This story featured in the October 31, 2017 edition.
BRENDAN Farrell knows how to tell a story, for he has told thousands of them to thousands of people before. The 80-year-old was born in Dublin but Waterford has a special place in the Birmingham resident’s heart. Staying in the Marina Hotel last week, he was visiting the city alongside his daughter Marie and granddaughter Caitlin, who within three days had been introduced to the blaa, a taste he first experienced back in 1961. Having conducted countless interviews over the years, he is well aware of what makes a good interviewee and obliges – getting him to answer questions isn’t a problem. If anything, stopping him is the challenge.
Brendan was always a newspaper man. After the Farrells moved to Cavan he began printing his own newspapers at the age of 10 alongside friends, a small side-project that was promoted by his school. “For two weeks we didn’t get a wallop, which was great,” he says with a smirk. He feared his paper dreams were dead however after the family moved to Birmingham to join his Dad, who recommended that his son become a bus driver, a popular job for the Irish. Brendan, however, sensed an opportunity.
“I met the Union rep and told him that I wanted a dark room built there and a printing press. He said that’s totally unheard of but the week after we had one. Soon afterwards we had the City Transport Gazette and six months into that I was called in by the bosses who said ‘why are all these Irish pictures appearing on the front of our magazine’. We won a few awards and I started freelancing to do things like weddings and off beat stories.”
In 1961, Brendan was to travel to Killarney for a piece aimed at enticing British tourists to the West of Ireland. After hopping off the ferry in Rosslare and onto his scooter, he head for Kerry via Waterford, where a friend suggested he should stop, giving him the address of friends he had in Summerhill.
“I was going over the bridge and coming down the Quay when I heard a bang right at the Clock Tower. The gasket blew and I was ground to a halt. A mechanic up a side street told me I’d be stuck here for three days because he needed a part delivered from Dublin. I had had no plan on stopping but I went up to Summerhill, knocked on the door and had it slapped in my face twice – the second time the lady called Nora Upton said ‘I don’t talk to Jehovah’s Witnesses’! I had to shout in the letterbox and tell her that I had a message from her friend in Birmingham.”
Later that day, he met the rest of the Upton family and it was suggested that he head to the pictures, although he made it clear that he had no intention of heading to a film alongside three girls. Instead he turned his back, the girls lined up, and blindly, he chose to take the girl in the middle, a good choice given that within two years, he had married Helen Upton.
“After the pictures she said she would take me out on the bus to Tramore on the Saturday and Sunday. On the Monday she was working in Walsh’s Bakery in Ballybricken, who are now by Mount Sion, they do the blaas. I picked the bike up and said I was off to Killarney and we said our goodbyes. I got as far as the Master McGrath Memorial in Dungarvan and I thought ‘I don’t think I’ll bother going to Killarney’. An hour later I was outside Walsh’s telling Helen I changed my mind.”
The pair met every day at 6.10pm beneath the Clock Tower, spending their long May evenings in coastal villages like Dunmore and the Comeragh mountains. He returned that autumn, she joined him across the Irish Sea in 1992 and they married in 1963, honeymooning in Waterford and planning to return to Ireland together in the second half of 1970.
In January of that year however, Helen was reading through the Waterford News & Star, which was readily available in a local newsagents, and spotted a story about a Waterford man named Tony Beattie from Kilmacthomas who was starting a newspaper in England called The Irish Post.
“It was still fairly raw and people had just arrived there so they wanted to keep up with what was happening at home. RTE you couldn’t pick up, so the local papers were vital. Helen was reading it and she told me to give them a ring. I showed them all of the things I had done before and said I would only work for them for six months before moving to Waterford. I started in Birmingham but I would move around to Leeds, Sheffield, Jersey, anywhere there was an Irish community. Helen probably regretted ever mentioning it to me.”
The paper continues to link Irish communities across England and Brendan relished covering social events including GAA and dancing events, but his real passion was for “off-the-wall” stories people would not have heard before, like that of a blacksmith on the island of Jersey who was charged with the responsibility of making horseshoes for German units to transfer weapons as the narrow local roads were too tight for their tanks. Rather than comply, he made them too loose, adding to the enemy’s inconvenience.
The Farrells would visit Waterford twice a year while health allowed them to, before Helen sadly succumbed to a two-year battle with cancer in 2011. Their daughters Teresa, who passed three years afterwards, and Marie inherited their parents gra for their homeland.
“When we were over in August we were taxiing out on the runway after two days here and I said to Marie and her daughter that we would be taking off in a minute and they wouldn’t need to worry then. They said it wasn’t that they were worried, they just didn’t want to leave Waterford. They’d stay here forever.”
During their stay last week they met with the Elliots, Grants and Uptons and Brendan was hoping to sneak in a pint in Callahane Pub, which he fondly remembers used to have sawdust put on the floor deliberately due to all of the dancing that took place there. More importantly, he wanted a photo of Caitlin with the Clock Tower, where he had the misfortune, and ultimate fortune, of suffering that blown gasket.
“When you’re walking along the Quays and suddenly a Waterford accent comes out of nowhere when you’re passing saying ‘good morning’ or ‘good evening’ you think ‘oh this is different, somebody has actually spoken and greeted me’ because they don’t do that anymore in Birmingham. Once you cross the bridge a switch comes on and you experience an atmosphere that is nowhere else. Strangers say good morning to you on the Quay.
“I was a bit sad yesterday going around to all of the places that I used to visit with Helen. The kids basically grew up here. We said we would come back here to live and the sad thing is we didn’t get to come back. But the trips are going to continue as long as I am able to return.”
In conversation with Ronan Morrissey