. We would go and rob them so you never had to buy any vegetables for the grub! It was a poor estate really where people had nothing. Everyone was in the same boat. My father was a bricky and like every man he’d have his few pints of stout. On any day of the week at any time of the day or night you could walk around to any of the neighbours because all of the doors were open. They were all half doors as well. They were good, honest, hardworking people up there.”
Like many in the city, sport took precedence over schoolwork each afternoon. During the summer the children would make the return journey to Tramore by foot on the back roads and if they were lucky and astute savers, they might get to the pictures on a Sunday with their pocket money. “That was life”, he says, “but I enjoyed it”.
Educated in St. Declan’s, John remembers school as hard and difficult, with canes and leather belts occasionally introduced when pupils had failed to do their homework. At the age of 12 he left education, although he would return, and got a job as a messenger boy for the builder Johnny Hearne.
“I got 10 shillings a week. The craic on the sites was great. The years flew by so quickly, it feels like yesterday that I was cycling the bike for Johnny. I remember my first day well. Sure all of the older fellas were sending me for skyhooks and glass hammers; it was all a part of the craic. They gave me a letter to deliver one day that I couldn’t read at the time saying “send the fool further”! I worked on the buildings for over 40 years and I’m doing this for nine years; I bought this with the redundancy money.”
At the age of 36, John returned to school for two years to learn to read and write. Work on sites was sparse and rather than sit on the dole, he turned to adult education. He remembers being helpless when his children would ask for help with their homework and would hide the books out of sight in the house so people wouldn’t spot them. It also came on the back of his transformation after suffering a debilitating addiction to alcohol.
“Drink got a hold of me. I was in Belmount three times and Aiséirí as well. When I came out of there I had to do something so I went back to school. I haven’t taken a drink for 25 years. Thankfully I got my family back. It was hard, it certainly wasn’t an easy road. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. I just take it a day at a time. Look, it’s all a part of coming through life.”
When you congratulate him on his sobriety (he will be off the drink 26 years in August), the Labour Party supporter underplays his own achievement, saying “it’s not something I’d brag about.”
“I hurt a lot of people when I was drinking. My wife has nine sisters and I had to go around to each of them to apologise for the damage I had caused. I had to try and get my wife and kids back and get them to know me as a father, not as a drunk. It was a big change in their lives as well, to see me coming home and handing up my wages instead of falling in the door. I’ve been doing it for 25 years. My youngest son is waiting to go into the army, he’s 21, and he never saw me with a drink in my hand thankfully. It’s part of going through life. I am what I am. Everybody has their cross to bear and that was mine. People sometimes ask me why don’t I drink and I tell them I took my pledge after the confirmation!”
Today, he holds the same love of taxi-driving as he had for his building work. John is a people’s person and meeting different characters each day makes it easier for him to get up in the morning.
“I enjoy the craic and you’re essentially outdoors the whole time. I couldn’t work in a factory. I need to be doing something different and meeting new people too. I gave up doing it in the night time because you’re picking up people bragging about how much they’ve drank and also there would be a lot of memories coming back to me. I like doing it through the day though. The people of Waterford are very friendly. You get the oddballs but they’re always good for a chat and everybody has their story to tell.”
After hopping out of his vehicle, John calls over a colleague from a taxi parked behind him, telling him “this is the Waterford News and Star here.”
Turning to me, he adds “this is the best-looking taxi driver in all of Waterford. You’ll have to do an article on him some week”, before the two burst into laughter.
Waving goodbye, I joke: “I’ll stick him where he belongs, page three!”