Roddy L’Estrange: Vinny keeps friends close and his secret closer

Stories are told and songs are sung as Mr Clontarf makes his final journey

When Dial-A-Smile asked for volunteers to carry Old Man Foley's coffin, six hands shot up at once. To a man, the lads held Old Man Foley in the highest esteem. "To serve him, as he served us, would be an honour," cried Vinny Fitzpatrick, raising his pint aloft.

Fonsie Foley, who presided over Clontarf’s finest watering hole, just off Vernon Avenue, had pulled his last pint, aged 93. A short illness, which curtailed him to his private quarters above the pub, signalled last orders for a Clontarf legend.

Fonsie first saw the light of day on August 22, 1922. It was the day Michael Collins was shot and the year the State was founded, as he was fond of telling newcomers to the pub.

Fonsie was a broad-shouldered bear of a man, with a white shock of hair, square jaw and a hooked nose. His handshake was fierce, and was to be avoided, for he liked to crush the fingers of the unwary.


Vinny first got to know Old Man Foley through his Da, and was only 10 when he first entered the pub’s dark, cool recesses to see Everton play West Brom in the 1968 FA Cup final on the only telly in the neighbourhood.

Old Man Foley had cuffed Vinny around his ears when he cheekily asked for a pint of shandy at 14; yet years later, would joyously join the crew for ‘lock-ins’.

Fonsie took immense pride in the reputation of his pint and would unhesitatingly offer a full refund if any punter wasn’t happy with the pour. For him, clean pipes were vital to proper porter and the pints he pulled weren’t just plain, they were perfect.

Solemn occasion

On Monday morning, Vinny and the lads joined half of Clontarf, it seemed, for the short march from the pub. The morning was a belter. “Perfect for stoking up a thirst,” thought Vinny before checking himself, for this was a solemn occasion.

At the church, the lads arranged themselves either side of the coffin, Vinny and Fran linked arms behind Charlie Vernon and Macker, while Brennie and Two-Mile Boris held the rear.

“This man carried us out of the pub when we could hardly stand; let’s take him nice and steady,” ordered Vinny.

The church was jammers, for Fonsie Foley was Mr Clontarf, but there was space for the lads near the top right, along with Fonsie’s surviving sister, Mamie, and a clatter of nephews and nieces, some grand, others not so grand.

Fonsie had never married, yet a clue to his bachelor life lay in a framed photo, placed atop his coffin, along with a pack of cards, a copy of the Racing Post and a putter. The grainy photo had pride of place behind the bar in Foley's and was often the subject of debate. Just who was the Rita Hayworth lookalike?

Therein lay a secret, which Vinny knew about because his Da disclosed it to him. Improbably, for he possessed a wagging tongue, Vinny had told no one. The mysterious woman was from Kerry. Her name was Rosie and she’d met Fonsie when he was on holiers in Ballybunion in the early 50s.

They were engaged to be married when Rosie became pregnant. In those puritan days, pregnancy outside wedlock was more than a venial sin, so Fonsie took Rosie under his wing in the pub where he watched over her.

In May 1955, Fonsie arranged for Rosie to have the baby in the local Brigidine Convent and it was there that tragedy struck as mother and infant died. A broken Fonsie Foley never set his eyes, or his heart, on another again.

That was a story which Fr Leo Lavelle didn’t recall in his homily for Fonsie, and nor would Vinny later, no matter how many pints were swilling around.

The service went smoothly, as did the cremation in Glasnevin Cemetery where the family selected two pieces of big band music from Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman to see Fonsie off on his final journey.

Back in Foley’s, the stories flowed, along with the pints, and doorstep-sized sandwiches of cooked ham, cheese and mustard were munched. “Simple pleasures are the best,” thought Vinny. It was late in the evening when the sing-song kicked off, slowly at first but one by one, Old Man Foley’s friends took the floor.

Voice never quavered

When it came to Vinny's turn, he chose a lament which he knew the late publican loved, The Green Fields Of France. Throwing his head back, Vinny gave it socks. He always had a decent baritone and at 57, could still hold a note. Verse by verse, his voice never quavered.

Did you leave a wife or a sweetheart

behind, in some faithful heart is your

memory enshrined.

Although you died back in 1916, in that

faithful heart are you forever 19

Or are you a stranger without even a

name, enclosed then forever behind a

glass frame

In an old photograph torn, battered and

stained, and faded to yellow in a brown

leather frame.

It was moving stuff, and Vinny carried on. His eyes were closed tightly, he rocked forward and back, and sang like he had never sung before, immersed in concentration.

Did they beat the drum slowly did they

play the fife lowly

Did they sound the death march as they

lowered you down

Did the band play the last post and


Did the pipes play the flowers of

the forest.

At the end, he dropped his huge head, wiped the beads of sweat from his brow and took a moment or two to compose himself. He hoped he had done Fonsie Foley proud.

He opened his eyes to find the bar was empty. There was nothing, bar a mobile phone, placed on a nearby stool, which was trained on him. “Ye shower of lousers,” he roared.