At home with the late Stevie Kelleher and his brother Timmy of Dingle.
(Photo: James Fennell)
There has been much talk in recent years about the clampdown on drink-driving and how it has played havoc with the traditional pub-going routine of Ireland’s rural community. Bachelor brothers Stevie and Timmy Kelleher have a canny solution to the problem. Even though their farm is less than 3km from their preferred haunts in Dingle town, they know better than to risk driving home ‘after a few’.[i] Stevie was a hackney driver for many decades and respects the rules of the road. ‘If I was put off the road’, he says, ‘I may as well hang up my boots and die’.
The Kelleher’s answer to the drink-driving conundrum is to have two houses – a farmhouse, where they spend most of their days, and a townhouse in Dingle, where they rest on drinking nights. ‘We go out four nights a week and we stay in town then’, says Stevie. ‘We went out last night because the night before was very wild and I didn’t close an eye. So I said to Timmy ‘We’ll go to town tonight and have a couple of drinks and we’ll stay in town and we’ll sleep’.’ When Stevie went on holiday to America, he was stunned that the people there only seemed to go out one night a week. ‘That ain’t living at all’, he scoffs.
‘Going out’ is arguably the reason why neither of these courteous, open-minded men married.[ii] ‘And thanks be to Christ for that’, they say in unison. ‘We wouldn’t be as happy as we are now’, believes Stevie. ‘We can do what we like and go where we like and no one will say a word’.
Stevie is the younger brother by five years. He is a hearty gabbler, his anecdotes delivered in a frenetic Kerry accent that makes every sentence seem realer, rawer and often a good deal funnier. He is not without opinion. In quick succession, he launches tirades against English publicans (who ‘slam the bar shut on the dot of closing time’), Dublin’s gangsters (a ‘cowardly shower’, hiding behind guns and knives), Mary Harney, TD, and the Gardai of Tralee. He is particularly scornful of those bankers who allowed young couples ‘to be sunk up to their necks in debt for the rest of their lives’. Stevie keeps a close eye on his finances, monitoring the surcharges and interest rates, transferring his small fortune from one account to another as and when he sees fit. ‘I worked hard for that money’, he says, ‘and the least it may do now is make money for me’.
(Photo: James Fennell)
While Stevie rarely draws breath, Timmy is the quiet man. He tends to sit with his chin cupped in a hand, nodding along. He enjoys talking about the weather.[iii] Sometimes he sings, ‘about old times and everything’.[iv] He was born in March 1925 and named for his mother’s father.
Their mother Hannah was the third of four daughters born to Timothy Kennedy, a religious man who farmed amid the megalithic cairns and standing stones of Coumduff, above Anascaul. All four Kennedy daughters entered arranged marriages. ‘It was all matches that time’, explains Stevie. ‘You had to have a fortune - a couple of hundred pounds - and then you could get married’. Hannah’s older sisters married publicans. The youngest sister married a shopkeeper but died in childbirth. Hannah was also deeply religious, permanently mumbling the Hail Mary and the Our Father. Her legacy lives on in her sons who attend mass regularly and kneel down after supper every evening to say the Rosary. ‘We run through every bead and every decade’.
In 1923, Hannah married Thomas Kelleher, a 40-year-old farmer from Milltown, west of Dingle. Three sons and two daughters followed. Stevie, the youngest son, says it was a difficult childhood. ‘Poor people didn’t have any money then’, he says. ‘And I don’t know how our parents fed us but they did. Tis great the way it is today but – and I’ve said this in pubs – the youth of today wouldn’t do what we did. They’d die with the hunger’.
In the ‘great summer’ of 1937, Thomas Kelleher converted his late father’s thatched cottage into the dark grey two-storey farmhouse where his sons live today. A decade later, he died of a heart attack at the age of 63.
Prematurely widowed, Hannah Kelleher did her best to set the children up.[v] The eldest brother [name] was training to be a priest; he later abandoned the calling and became a stationmaster in Leicestershire.[vi] Timmy took on the farm. Hannah purchased houses in Dingle for the two girls. She also set Stevie up with a mortgage. When the bank manager questioned Stevie’s credibility, Hannah presented him with the title deeds to the farm as a guarantee. ‘Do you know what you’re doing, Mrs Kelleher?’ asked the manager. ‘If Stevie starts drinking, he mightn’t be able to pay the mortgage and you might lose the farm’. Hannah replied: ‘I have reared five children and Stevie won’t do that to me’. Indeed, Stevie did not do that to her. Instead, he quit drinking, started driving a hackney cab and cleared the mortgage inside a year and a half. ‘A pound a day and every shilling I could spare’, says he. ‘I would go into the bank once a month and I never missed a day! Ah, they were tough old times but they were alright. We lived anyway, thanks be to God’.
