Joe Walsh of Passage East

Catherine Foley, the author, has kindly submitted a second guest blog feature to the page.  It follows a hugely successful initial guest blog some months back, entitled Beyond the Breakwater which brought us back to the Passage East of her youth and Waterford city.  For this blog, Catherine remembers with a loving fondness her uncle, Joe Walsh.  

My uncle Joe was often with us when we came together at important family occasions in our aunts’ sitting room in Helvick. He was an integral part of family life, spending every holiday with us. He’d lock up, leave his home in Passage East for a couple of weeks, get the bus to Waterford, catch the outgoing one to Dungarvan and we’d drive in from Ring to collect him at the terminal.

He was a merchant seaman who went to sea as a young man. He spent many years working on ocean liners and oil rigs. In later years he fished out of Passage East.  He was a gravedigger in Crooke for a while too.

He was my mother’s brother and he was my godfather so there was a special link between us, not that I appreciated him when I was a young scamp with no time to listen to the cautionary voice of Joe.

Yet, I always knew he was my greatest ally, and as I got older I came to realise that we were alike in many ways.

In his downtime with us, I remember him working with rope. Even in the end when his mind was gone and he lay in a hospital bed, his hands working, tying imaginary ropes, repeated the same actions in the same sequence over and over until one of us caught and held them still.

Joe in later years

Once he arrived, Joe would take on all washing-up duties, and being a sailor through and through, he was far better than any of us girls: when he’d be finished the place would be gleaming, ship-shape and clean as a whistle, everything tied down and shining like a galley.

He often gave us money too, he’d bring us presents and he had all the local news for my mother, Ena, who had grown up in Passage and loved to hear stories about her home place.

And so on Christmas morning we’d all set off for our aunts’ house, which overlooked the fishing pier of Helvick in west Co Waterford, where us young ones would get presents, we’d get to listen to the adults talking about old times and to top it all off, we’d have a singsong.

My aunts always had Barley’s Lime Cordial as a treat for us, Cherry Brandy liqueur for my mother and Guinness and whiskey for the men. My aunts only drank tea.

Joe was usually called on to sing first because he loved to and because his voice was rich and melodious. He relished singing and he had a store of favourite songs that he’d learned from listening to artists like Johnny Cash and Jim Reeves.

He used to sing Roger Whittager’s The Last Farewell as well. After a swallow of Guinness to slake his throat, he’d put his glass down carefully on the coffee table and compose himself. His face would take on a dreamy, serious expression. Then he’d lift his head and begin: his deep, rich voice filling the room with the music and the story: “There’s a ship lying rigged and ready in the harbour, tomorrow for old England she sails.”

From the start we’d be hooked by the song. “Though death and darkness gather all around me… and the taste of war I know so very well,” he’d sing, his shoulders rising philosophically on the crescendo.

We loved this one because it told a story and we all knew the chorus with its lilting, easy melody: “for you are beaut-i-ful, and I have loved you dearly, more dearly than the spoken word can tell.”  We‘d join in at that point and sing along with Joe.

Walsh children 1930’s

His own life at sea seemed to give the song an added pathos. He had never married, and I always felt that those songs of lost love were heart-felt in some way. I had a sense that there was some hidden trauma but I could only guess at what that might be.

A ring of stout around his mouth was a sign that Joe was truly in the moment. The sadness in Joe that us young people could never miss but never understand seemed to add to the piquancy of the words.
As he sang, he’d lift his head up at certain parts almost in sympathy with the fate of the tragic sailor and time would slow down as his voice filled the room.

He had a head of rich black hair, a strong jaw-line and a fine profile. He was a very handsome man. He smoked Major cigarettes – the tops of the fingers on his left hand were brown from years of holding the stubs in the cup of his hand. His masculinity and strength coupled with an incongruous vulnerability could leave me feeling slightly embarrassed. The angelic quality of his voice and his open trusting eyes seemed to pose a question that I could not fathom.

Joe had thick black eyebrows and his dark brown eyes would hold your gaze with a look of honest appraisal while speaking to you.

He walked with a limp: one shoe was always built up by the cobbler to compensate for the shorter leg that had shrivelled as a result of excessive cycling and hurling as a young man. Because of this, he sat in the armchair in his own characteristic way, almost in a kneeling position as if genuflecting, the shorter leg folded underneath him, his knee nearly touching the floor.

Catherine’s dad Joe left and her uncle Joe

Those times remain clear in my memory now, of Joe singing with emotion of other worlds and times. Looking out the window in Helvick, I remember the grey-green sea stretching off down the coastline to the east, towards Hook Head in the distance with the town of Dungarvan visible to the west.

He always favoured songs about loneliness, about drinking and about disappointment. I remember him singing about the man sitting in a honky in Chicago when he sang Little Old Wine Drinker Me. “I asked the man,” he’d sing, “behind the bar, to play the juke-box, and the music takes me back to Tennessee”. He used to lift his shoulders in a semi-shrug as he sang the last line: “When they ask, who’s the man in the cor-ner cry-ing, I say little old wine drinking me.” Unhurried, he’d pause like any singer if a long breath was required. He’d often close his eyes but sometimes, he’d look into the near distance as he put his heart into the words. Now the words and the music of those songs merge like a collage of melodies: the notes unfolding slowly in my head, Joe’s voice rising effortlessly.

He died in his late sixties in the hospital in Dungarvan. We buried him on an icy cold, wet day in Crooke in January 2004 alongside his parents,  Joe and Mary Ellen Walsh (née Martel). There were hailstones and freezing rain on the day and it seemed fitting. As the coffin was lowered into the ground; it was as if whatever he’d endured was blanched away and his life was purified by the freezing downpour.

I’d like to thanks Catherine for providing this tweaked extract from Beyond the Breakwater, Memories of Home. If you follow the previous link you can buy it online, or as a kindle.  Its published by Mercier Press and is available as they say in all good bookshops, including the Book Centre, Waterford.  If you need any more convincing about this wonderful book Manchán Magan gave it a “rave” review in the Irish Times. 

A tweaked extract from Beyond the Breakwater Memories of Home
By Catherine Foley (c) Published by Mercier Press 2018.

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