In this Guest Post Reg Morrow tell us of his time working in Whelan’s Chemist on O’Connell Street in 1959. He takes us on a journey through the city through the eyes of a budding photographer. Reg Morrow has very generously sshared some of his photographs with us on our facebook page.
Three Customers of the Day
Someone shouted out, Reggie would you answer the telephone. All right, I will do it. It seemed to ring forever as I hurried down the shop, to confront the black icon. Positioned in a place of reverence back in the fifties. I picked up the receiver.
“Hello Whelan’s Chemist.”
“Can I speak to Mr Whelan” the caller said.
I brought all my telephone skills to the fore;
“He is not in at the moment.”
The caller asked me about the weather, was it a fine day. He told me, every time he came to Limerick it rained. He seemed a jovial chap, I thought.
“Will you tell Mr Whelan to ring me straight away?”
“I will, straight away when he comes back in” and I put the receiver down. When Mr Whelan returned, I told him he had a telephone call.
“Will you ring him back?”
“What’s his name Reggie?”
“Sorry, I did not ask.”
“Oh, let’s have his telephone number then.”
“I forgot to ask him.”
“You forgot to ask. You clown. Did they teach you anything at that school you went to?”
The look on Mr Whelan’s face, it was like he was being tortured. Nobody talked to me that afternoon, only to tell me to go and get a jug of coffee from the boss’s kitchen at the top of the building. Mr Murnane (Gus) gave me a smile in passing. I took it to mean, it’s not the end of the world, and tomorrow is another day.
Mrs Whelan had taken some lady across to the Stella Café just across the road, for afternoon tea, which was one of her regular trips. Mr Murnane was out the back in the dispensary. On my own again, in came two young ladies, they came up to the counter.
“Hello ladies” I said.
They started to giggle to each other; I noted redness in one of the faces.
“Sanitary Towels” they exclaimed. By then they were falling about laughing.
Oh Shit. Here we go again. Why is it always me I thought.
“That’s Mrs Whelan’s department” I said.
They were having none of it; These two girls were going to give me an education, and a run for my money, and embarrass the hell out of this young kid they had confronted. They could not control themselves, if any other customers came in, they would wonder what the hell was going on. Here I am trying to be a serious man of the world at fifteen. I did my best to keep my composer, but inside I was an innocent young lad struggling. I made my sale, wrapped the items and both young ladies went on their merry way, still giggling.
I bet they told the city about the young kid in the chemist, and all their pals would be told that evening. Why can’t people just come in and buy a film for their camera or just buy a camera. It was the photographic side that was my forte.
My next customer was the best ever. Lady comes to me wanting some baby powder.
“Talcum powder” I enquired.
“Yes” she said.
I put some Johnsons baby talc in front of her. What soap would you recommend for baby. I put some Johnsons baby soap on the counter, and shampoo. I went straight to Johnsons baby shampoo, after a little chat, she asked me if my boss was in.
“Yes, Mrs Whelan I will get her.”
It must be something adult she wants, I thought, so I excused myself, and carried on with some tidying and dusting in the photographic section. It transpired the lady was a mystery shopper representing Johnsons products and the shop was awarded twenty pounds. I was the best in the world that day in August 1959. I never got any free samples, but it made up for my telephone disaster.
Everyday life in Whelan’s Chemist
My sister Rose worked next door at the A.P.C.K. bookshop. We often saw each other during the day and at lunch time break and she would enquire of her young brother, how my day was going, it was nice to have a big sister keeping a look out for the baby in the family, this she did all my childhood and beyond. I would come to work with her, both cycling our bikes in from Dooradoyle. We would meet up again at the end of the working day and cycle back home.
Sometimes we would go in her car to town, a little blue Fiat 500 convertible, the only one in Limerick, it was left hand drive, brought back from Italy. It’s previous owner may have been in the church, it came from a garage in Hospital, County Limerick, she was half owner of this with my elder brother Cecil. This little car was around Limerick for years, what a joy on a summer’s day with its roof down, and the sun shining on you.
“Mr Murnane, can I call you Gus today.”
“What are you doing with that white coat” he was always dressed in a white coat, and as always looked so immaculate. But today he was struggling with his clean coat, trying to get his arms down the sleeves.
“Too much robin starch this time Gus, you look a bit stiff in that, are you modelling that coat for the Good Shepherd Laundry? You are looking very white and starched today Gus.”
A nice man, a native of Kilkee our Gus Murnane, he would always give me a smile as he passed me. All is well with the world I thought. He had a lovely manner; He would talk to customers in detail about their conditions, giving advice and treatment for their ailments. I would meet my old work colleague from time to time on visits to Limerick. In latter years he was working in Ferguson’s chemist.
Learning to capture Limerick
Months followed and I was getting very proficient with a camera, into developing and printing and developing colour film. I was able to use all sorts of cameras, some great old names, mostly all German the quality and the workmanship took some beating. Leica was always well up on the list, the connoisseurs camera. Canon was starting to come on the market.
I would be sent out on photographic assignments with a Rollei around my neck and I was still only sixteen. The Rolleiflex and the Rolleicord were the tools of the photographic trade back then, one or two people had Hasselblads not German this time, film changes could be very swift with this camera, with its pre-loaded film magazine.
