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Raising the bar for 60 years

Speaking to Mags McGagh, ‘Britain’s oldest barman’ Tommy Grogan, from Mayo, reflects on the changes he has seen in his lifetime.

Next week ‘Britain’s oldest barman’ Tommy Grogan, from Mayo, will celebrate his 89th birthday in his adopted home of Withington in the way he means to continue – by going behind the bar and pulling a few pints.

The South Manchester publican made history in November when he became the longest serving publican in Great Britain.

Tommy, who was born in the Mayo village of Holywell in 1931, will celebrate his 89th birthday on Twelfth Night, the Feast of the Epiphany, on 6 January.

After a career spanning 60 years Tommy can still be found pulling pints several times a week at his pub, The Albert, in Withington, Manchester.

His birth date was quite auspicious, he told me: ‘I was told that on that day it was the first time you could go to a dance in Ireland without being invited.

‘Before this, dances were held in houses to which you had to be invited.

‘There was a tailor from just outside Ballyhaunis who had a row of buildings including the piggery, cowshed, et cetera and up above he had a granary which was boarded out.

‘I believe that the street was packed with people who wanted to get into the dance for a charge of tuppence.

‘I had a very happy childhood. There were three of us me and my two sisters.

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‘I started school at four years old and for the first couple of years I attended school was taught by the nuns, boys and girls were taught together.

‘After this boys and girls were taught separately. Eventually I continued to the tech in Ballyhaunis.

‘We had a small farm at the time so as I got older, I had to help around the place as I was the only son, so I didn’t attend school as much at times.

‘As summer approached and, as the old saying goes “never cast a clout until May is out”, so the first of May would see the shoes coming off for the summer. ‘We would walk to school three miles there and back with not a bother.

‘In those days’ times were hard and there wasn’t a family that wasn’t affected by consumption of TB. Families lost children and I know of families that were wiped out because of it.

‘The women worked very hard in those days and did a great job. There was little work for farmers and the women would have to make things stretch and make do and mend.

‘I don’t know how they did it.

A painting of The Albert.

‘Even though times were hard we also had great fun. We loved to play conkers, but these days children can’t play with them because they might hurt themselves, its mad.

‘We loved to play spinning tops. Some days you could barely walk down the town for all the children out spinning their tops on the foot path.

‘We would also get the wheel of a bicycle and a stick and if you were very lucky you might even get one with the tyre on.

‘That was like a Rolls Royce. You could run for miles without realising it.

‘A lot of the young people, mainly the girls back then would leave home and head off for America, but you had to be “claimed” to get in.

‘My sister who was eighteen months older than me and only sixteen headed off to an aunt out there. I remember that day so clearly. The day she left the taxi pulled up at the gate and there were five other girls all the same age going with her.

‘They headed off to Cobh in Cork for the tenday journey.

‘When I look back it is so sad. She married out there and settled down.

‘It would be thirty years and six months until she returned to Ireland again.

‘The day she came back I was over on holiday and I went to meet her at the airport, we barely recognised each other it was practically a lifetime since we had last seen each other.

‘She is still alive and living in America and has made frequent trips back to Ireland since then.

‘Our mother lived to be over ninety years old and I remember her being interviewed by Paul Claffey from Mid-West Radio.

‘He asked what she put her long life to and she replied “floury spuds and buttermilk” which was true as money was scarce those days.

‘I remember back then families of 14 or 15. As the older ones went off to work the younger ones would have it easier as they older ones would send money and clothes back home for them.

“I left school at thirteen and a half and I started working at the station emptying turf into the train wagons.

‘I then went on to work for a builder Dennis Lyon. Dennis was very good to me.

‘I remember one day I was painting a house in the town and I let the paint pot fall and it went all over the footpath.

‘As paint in those days was like gold, we ended up scraping it up and straining it through a canvas bag.

‘Instead of shouting at me or giving me the sack, he said if you weren’t looking at the girls that wouldn’t have happened! He was a gentleman.

‘From there I went on to work for a man called John who was over from England. We were building houses and things were starting to progress.

‘Houses were being built with toilets in them. I stayed with him until I was 21.

On 15 July 1952 I moved to Manchester. I worked as a joiner and a plasterer and got in at the Royal Exchange and stayed there until I got my first pub.

‘At a weekend all the Irish would meet up at the local dances at the Astoria or the Savoy.

‘In those days during Lent there were no dances in Ireland so all the bands would come over to England which was great for us.

‘One afternoon I was helping out at a popular Irish pub called The Robin. The landlady mentioned that there was a pub called The Crown which was vacant, so I went for an interview and we took on the pub.

‘I married Ann on the Saturday and took over the pub on the Monday.

‘Ann was a wonderful woman. She had worked in a shop in Ireland and was used to handling a till and money, I had no experience of that side of it at all.

‘We began having musicians playing in the pub and it just boomed.

‘We were in the Little Alex pub in Moss Side for seven great years then we were given notice that it was to be demolished.

‘The parish priest of English Martyrs had heard about this and asked us to take on the running of their club for six months, we ended up staying there for twelve years.

‘They were great times at English Martyrs, and we had a wonderful committee. We were like one big happy family with the Higgins, Fishers and us running it.

‘I had the most wonderful friendship with the parish priest Canon Eckbury, we were great friends. When he was tragically killed in an accident, things just weren’t the same.’

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