Friday, December 24, 2004

Valentia Chronicle: Ross's guests

The first time I went to Valentia Island was with my Dad. I had recently learned to drive. In other words, I had reached the age of eighteen and bought my licence for a pound — there was no such thing as a driving test then.

One morning he asked me to drive him the seven miles to Kildare to discuss some business with a friend. Of course, the 'business' would be discussed over lunch in a pub, and my being able to drive him meant it would likely be a long and probably quite a liquid affair. But I didn't mind, I was happy for any excuse to take the car out.

As it happened, his pal wasn't there, so Dad said drive on. We ended up that evening in Cork, a hundred and twenty miles away ...

To make a long story short, we arrived home eight days later after having driven around half of the coastline of Ireland, and in every village we stopped Dad knew somebody, usually a fellow publican.

One of whom, about halfway through that extended week, was Norman Ross at his Royal Hotel in Knightstown on Valentia.

The hotel had been a former home of the Fitzgerald family, holders of the title Knight of Kerry. It faced out over the haven of Valentia Sound and the Kerry mainland beyond it.

Dad had known Ross since the man had lived in Dublin, where he'd built up quite a reputation as an astute businessman. One of his ventures was the result of a bet. He'd wagered that he could set up a barber shop in Suffolk Street from scratch and have it profitable within a year. All without any experience of barbering except from being in the chair himself from time to time.

He won his bet, establishing a new Dublin landmark and a model of service and efficiency in the barber shop trade. It remained such for many years after he sold it on, though probably few of its customers by then knew anything about its founder.

The business he'd got going on an island that is the most westerly piece of inhabited land in Europe was just as much a model. It was based in a popular holiday mode of the time, the coach tour. Ross had organised that the Royal Hotel should be a regular, even an exotic stop for many of those coach operators who brought tourists into and around Ireland. The fact that it was an island accessible only by open boat was the exotic part.

Though thirty or forty people, if soaked from spray or rain or both, soon lost that exotic feeling.

They were mostly groups from Britain, while one or two a week would be made up of mixed foreigners from as far away as Australia or as near as that closest foreign country, Northern Ireland. One tour a week was comprised of Dubliners. The regularity of the thing was one of the elements of the business that probably appealed to Ross in the first place.

The guests were programmed from the time they got off the ferry. When they struggled up the short hedge-enclosed path that was the entry to the world of the Royal, Ross would be waiting.

He would greet them in a manner that indicated they should appreciate how fortunate they were to be in his 'kingdom'. He was laying the ground rules straight away.

Tea and fresh scones would already be available to keep them from asking for anything more awkward. Then they were recommended to take the 'Maxi Bus' tour of the island, Ross's name for a Ford minibus which was operated for him by a local man, Willie Sugrue. At the time there were no more than a couple of score vehicles of any kind on the island and the 'Maxi Bus' was easily the most modern. And Willie Sugrue could tell the yarns of the island well. It's the kind of thing that comes in the DNA or Kerrymen.

Most of the visitors took the tour, in relays over the afternoon. And it was a pretty one.

The island is a pleasant rise of two hills, and at that time once you drove up the main street of Knightstown (named after the Knight of Kerry), the roads to the back of Valentia were all dirt ones. All the more reason that anyone having a car there would use an old one. Or preferably a tractor, which could do double duty as a working farm vehicle and a way of getting to and home from the pub at night.

But the Maxi Bus drive had good scenery and good blarney from Willie. The route took its way first along by Glanleam Estate — another home originally built by the Fitzgeralds — and up along the north side of the island to the slate quarry.

The quarry had an international claim to fame. It was opened in 1816 and among the noble roofs the slate from it covered were the House of Commons in London and the train station in San Salvadore. Through the nineteenth century it was the mainstay employment on the island, but by the time I got there in the early 1960s the only reason to visit it was the Marian grotto set into the massive cave that was its entrance.