Stevie was born in ‘the week of Christmas 1930’ and named for Saint Stephen. ‘I had a bus and a car and that was my living’, he says. ‘When I started on the road there were no jobs around here and money was very scarce. I was only 18 years of age, a small young fellow. But I worked hard for my money. I drove twenty hours out of twenty-four and I lost a lot of sleep’.
In 1950, he purchased a 32-horse power V8, black as night, from the Walden Motor Company on Parnell Street in Dublin.[vii] ‘Jesus, the power of it!’ he recalls. He secured it for a good price when a mechanic in the garage tipped him off that the salesman liked a drink. His driving took him all over Ireland. As a farmer, he was captivated by the flat farmlands of Kildare and Meath. ‘We call that the long grass country. All along the roads, tis horses and timber fences. Around here it’s all ditches’. ‘I hated cities’, he says, and he met some unspeakably rude people along the way. One person even accused him of ‘being a Corkman’.
In 1968, David Lean and his crew arrived in Dingle to film the epic ‘Ryan’s Daughter’.[viii] ‘Heir of Christ’, says Stevie, ‘that’s forty years ago now, is it?’ The film changed the lives of everyone in the town. ‘There wasn’t a restaurant in Dingle that time’, says Timmy. ‘You couldn’t get a cup of tea. And the pubs were empty except for a few locals’. By 1969, everyone, except Timmy, seemed to be working on the film. Stevie was a full-time chauffeur to Peter Dukelow, the hard-drinking Construction Manager. ‘He was an awful man for time, but he never said a bad word to me’. The film did not fare well at the US box office but Dingle certainly got a mighty boost from the publicity. ‘All the same’, says Dunquin’s Brid Malone, ‘it’s a pity Ryan didn’t have another daughter’.
In later years, Stevie drove a truck for local supermarket, P & T FitzGerald (now Centra), and bussed the people of Dingle on grand tours of the dance halls and old time pubs of Munster. ‘Stevie’s Bus’, as it was known, also wheeled its way around the Ring of Kerry once a week, ‘186 miles, the round trip’.
Meanwhile, young Timmy was running the fifty-acre farm, milking and feeding a herd of fifteen cattle. When he could get away, he would take the ferry to England and visit his brother in Leicestershire. During the 1970s, he began to breed ponies. Indeed, if anything can set the Kelleher bosom a-heaving, it is talk of ponies. The Kellehers are icons on Kerry’s racing circuit, famed from the beaches of Billbawn and Glenbeigh to the tracks of Caherciveen and Castleisland. ‘I don’t know how we got into them’, says Stevie. ‘But we were young and we were always mad for the ponies’. They bred their own, trained them up and fed them with oats from the farm. Timmy proved a formidable jockey and won seven races, most famously on Jet Black, the cryptically named grey who won the trophy that stands today upon the Kelleher mantelpiece.[ix] ‘I cycled back that day and she followed me on my bike all eight miles home’, adds Timmy.
Photographs of these victorious steeds are pinned upon the tobacco-stained tongue and groove walls of their living room. Above the dresser, the Sacred Heart, still bedecked in sprigs of holly, jostles for space between faded snaps of Stevie’s beloved V8, the Eucharistic Congress of 1932, and cloth-capped friends from decades gone by. A wooden staircase rises to the bedrooms above, its lower steps providing support for walking sticks, a hessian sack full of timber, a glinting axe and an old creosoted chair. The brothers sit in well-worn armchairs either side of the stove, boots resting on a black stone floor. ‘Ah we’re used to this way’, says Stevie. ‘And it will do us alright. Will you be in Dingle for a drink later?’
[i] Fergus O’Flaherty’s and Curran’s on Main Street are the pubs of choice. The town’s former Garda sergeant, Mossy O’Donnell, who served eleven years with the Special Branch in Dublin.
[ii] Although they never married, the brothers have a soft spot for women. Stevie believes Rosy Ryan’s defiance in the film gave women confidence to come into the pubs. Before that, the priest had a habit of kick-starting Sunday mass by reading out the names of all those disgraceful hussies who had been spotted drinking.
