Dan Gallagher, 87: ‘I go to Mass every morning, partly to see who’s still alive’

Photograph: John D Kelly

Photograph: John D Kelly


In conversation with Rosita Boland: Dan Gallagher is a retired civil servant. He lives in Thurles, Co Tipperary

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I grew up in Waterford city. I had two brothers who died in infancy, one a few weeks old, and one who was three, so I ended up an only child. My father worked in the railways. He died of TB in 1932, shortly after my second brother died of meningitis. Then there was only my mother and me. Her name was Bridget, but everyone called her Binny.

Losing my brothers and my father when I was a child made me very much of a loner. Subconsciously, I didn’t want to have any close relationships. My poor mother, I think she had several suitors, but she never remarried.

My mother was a dressmaker. All she needed to work was a sewing machine, and she was very good at it. It allowed her to be independent. There were several times I got up in the morning to go to school and she might have been up all night finishing off some dress someone needed in a hurry.

There were no mass-produced clothes in those days. The people who got their clothes made were reasonably comfortably off; farming people, people who had shops. My mother supplied Robinsons of Waterford – it’s Shaws now – with dresses for Communion and Confirmation. She made my Communion suit, and my Confirmation suit.

I’m a Pioneer. I saw too many men absolutely foolish at wakes when I was a child. Since there was nobody else to mind me, I had to go with my mother to the wakes, and I saw all the various stages of inebriation. I took the pledge, but I couldn’t have afforded to drink either. I saw too many marriages broken up because of drink and too many women hesitant about why they were still in their marriages.

I went to be an apprentice accountant in a bakery, O’Briens. I was there several years and then I realised I would have to pay about £3,000 to be an articled accountant, and it was money we didn’t have. So I was Joe Soap selling bread behind the counter, and doing the accounts for the vans out on the road. There were five horse-drawn bread vans, and 15 motorvans. They went up as far as Wicklow. But I realised it was a dead end job and I left.

I had different jobs; a clerk in a garage, selling clothes on the never never. I studied sociology and economics at night, two nights a week for three years.

I got a job as a home assistance officer, like what a community welfare officer is now. I met Breda when I was working in Dungarvan. She was my boss’s secretary. Until I got a permanent appointment, I couldn’t have asked anyone to marry me. Money was too precarious before that.

We got married in 1960. Breda had to give up her job when she married me. I think it was the absence of respect for women, whether they were married or not. It was a breaking of a civil right to work.

After 10 years and three children, I was promoted to superintendent for North Tipperary, and we moved to Thurles in 1970. We bought our three-bedroomed bungalow for £4,400.

I think I made a fairly major contribution to the reform of the service I was in. I was secretary of the community welfare officers for the country for the best part of 30 years, invited to join the staff of Siptu and all that kind of thing. I was offered a union job in Dublin, but we would have had to move. We thought about it, but didn’t want to disrupt the children and their schools. So we stayed. It would have been a promotion, but I didn’t go.

In the job I was in, I saw all kinds of people in need of help. Divorce becoming legal here was a good thing. There were so many times I saw women coming in with black eyes and marks on other parts of their bodies.

We tried to do our best for people. We were supposed to be giving an elastic service to the public. We could bend the rules, we could help with clothes for a job interview, or a fare. Have the HSE the flexibility and gumption to do those kind of things these days? The good thing is that I’m not aware of the poverty that was in society 40 years ago. We saw so many who were so poor.

One thing I still can’t get over that has happened in my lifetime is television. It’s taken for granted now, but it was wonderful, even in the very early days of it. And I never thought we would see such development of medicine and medical care.

Breda and I go to Mass every morning, and then we go swimming. We’ve always loved swimming. And then we go and our have lunch out. Every day. It’s our routine.

I do think there’s a very strong possibility that there’s an afterlife of some form. I go to Mass every morning, partly to see who’s still alive, but partly in case there is a hereafter. I suppose you could say I have a bet on both horses. Sometimes I feel like death is the end of it.

It’s a much simpler thought, and in recent years, that’s where I’m coming from. What would I be doing in heaven only playing cards with other people who got in too? But if there is a heaven, there has to be a hell. So I still say my prayers, just in case.

- In conversation with Rosita Boland

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