Jack Lyons was born ‘as long ago as Sunday, 7th of November 1943’. Having recently retired from the Cork Post Office after 27 years, on a ‘small miserable pension’ he continues to write and philosophize about his local folk heroes. He is married to Maura and lives ‘on Cork’s Northside (no. 2 bus)’. He also drives a Piaggio Vespa. All photographs courtesy of Jack Lyons except where indicated.
I furnish the green acres of my mental capacity with the varnished memory of the stuff I know about Cork. I bow down to the sunlit shadow of Shandon steeple and venerate before Conal Creedon's four-faced liar we call the Goldie Fish. I walk along the quay wall populated by yellow beaked swans searching in vain for the house of Sean O'Faolain. Instead I meet the grey haired gateman of the stitch factory my auntie Mollie used to call the Grand Old North Infirmary. Where Cork born characters like Slobby Malone and Donie Bobs signed themselves in for a week...and a bath. Tis well known folklore that Slobby signed himself out after being served with the finest mutton by the finest nurses - and underneath his Dagenham tailored suit was a brand new pair of cotton pyjamas - which he never returned. I leave the gate of the stitch academy and walk as far as the Loft in Mulgrave Place. I hear the echo of Father O'Flynn the Shakespeare-mad priest struggling with the flat accents of his young charges as he invokes upon them the need for a sense of decorum while, with stops and starts, they grind their way through A Midsummer's Night Dream. I walk through Widderings Lane and meet the Barcelona steps alongside St. Mary's Church. Grey sky now, while soft rain patters down upon my fifties haircut where Mossie in Friars Walk with the electric pig's paw managed to make me look like a mangled refugee from Hungary.
Further down the quay towards Brian Boru Street I see half a dozen night sorters from the large red-bricked building sitting in their trunks, basking in the unusual lunacy of a midsummer's night heatwave, taking a dip in the murky waters of the river Lee, while they wait for tomorrow's mail to arrive from Dublin. One of them called McKeon has a small notebook and is writing it all down like some kind of recorder. With the quiet determination of a man on a mission, like one of Mikey Sull's dogs from the Fair Hill Harriers; I keen my nose and follow the stink along the quay wall to the bridge at Albert Quay. I see Tommy Kelly, the oldest messenger boy in Cork, with the wheels of his messenger bike stuck deep in the groove of the rail track which runs across the bridge. Ahead of him and approaching without a care in the world at the speed of Barrack Street Band playing a dead march comes a CIE goods train moving towards Tommy and his messenger-basket laden with rump steak for Montenotte. The train approaches at 3-and-a-half miles an hour missing Tommy by a matter of inches, as he leans the palm of his hand against one of the wagons for balance and lights up a Woodbine. I follow the trail of scholars past the black iron bars set into the concrete pillars of the Model school. Through the Elizabethan windows I hear children's classroom voices gently singing 'Óró Sé Do Bheatha Bhaile', gelling in the subconscious of my head with the pleadings across the road emanating from the white building of the City Hall as a mother of seven pleads with the housing manager for a decent house in Grawn'. Down past Haughtons timber merchants and on to St. John's the beautiful ornate pillars, where the small Church of Ireland community worshipped every Sunday. And immediately after it the small row of six houses with steps to the doors that fascinated my childhood imagination 'that this wasn't really part of Cork at all but doctors' houses in a quiet mews in Richmond, Surrey' .
And yet just for the sheer juxtaposition of it, around the corner at the start of Douglas Street, twenty yards away the old horse trough in the middle of the road. Douglas Street : I breathe the name in a aura of breathless reverence. I furnish the green acres of my mental capacity with the stuff I know about that very street. Halfways up on the right, Kemp Street, where I witnessed the death screams and chilling cries of pigs hung by their little hooves to a top chain moving along a steel conveyor belt of death. A Lunhams workman in rubber apron and wellington boots, armed with a ten-inch blade, and me ! - standing six feet behind him unable to get enough of the slaughter that would haunt me that night in my sleep as the workman plunged his knife into the gullet of the screaming animal and blood gushed, and guts spewed from its stomach. This was lunch time going home from school, and at home my mother would place a couple of sausages on a small plate before me and I would boyishly get them down me without as much as a care in the world. That night, alone in the valley of my wandering mind I would remember the pig and dream bad, holding on tight to my miraculous medal and scapulars. Further up Douglas Street the academy of academies, the school of schools. Nothing could touch the South Mon'. Nothing in Eton. Nothing in Rockwell. Nothing even in the North Mon' could come within a Donkey's Gudge of the South Mon'. The school for scoundrels, blackguards, tricksters, hobblers, singers and messenger-boys galore.