[iii] Even as we enter the house, Stevie is talking weather. ‘How are ya doin’?’, says he. ‘It’s a showery auld day again, isn’t it? The morning was alright. It wasn’t so bad. But this is down for the evening now. The weather forecast said it’d be very showery. Very showery’. Stevie maintains 2008 was ‘the worst year in my memory’. ‘Christmas was a fine week, alright, but the rest of it was no good. Do you remember the floods in Dublin? I couldn’t believe it! The water was nearly on the top of the cars! It was very bad.’
[iv] ‘A Shilling a Night’ is his theme tune. The song was written by Rory Wadd, a professor of Trinity who caught TB and came to Dingle for the clear air and he lived a couple of years more. ‘A fine cut of a man’, says Timmy.
[v] One sister died of a heart attack circa 1998. Her son now has four lorries on the road which impresses his uncles greatly.
[vi] The eldest brother married and had four daughters. He worked as a station master in Leicestershire but died of pneumonia a couple of years ago. The truth is he never got over the death of one of his daughters, eight months pregnant, and her husband in a car crash.,
[vii] ‘The first car I got was a small Monteledneir [sic] and I got a V8 then. I bought it from Waldon’s in Dublin, a fine garage they were. Waldon’s Motor Company. Top of North Frederick Street. I went in and I was looking a round and I met a mechanic. I didn’t know it, man. He was dressed in blue. I says to him: ‘Is the foreman around?’ No he said, he’s gone out. ‘Oh’, I said, ‘I’m from Dingle. It’s a small town in Kerry. I’m a hackney driver’. And he said: ‘Now there’s a fine car over there now. No one wants it. 32 horse power. The insurance is too high but she’s a good car. I will guarantee you that’. And he says: ‘The salesman will be in soon. He’s a small fellow with a hat’. I wasn’t drinking at all this time but he says ‘Give him a few half ones and you’ll get a good buy’. I went in and I met the man and we took the car out I hate city driving so we went out the road a small bit. I don’t know what road it was but it was outside the city. And he stopped the car and said: ‘You may take over now’. Jesus, the power of it. 32 horse power. Oh-oh. So anyway, we were passing a pub and I said: ‘Do you take a drink?’ ‘I do’, he says. And I gave him three half ones anyway. And he said: ‘Well, okay now, what do you think?’ And I said ‘How much for her?’ He said ‘Ah-heee, twelve hundred pounds’. It was a lot of money at that time. ‘Look’, I said, ‘I’ll won’t be going around talking about it so but I’ll give you o-nine’. ‘Oh no’, he said, ‘come again’. ‘Another one’, I said, ‘a thousand or I’ll go out the door and we can go now. I have that much money in my pocket, you know’. ‘Alright then, okay, hold on a second’, says he.
Stevie takes us to a wall covered in photos of cars and horses where has a photo of the car, a jet black number. ‘Z8 1788. That was her number. I can picture it in my mind!’ The purchase was in about 1950.
[viii] During this time, Timmy was herding his cattle up the road when Robert Mitchum rolled up in a car. The Hollywood star allegedly got out of his vehicle, unable to believe this scowling man did not recognise him. ‘I suppose you’re an inspector or something?’ said Timmy gruffly. Smiling, Mitchum backed up against a wall and threw his cap in the air a few times. ‘You really don’t know who I am?’ Timmy did not have time for this. ‘The day was fine’, he later explained, ‘but it was after being bad for a couple of days and I was in a hurry’. Again, Timmy said he did not know the man. ‘I’m Robert Mitchum’. The name meant nothing to Timmy. He looked the actor in the eye and replied ‘I don’t give a feck who you are, get out of me way’. Mitchum was bent double laughing long into the night that followed.
Or, in Timmy’s words: ‘My name was up all over the country that time. I was going up the road to mind the cows. And he come up in the car and got out. I thought he was a guard. He says ‘Do you know me at all? ‘No’, says I, ‘I don’t know you at all’. And he stands up against the wall of this old house, with the hat on him and says: ‘You ought to know me’, he says. ‘Why don’t you know me?’ ‘I don’t know’, says I. The day was fine but it was after being bad for a couple of days and I was in a hurry. The last thing he says to me is ‘I’m Robert Mitchum’. ‘I don’t give a feck who Robert Mitchum is’, I said, ‘get out of my way’. ‘He bent to the ground laughing then. He went to the pub later and told everyone about it. He enjoyed it. He was alright. The film crowd were alright’.
[ix] Jet Black won in 1983. ‘I had a dog who I called Jet Black and I kept calling the pony Jet Black so how and ever’, explains Timmy.
With thanks to Curran's Bar, Tom Fox and Fergus Flaherty.
Stevie Kelleher passed away on 2nd January 2014.