Roddy L’Estrange: Frightening call spoils Vinny’s ’phone box vigil

Burly bus driver’s public-spirited action backfires with a vengeance

It was eight foot three inches tall, almost 90 years old and stood, sentry-like, at the junction of Vernon Avenue and the Clontarf Road.

Like many octogenarians, the telephone box had seen better days but it remained ram-rod straight and its hinges were regularly oiled – often by folk who were regularly oiled themselves.

Coloured cream, with green borders, it was emblazoned with ‘Telefon’ at the top and ‘P + T’ across the bottom.

It had begun life at the original Clontarf railway station, close to Harry Byrne’s pub on the Howth Road, and had been relocated to its present pitch in 1955 after the station closed.


As one of the few working phone boxes in Dublin, its presence was a source of civic pride to Clontarf folk, none more so than Vinny Fitzpatrick, who once snogged Oonagh Birththistle in its enclosures after a disco in 'The Grove.'

(After pressing Button A with Oonagh, he had tried his luck with Button B but got short-changed).

So when the burly bus driver heard Eircom were being asked by politicians to remove all phone boxes in the city, on the claim they were attracting anti-social elements, he raged.

“They took away our trams only to start digging up the streets 50 years later; they are charging us to drink water, and as for closing down our railways, don’t get me started,” he muttered through gritted teeth in Foley’s.

“Our box not only serves its purpose in a community where a lot of folk don’t use a mobile phone, but it is a relic of aul decency, and should have a preservation order attached to it.There’s only one thing for it, lads, it’s time to stage a vigil.”

Natural breaks

On Tuesday morning, as Clontarf got back into the swing of things after the Bank Holiday, Vinny and the boys arrived for battle – Vinny called them his smooth operators.

He had decided to spend 12 hours in the box, not including natural breaks, and for the times when the phone might actually be needed.

Standing guard on four-hour shifts were Fran and Macker, Brennie and Two-Mile Boris, and Dial-A-Smile and Charlie Vernon, whose flowering relationship was the talk of Foley's.

It was Charlie’s idea to offer a free white tee-shirt, complete with the words ‘Keep Clontarf Connected’ and an image of the phone box, to anyone who signed a petition in support of their cause.

“If we can get a couple of hundred signatures, it will spook the local councillors,” observed Charlie.

Vinny was chuffed that his pals had signed up for duty. For too long, he felt, folk accepted their lot from the well-greased hands of the city apparatchiks and allowed themselves to be trodden underfoot.

Not any more, certainly not where the Clontarf community was concerned. Already, the locals had scored a victory by preserving the view from their prized promenade. Now, it was time for round two of Clontarf versus City Hall.

At nine o’clock, Vinny squeezed his considerable frame into the claustrophobic confines of the box. It was standing room only, with no seats on top.

The box was kept clean of graffiti and carried a whiff of lavender.

The silver phone apparatus, complete with blue and orange Eircom logos, was affixed to the side facing the door. It had a narrow slot for phone cards as the days of coinage were long gone.

Railway station

Vinny wondered what stories the box could tell, from its time on the platform on Clontarf railway station through 60 years overlooking the seafront. “I bet this place has seen and heard it all,” he said to himself.

Vinny had the Racing Post for company, along with two apples, two bananas and a large bag of boiled sweets.

Aware his waterworks were not as securely sealed as they once were, he nipped out for a pee at 11.15, and another at 2.0, when he wolfed down a toasted cheese sarnie, and a purple snack, in Foley’s.

He then kept tabs on the racing from Brighton and Ripon through his mobile, which he thought sort of contradicted their cause, and was glad he’d passed up on a bet.

For every passer-by who stopped to gawk, Vinny smiled and gave them the thumbs-up.

At one point, Gladys Dalrymple of the Clontarf Choristers, who was almost as venerable as the phone box itself, arrived with a slab of Madeira Cake from Bunters Café.

“You can’t protest on an empty stomach, young Vincent,” she trilled.

As the clock ticked past eight, Vinny’s trotters ached and the prospect of a seat, and a slurp of stout, was all that sustained him. He felt like Crisp in the run-in to the ’73 Grand National; legless.

He popped his head out and asked Charlie to fetch a stool from Foley’s to get him past the post.

On balance, he felt the protest had been worthwhile. The lads had collected 270 signatures of support although the fact the phone box had been used just twice for a call may come back to haunt them, he suspected.

The fuzz

It was then, against the odds, that the phone rang, and the box seemed to convulse with the shock.

Vinny sat upright. “What the Dickens,” he said aloud

As the ringing tone pinged out, Vinny gingerly picked up the receiver. “Hello,” he said with a hint of apprehension.

“Well, well Fat Boy, isn’t it time you waddled off home for your saucer of milk,” snarled a guttural voice that caused Vinny to freeze.

It was Lugs O’Leary.

“Seems that knock on the head didn’t bring you to your senses. I’ve got the fuzz crawling all over me and they’re making me itchy.

“The way I see it, I’m not going to take the rap for decking a blobby goon like you. If I’m going down, it’s gonna have to be for something, shall we say, more permanent?

“To hell with court orders, I’m coming for you Fat Boy. Coming for you, like a thief in the night. Do ye hear me?”

At that, Vinny dropped the handset, and tottered outside. Suddenly he felt all alone and very, very, frightened.