Just below the hallowed arched entrance to the South Mon' was the house where Frank O'Connor drew his first breath. Consumed by the passion of O'Connor's 'First Confession', his ordinary brilliance stole up on me and seduced me into taking up a pen. Not just one pen; four, maybe five or six sometimes. Black, blue, red, green - all on stand-by in every available pocket. And clipped inside the inner pocket of my sports coat, my father's Number One fountain pen. His lead Parker. When he discovered I was walking around town with it clipped inside my jacket, my ear was red for a week. I take the steep walk up Nicholas Street where at the top lies the Marian grotto with women in headscarves on their knees beseeching the intercession of the Mother of Good Counsel. I notice the lines on the back of their nylons running upwards and quickly look away boyishly embarrassed. Turning left down Evergreen Street past another slaughter kill zone, out past Turner's Cross soccer pitch where Evergreen United fascinated millions of absent people. The team, made up of Cork Corporation plumbers, grave diggers and lorry drivers. Across the road lived Maggie the haunted woman in the haunted cottage who faithfully scrubbed Evergreen's jerseys and pinned them on the haunted clothes line to dry.
A little further out now to the lip of Ballyphehane. And let's give it its proper respect: B-A-L-L-Y-P-H-E-H-A-N-E ! that hurtling meteorite careering through space on collision course with the Hang Dog Road. A feasting ground of subculture and St. Patrick's Day haircuts. My short pants, useless against the velocity of January wind skinning my thighs to the bone going to school on the back of my father's Lambretta scooter. My wooden buttoned cardigan, lovingly created by my mother's stitch in three-ply wool. Knit one, drop one, cast off, one plain and two pearl. My South Monastery belt hooked around my narrow stomach, the glorious green-and-gold elastic of the dreaming spires of Douglas Street. The sterna with the ball bearings smuggled out of Fords. A balding tennis ball planked in a 2lb jam jar in the back shed smuggled out of Dunlops. A plastic comb with paper turned into a mouth organ hobbled off the free counter in Woolworths. An orange box begged from the Jamaica Banana Company in Maylor Street nailed on to the plank of the sterna when I decided to upgrade the home constructed contraption and enter it into the 24-hour Le Mans down Botanic Road. The slock in Murphy's gardens and the crab apples that bent me in two. YR brown sauce poured generously between two doorsteps of bread when my mother ran out of butter. Tony-Bad-Eggs historic introduction of Push Penny on his formica shop counter surface. The sawing in halves of a cheese-box with a bread knife to achieve the goals. The smell of Robin whiting on the new rubber dollies left overnight on the window-sill for Mass on Sunday morning. Black if you were an altar boy. The street soccer where neighbours' gates were used as goal posts. And kiss-and-torture in St. Joseph's Cemetery, and who could sit the longest on the steps of the haunted vault in the dark.
The Top Shops in Tory Top Road, stragetically placed alongside each other suggesting some kind of poor man's Hollywood Sunset Strip. And the epicentre of this magical alignment turned out to be the eight wonder of the world: most notably Lennox's Chip Shop. One of the first people to scoop golden brown chips into a small paper bag with the word 'Lennox' printed on the side. The small of batter wafting from the deep fry mingled in the brain with Elvis Presley's 'King Creole', emanating from the truly most wonderful juke box anybody ever set eyes on - a devil's chariot without wheels. Lennoxs' in Bandon Road and Tory Top were academies of learning for daydreamers with charcoaled pencilled side-burns and Woolworth's hobbled plastic combs dripping in Brylcreem. Scallop and onion pie pattie, these were all exotic corner boy delacacies that gelled perfectly with King Creole. And all of this subculture, played out on a slow-moving black-and-white memory screen with the soundtrack provided by my father's violin and saxophone. Freezing front rooms in Ballyphehane, my father's hands purple with cold. His finger nails hacked down to halves to hold down the four miserable strings of his violin for the front room recital of the Violin Concerto in D Minor. Behind him, with me operating it, the old Bush tape recorder with big spools and cream coloured buttons the size of piano keys.