After his charges had spent twenty minutes or so wandering through the grotto, Willie would round them up and bring them to the back of the island. He'd show them the Skelligs rocks further off the coast, and tell how many people came to spend time on Valentia so they could take a boat trip out to see where monks once lived on the two bleak and often-inaccessible spears of Atlantic outpost. No matter that they wouldn't be around long enough to take the trip themselves, Willie made them feel they'd been there.

Then it was back along the south side of the island, which is steeply cliffed and forbidding, and where there are dinosaur track fossils in the rock.

The last part of the run back to the hotel was through the little backwater of Chapeltown and then along the only other bit of macadamed road to Knightstown, where Willie would pick up his next group. They had usually followed Ross's suggestion and taken the air past the old Marconi station, originally the Europe end of the first Trans-Atlantic communications cable which had been laid by the Great Eastern.

The business end of the Cable Station at Valentia was a major employer in its own right, with around 150 people working there in 1915. By the sixties though, the distinctive buildings that had housed them and their once state-of-art equipment were all long since privately owned*. Communications had moved on, there were many more cables, and we were already beginning to understand a little how the space race was going to change our technologies and the virtual size of our world.

Ross's own interest in improving communications at the time centred around attempts to get successive governments to build a bridge across to the island. Eventually, long after my early sojourns there, and I think after Ross had himself had left, one was built. For me anyway, the island never had the same magic afterwards.

In the meantime, Ross's management of the people and his 'Maxi Bus' operation all worked perfectly. His short term residents were kept busy and/or made tired and weren't in a position to need the services of staff in the hotel after they'd had their afternoon tea and scones. It meant that most of those same staff could then have the afternoon off until it was time to produce the evening meal. More efficiencies.

For that meal, there was no choice of time or menu — apart from the fact that there were two main courses. Nobody on the tours stayed for more than one main meal, so there was no need to vary the menu in any way. The food was good, but being able to produce the same stuff every day made things more efficient, more organisable. Though creamed scallops in their shells for every starter was really too much ... and it also meant that we had many more shell ashtrays than could be used by even the heavy smokers of the times.

After dinner, Ross insisted on getting his guests off to bed early once he had extracted as much as he knew they'd spend comfortably in the residents-only lounge bar. For most of them that amounted to two rounds of drinks. In between the floor show.

During the two summers that I spent working in the Royal after my first visit my job was two-fold: barman and entertainer. As well as pouring Guinness and Powers Gold Label, I played guitar and sang for half an hour, then went back behind the bar to serve the second and last round. Then Ross would shoo them off to bed, on the basis that they had to be up early the next morning to take the ferry back across the sound to the comfort of their bus and the remaining beauty of the Ring of Kerry.

The system worked for six out of seven of the tour groups. Where it didn't work, where they just wouldn't go to bed until he called 'time' himself, were when it was his own people, Dubliners. The fact that they'd want to drink on annoyed him. They couldn't be managed.

He shouldn't have been surprised. They were simply reflections of his own cultural outlook. Most nights, when the tourists had dutifully trotted off to bye-byes like the obedient little children he treated them as, Ross would stay up drinking bottles of Guinness with me in the bar until I would finally call 'time' myself. There might occasionally be one or two others, Ross's few cronies on the island. A landowner and a guard come to mind. We'll remember them another time.

The next day, he wouldn't get up to see his guests off. They were leaving, and didn't need to be managed. Time enough to be up to organise the next group.

Ross kept this beautiful little business working like clockwork right up to the early seventies, when the advent of the Troubles in Northern Ireland snuffed out the life-blood of the enterprise, the British working class man and woman who loved to tour Ireland by bus and didn't count their holiday as successful unless they went home with the couple of hundred pounds they'd brought in their back pockets well and truly spent.

He was still the consummate businessman, though, and had managed to sell the hotel off to a local consortium before it became a liability. The consortium failed to make a go of it, as far as I know.

But long before all that happened, I had made some memories. With any luck, and some bubblings from the dormant depths of my recall, there may yet be a few more Valentia Chronicles.


*NOTE: An absorbing and comprehensive account of the history of the Atlantic Cable & Submarine Telegraphy is available here

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