I think I photographed ever thing, you name it, I did it, from the top of Rank’s silo’s on the Dock road, getting a panoramic view of the city, with the Clare hills featuring in the background, and great photographs of O’Connell street, taken from the roof top of the Crescent hall, I still wonder to myself how I got permission to go on the roof tops back then, I would ask and never be refused by my Limerick folk, god bless you all, a nice memory to have tucked away. To better any of these photographs, I would have had to get an aeroplane from Coonagh airfield to take me up and over the city.
I would use 16mm cine for football matches and parades, the bigger format had its advantages for quality and depth, 8mm was for the amateur, but I still had some good results with 8mm. I made a full cine film covering Todds great fire and later its demolition, When they used a helicopter to attach wire hawsers to the structure and bulldozers would pull the building inwards. Limerick came to a stand still that day, the helicopter worked out from the L.P.Y.M.A sports ground, back and forth all day.
Some weeks later, I covered a special service at the Dominican church in Glentworth Street, up by Tait’s clock. Then war broke out, all Limerick knew about me the following morning, and a priest came into the shop to relay their disgust with me. I did not bow, genuflect, as I crossed in front of the alter. It was the crowning of a special statue, the church was packed out, people were standing in the aisles, and I had a large audience that day to see my blunder. The photographs turned out brilliant, but nobody mentioned this, more interest was on the blunder I made.
That was like the time I went up on the stage at the Savoy Theatre, I was wearing my school uniform and cap; I was enjoying myself as a child would. But the next morning at school assembly hell broke loose. Just because I was wearing my school uniform or was it that I still had my cap on in the theatre. Some weeks later I was seen eating an ice cream cone outside Woolworths in my school uniform. Who were doing all the spying back then, and the telling of tales, more hell to pay at assembly? Did we all walk the streets of Limerick in fear in those days? I wish some would walk the streets in fear today.
Another Job for teenage Reggie
In the winter evenings and as Christmas came closer, I would show movie pictures 16mm sound. I would go to hotels to special functions, showing some very interesting films, made by Shell Oil, mostly to motor dealers and garage fraternity. I would be asked to show a film at the Mount Convent for the young children, this was always special to me. I did this on numerous occasions, I was always well received by the nuns. To this day I have great respect for some of these nuns, the special ones, who played an important role in these children’s lives; But I do hope that they were able to show some love and kindness to those vulnerable young people less fortunate than other children, like those who had their Mothers and Fathers with them to enjoy Christmas.
The film would be Jerry Lewis; I often thought Jerry Lewis was a little bit too adult for such young people. I often wonder today where some of those children finished up. I do hope they have done well, and are happy adults.
I must make some more detailed enquires into the Mount Convent, its past and its ethos as a place back then, but I do hope some good was done. I wish there could be some truth here, but maybe some little girl did find her true aspirations in her journey to adulthood, but that’s for later after I have made some thorough enquiries.
Then I would do the rounds of the county set, more movies for the younger generation. I was always on the go. I think my mother only saw me at breakfast time. One Christmas day I never saw her at all. Did I get any extra pay for my endeavours, sorry no, that was never discussed? In those days, back in 1959, you had to be grateful for your one pound ten shillings a week.
Other Businesses in the Building
But on reflection, some of the girls, sorry young ladies, who worked in Richard’s Ladies Hair salon within the building, they had to pay Richard one pound ten shillings for the privilege to work for him, a learning and working apprenticeship. The posh ladies of Limerick always referred to it as going to Richaaard’s.
The final insult, if Richard did not like your name say Myra or Margaret, they would change it to Heather and Dorothy. When I met Myra outside on the street I would always greet her with, what’s your name today then, young lady. I would get a quick smile from her, I took it to mean, Get lost you little twerp.
Where on earth did these people get these strange ideas? I think Richard had a few months in a London Hair salon; but that same place was popular with the ladies of Limerick back then. It was fun to see the coming and going, and the headscarf types like Princess Margaret. I suppose the scarf was to protect the new hairstyle.
Also within the building you had Ryan’s self-drive car rentals, you would meet a lot of American tourists on the stairway when you were milling about. Timothy Baker was in the shop again today, not as a customer, but as a budding film director, he would have me enthralled and I would listen without saying a word, a bright and clever young man. He would be giving me all the details of his new script he had written, he would be giving me all the instructions how he wanted it to be filmed.
“Hello Mr Whelan.”
“When will you lads be going to Hollywood then?”
I think John Ford the director of the Quiet Man made a lasting impression on our Timothy. Cinema was a big part of our lives back then, but Tim Baker had a hidden talent to be a film director. Later he moved to England, we never did make our film.
The Beginning of the End
I got into colour developing 35mm transparencies; people bought slide projectors and would have their own slide shows at home. A customer who frequented the shop Tony Ryan asked me if I would take some photographs of a bike race around the North Circular Road circuit that was been held on the coming Sunday.
