Thursday, December 16, 2004

Valentia Chronicle: Ross is dead

Ross is dead.

He came into my mind a while back. Perhaps even the day he died. Maybe even the time of his death. I was mentioning him to a friend. Telling the story of Norman Ross. How I'd met him, on Valentia Island, on a trip with my Dad. Telling the stories about him which my Dad had told me. And Ross's own stories.

I'd wondered at the time if he was still alive. Now his death was in The Irish Times.

The end of a legend in many parts of his own lifetime. Like when Dad himself died.

Except that now most of the people who had known the things that made Ross legendary are probably now themselves dead. Apart from his family, mentioned in the Times. A brother, nieces and nephews, I think.

And a few of the old islanders, no doubt.

Strange, really, that a man from Dublin, immersed in Dublin, proud of Dublin, and who had proved himself a successful businessman in Dublin, should ‘exile’ himself to an island off Kerry which is about as far as you can get from the capital.

But he made himself a new business there. A successful hotel which he filled during the summer with coachloads of tourists from all over the world. Including the ones he disliked most, the Irish and particularly his fellow Dubliners. Them because he couldn’t control them.

Ross was a control freak, before the term became generally known in a psychologically-enthralled world. Before it came to Ireland, anyway.

It was in his nature to need to have everything organised. People, systems, logistics. Even the weather, ideally, though he didn’t quite manage that in real time. But he was always able to tell the latest sodden batch of visitors (Kerry in those days got the country’s highest rainfall) that ‘it was really sunny here yesterday’.

They could bask in a kind of secondhand warmth. And they weren’t going to be around long enough to expect a change for the better.

Ross had the tourist business running his way. All coaches, pre-booked. Casual arrivals were deliberately turned away, with a ‘booked out’ apology. And all his coachloads were carefully timed, to fit in with the running of the hotel rather than the needs of the tourists, or the tour operators. The overnighters arrived around four-thirty in the afternoon, and left the next morning. A separate group, for lunch only, arrived around half-past-twelve and left at two o’clock.

The romance for all of them was that they had to get to the island first. That involved getting out of their warm and rainproof coach halfway around the Ring of Kerry and clambering into an open motorboat, the ferry from Reenaun Point outside Cahirciveen to Knightstown on Valentia.

It was a fifty-fifty chance that they became one of the sodden groups.

That was before the bridge, which is a whole other story.

I know all this because I spent some summers in my late teens working in Ross’s Royal Hotel. Before and during University.

Valentia in the early sixties was a unique place. A true island which was both inhabited and accessable. The natives were a mixture of fishermen, divers, radio technicians, small farmers, and the guests and staff of the Royal Hotel.

The Royal’s hotel section was limited strictly to guests, and locals were restricted to a Public Bar. They didn’t like this much. In fact, they didn’t like Ross much. But it was a good bar, and there was plenty of room in it. (I even, by coincidence, got to visit it last year for the first time in over 40 years - that's me above.) And even though Ross imposed Dublin-type closing times, they still came there to drink. What they did after he closed was their own business. Or sometimes for the other publican in the area.

Ross did things his way, and that was that.

I'll write more about him anon, because that was a period in my life when I was on the cusp of living it, and now that I'm on the homeward road again, I keep remembering things. Some of them, in retrospect, were quite formative.

(To be continued.)

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