MICHAEL Walsh was born in Passage East, Co Waterford before leaving behind school and family at the young age of 14, bound for Birmingham. “This was when there was no work around, you see. My friend Des asked me to go with him and we stayed with his Aunt. We got a job straight away with Wimpey Construction.”
Long days lay ahead for a young 14-year-old, “we started to work two big fields as labourers. They were going to put houses in them. When we finished the houses in Birmingham, they were shifting out to Coventry.” An illness associated with working alongside the diesel oil bulldozers necessitated a move home for Michael, “I was glad I did in one way, I knew I could do better than I was doing. It was good honest work at a time when I needed it. I had lost most of my hair through my illness and the boys were codding me.”
Salmon fishing with his friends in Passage saw Michael jump down into the water from the boat, the water went over his head and three or four weeks of saltwater saw the regrowth of Michael’s hair. “I don’t know what else could have done it.”
Michael’s father was a pilot on the river, with Michael himself hailing from a long line of nautical seafarers. A callout from a ship for a crew saw Michael achieve his dream of going to sea, like his father before him.
“I joined a ship, she carried coal, nothing else. He loaded in Manchester canal. He travelled to Dublin, Waterford and Cork. He carried nothing back, always coming back empty.” After a spell of some eight months, the ship had to go to dry-dock in Cork where Michael met a man who offered what would turn out to be a life-long friendship, George Stockley.
Faced with the prospect of having a pay-off now and returning when the ship came out of dry-dock, Michael and George found themselves on board a small ship in Cork. “It carried about seven or eight hundred tonnes of coal and he would go on different routes than the other boat. We stayed with him for a good while.”
Michael’s dreams of the open ocean shouted until they were heard and he went to sea to do all the deck work. “We went all over the world but mostly Ireland, Wales, England and then Holland, that circle, you know?” A trip to the African coastline carrying foodstuffs and returning with timber saw Michael furthering his reaches and stretching his sea legs. Always, Michael returned home to Passage before leaving for another adventure at sea. Those adventures took him on the Star Line ships, “they were huge big ships, down around Africa coast to coast and then another to America and back. We went all around South America and Australia.”
Automatic steering wasn’t available at that time so the journey was arduous and trips from South Africa to the United States took a mental and physical toll on the crew of the ship. Depending on what cargo each ship was carrying, the ship would need to be cleaned each time, with meat being one of the biggest offenders. But those long days and inconsistent hours began to make the shores of home appealing and Michael returned home as a pilot on the river. Michael’s father called him home to sail those same rivers he had so often fished in as a young boy and now, to sail in as a man.
From Dunmore to Hook Head or to Cheekpoint, Michael sailed, wading into the gene pool which pulsed through his heritage. “There were about six pilots on the river working on a rotation basis up and down the river. Some of the rivers were very narrow and even though automatic steering was starting to come in, you couldn’t depend on the automatic steering.”
“Two big cruise liners came in one day, one was a German boat. One was too afraid to come into the river channel as it was too narrow. I climbed up on a ladder on board. I told him, ‘When you get up the river about five miles, you won’t feel the wind’. The channel is narrow and there is all hills above Passage. He told me he would take my word for it but said that if I take him up, I’ll have to take him down again. Sure that messed up the whole rota altogether. He put a fifty pound note in my pocket which was very good of him”.
Michael met his wife, Mary, who he married in 1960. They met in The Arundel Ballroom. “We used to travel from Passage on bikes, all the girls were on one end of the room and we were all on the other end. I looked up, I was on my own and there was eight of them together across the room. I picked out Mary and I’m still picking her out,” Michael remarks with a fond smile. A ballroom love story from the era of dancing and music conjures a warmth and a sense of a fairytale ending as the sea pilot comes home to marry his love, with a reception in the Granville Hotel.
Then a family of six children living in Catherine Street, they moved to Bernard’s Place and finally to a house, one of only three in the fields high above the city, before moving to their present residence of Tramore. “I never wanted to go to school, I didn’t like the teachers up above in Crooke. I was ready for the sea at fourteen. There was always a chance you would meet two or three Irish fellas on the boats, which was better than meeting two or three English or Scottish fellas. That was my life.”
Michael today is a husband, a Dad, a Grandad and he, amongst many, gives us that vital link into the past, where coal-ships powered through the seas and Ireland saw many of her young leave, many still children themselves. A man with such a rich history has taught me such a lot in such a short time. His plans now, I asked… to spend Christmas with his family.