My eldest brother Cecil was taking part, I took a lot of photographs that day, some of my brother Cecil and a lot more besides, I always tried to get in with the camera, getting the spokes blurred to show speed and also to pan the camera to get the background blurred. This is a great way to show speed and action.
The following sequence of events was my downfall, when Tony Ryan saw the pictures of the bike race he was more than pleased. I charged him what it cost me to have his film developed and printed. Retail commerce was my weakness then, and my stumbling block that day.
Mr Whelan was not too happy with what I had done. Oh Hell. I was suspended from work for a day. Here you are at sixteen years old going on seventeen trying to make a go of things. Working all hours god sends. If it did not suit him, a telling off would be more appropriate. I took these photographs on a Sunday my day off work, with my own camera.
When you are sixteen you have not developed the skills to plead your case and your vocabulary is limited, so you take it on the chin from your peers. To be suspended still comes into my mind today, what a way to be treated, a bit like my old headmaster. That same man would always inform me, you will end up sweeping the streets boy, this I have never forgotten, whether this is good or bad teaching I can not say, especially from a man of the cloth. Are these people only happy being in charge and in control, I ask myself? On been suspended, I really don’t know if it was my pride or my spirit that was broken back then, over fifty years ago.
To this day if I ever go and visit or stay in any place grand or important, I always try and borrow a sweeping brush and have my photograph taken sweeping the steps to these grand properties, to the amusement and amazement of the people around me. I am doing this for my old headmaster folks, I would inform the people around me.
My late Mother had the sweeping habit as well, you would drop by to see her and lo and behold there she would be in the yard with the sweeping brush in her hand, greeting you with a big hello and the brush in action, it must be a family thing, in the genes. But any person I actually see sweeping the streets, I have great admiration for those people and my heartfelt gratitude, tiding up the dross from our throwaway society.
I remember telling an old friend of mine many years ago, tales of my youth and young adulthood, my pal has since passed away; we would have some great chats about Limerick in my younger days. If anyone upset him, he always used to say to me, put it down to experience and go on my boy.
Thank you for that, old buddy. I agree with you.
Months later, I did move on, helping out other professional photographers in the city, Michael Martin with weddings. Paddy O’Connell at Gay Photos his premises were over Gaywear the ladies fashion house.
For many years I had passed Whelan’s chemist often but never ventured in. Since I started writing this article, guess what, I have been into Whelan’s Cameras for a good look around for old time sake, it’s changed somewhat, I can now say I have walked the floor of my past 55 years ago.
The Camera lived On
I took photographs in the George Hotel, Cruises Hotel this hall and that hall. I am sure the people of Limerick don’t know how many halls they have in their city, and not forgetting the Stella Ballroom and St. John’s Pavilion, I wonder how it got its title. Whenever I took my camera to these places, the doormen would just wave me through.
In my younger years, I was always out and about the town. I had friend’s everywhere. The Showband Era was making its presence at the dance halls. We would all meet up at the Café Capri or at the Savoia Cafe and make our plans over chips and coffee and play a few records on the juke box, and remember lads, don’t ask for sausage and chips on a Friday, the waitress will play hell with you, this happened to us on numerous occasions.
Going to the cinema had to be planned in detail days ahead, sometimes we would trail around all the cinema’s to be met with large queues, the Royal the Lyric, Carlton, the Grand Central and the premier place The Savoy, a must on a Sunday night. If you had a bit of extra cash you could book a seat in the balcony on Sunday night only.
When I walked up or down O’Connell Street. I would visit the Limerick Leader office, chat to Earl Connelly, some great photographs in the window this week Earl. The Leader had their own Photographer, and then on to Jim O’Carroll of pirate radio fame who was into cinema big time. I would hire cine-projectors and screens from him when I had a film show engagement to do.
I will always remember him telling me about people using the hallway above his basement premises as a toilet and getting urine down the wall into his basement, and placing a metal corrugated sheet with an electric current running through it, in the hall above to surprise the culprits…what a surprise to get, the shock would turn you off drink for life. At that time we had the Finn Brothers Studio in Catherine Street. Richardson’s Studio was down near Todds, she later moved her Studio to Shannon Street on the corner with O’Connell Street that may have been due to Todds fire. I went to school with Mrs Richardson’s son Freddie, what a character, I wonder if he has changed any? I hope not.
Everyone knew of Franks Snaps, his photographers were in the dance halls night after night. They displayed photographs they had taken in large glass showcases outside the premises. The young ladies of Limerick gathered in their droves to spot them selves. Next to Mulligans, one of my favourite shops as a child and the rail ticket shop British Rail was Limericks premier photographic studio Egleston Brothers; they displayed their work in the hall entrance to the studio. Always some stunning work on display, their portrait work was the crème de la crème of photography, the detail and the lighting was always right.
I hope you have noticed, I have saved the best till last. At Fergusons chemist corner the barrow girls had a fruit stall. I was always chatting to them. I took some photographs of them all looking smart in their Sunday best, not beside the fruit barrow this time. Some family thought and said, I should be doing something better in my life. My Mother would always say to them Anthony Armstrong Jones takes photographs. If it’s all right for him, it’s all right for our Reggie. A Mothers word has a final ring too it, don’t you think.