From outside the house on Curragh Road where Din Joe lived, the host of Radio Eireann's 'Take The Floor', I get the number 3 bus back into town. I alight and stroll through town to my local bar the Long Valley where it would take a strong man in the full of his health with the help of three small children to munch through their mouth-watering sandwiches. I rest my boney backside on a stool and proffer up a memory to a curly headed college student call Theo Dorgan, temporarily barred from the premises for being too loud, but for now lurking in the back room with his cronies, while I go and get him his half pint. The place is packed with students from the local degree factory - and the art college. Everywhere are sideburns and hair down to the shoulder. Men and women alike - but mostly tis the men who own the sideburns. Through this tightly stuffed gaggle of bodies precariously managing to hold on to half-pint glasses of stout enters a character called Humphrey, wearing a large belted down overcoat and eccentric bicycle clips strangle his Dan Hobbs diamond design socks. He pushes a bicycle ahead of him through the melée of student bodies. The pedals of the bike scrape against single legged nylons borrowed from mother and ladders now run all the way to the thigh. Presently the bicycle reaches the end of its journey which is the back room. Humphrey Moynihan, the proprietor, a man of quick wit and schooled in academia takes off his overcoat to reveal a ready-to-serve white apron...."Who's next?"...he enquiries, stepping behind the bar and reaching for an empty half-pint glass from a tray...and failing to spot the lurking Theo Dorgan.
In a corner of the bar seemingly unconscious to the frenzy of voices around him, a young man is reading Rimbaud. He takes a painfully slow sip per chapter, agonisingly slow for a man out on the beer. In another corner sits Sean Beecher, busily writing down an idea for a book on Cork slang. "Gis the ucks" he scribbles, then adds the translation...'Please be so good as to save the remaining part of the apple for me.' Another one he jots down..."Youghal was black !"... Underneath this he licks the lead of his pencil and writes...'The well known seaside resort Youghal was visited by a great many people.' Having heavily relieved himself of surplus stout the lad Beecher returns from the jacks and writes down a gem he heard earlier that day..."Did he die though?" "He did though." "Where did he die though?"
"He died in the Lido."
I shift my boney arse on the well warmed stool and furnish the green acres of my mental capacity with the varnished memory of the stuff I know about Stevie Hogan. The scene: a travelling studio. The time: at night. The event: Quicksilver. The presenter: your friend and mine, Bunny Carr. The stakes: two fifty pences. The subject: entomology. And Bunny Carr, with a voice dripping in melo-drama relays to the hero of the hour, Stevie. "Stephen, you have two fifty pences left on the board, do you want to retire with them or play on?" Stevie leans forward into the microphone and with all the veneer of a man riding on half a million, asks Bunny Carr..."Can I ask the nation?" Moments later an exasperated Bunny Carr asks the 64,000-dollar question..."Now Stephen, you're playing on so for two fifty pences what would you call a queen bee?" Silence. National silence. Silence all over Ireland. The quintessential Corkman has come back up for air. And somewhere in the arcade of his sunconsciousness the goldie fish is chiming, the clocks tell four different times, the black-ah jam spreads across his mouth and stains his shirt collar, he learns to ride his father's bike by putting his leg in under the crossbar, his white First Holy Communion sock scrapes against the oily chain, the pigs are hanging by their little hooves and screaming, the South Mon' boy has gone on the lang from school and after pulling off Santa's beard in Kilgrews he's getting a langey home on the back of a Tedcastle coal lorry...Finally after moments of dream-like cameos longer than it would take Georgie to remove a body from the Assembs' comes the answer to 'What would you call a queen bee? - "A wazzie !!!"