That Jack Burtchaell is a great talker comes as no great surprise. He’s been informing strolling tourists about the history of Waterford on our city’s streets for the past 19 years, making him arguably the most recognisable face in town.
Jack, who picked up the ‘Heritage Individual’ award at last week’s Munster Express/Dooley’s Hotel Heritage & Culture Awards, is a passionate advocate of local history.
Having put himself through university thanks to extended tours on the west coast, Jack eventually found employment at the Burren centre in Kilfenora. And while he found the work enjoyable, a problem emerged.
“By this stage, Carmel and I were getting married,” said Jack over a cup of tea in the Granary.
“I had a job in Clare and Carmel who’s from Monaghan, had a job here in Waterford. We did the sums and we knew it couldn’t work if Carmel moved to Clare because there was no work at all for her up there.
“So we decided that she should keep her job here, which she still has, tracing ancestry for Waterford Genealogy and I’d come back and start the walking tour here.
“At the start, the business was pretty tiny and it was several years before it paid me any sort of decent money: I’d nearly have been better off on the dole for three years.”
While the prospect of doing something else remained with Jack for a while, the walking tour bug soon began to bite deep. Almost two decades later, he’s still walking and talking around historic Waterford. He’s clearly happy with his lot.
“When a bus load comes in here for 10 days, I want to make walking the streets of Waterford the best feature of their time in Ireland. And that’s what drives me on.”
The walking tour business began to pick up after a friendly conversation with two coach drivers that had ferried tourists into the city.
“Coach tours didn’t do walking tours at the time,” Jack continued.
“I approached these two chaps, they found me to be a nice enough sort of fella so they told the people on the tour that after dinner I’d be in the lobby to bring them on a tour if they were interested. Most of them did and the feedback, right from the off, was very good.”
Within months, CIE Tours had contacted Jack to ask if he’d be willing to have his tour included in their Waterford itinerary.
“I said ‘of course’ and once I appeared on the itinerary with one tour operator, all of a sudden there was credibility and other tour operators began to contact me. The result is that now, almost all the tours that come this way, include the walking tour.”
That the tour became and remains such a success is enormously gratifying to its creator.
“I see it as a great achievement that from something that started at zero, it’s now rated up there along with the major tourist attractions,” he said proudly. “It’s a great sense of personal achievement.”
But even the happiest of tales comes with a ‘but’ in the narrative. “Now it’s a huge nuisance in that you’ve no free time. I don’t get to go to hurling matches and a lot of other things I’d like to get to: things like weddings, christenings, 21st and anniversaries all go by the wayside when you’re self-employed.
“Now people think when you’re self-employed, you’re your own boss: you’re not. When you’re self-employed, everybody is your boss, every supplier is your boss and you don’t want to let anyone down.”
Peak tourist season coincides with another of Jack Burtchaell’s consuming passions – the Hurling Championship but he still does his best to keep abreast of the ash clashers.
“I make it a golden rule every year that I’m going to go to the All-Ireland. If possible, I try and go to the Munster and Leinster finals too but I generally don’t get to those two; those plans are usually discarded because of a last minute tour being booked.
Laughing, Jack added: “Carmel tapes the summer games for me and I watch them on Monday mornings at six or seven in the morning before I go to work. It’s a form of lunacy but what harm?”
For man used to 13-hour days around now, Jack has no problem when it comes to switching off.
“I’d have a chat with the bus driver or the guide or go for a few pints in Flynn’s, my local in Ferrybank. During the winter, I read a lot and I go for a lot of walks in the countryside – on the Barrow towpath, up into the Comeraghs, up around Inistioge or down to the Hook. I love walking.”
So take us through your working day, Jack. “During the high season, I’d be leaving the house most mornings to do a tour at eight o’clock, which seems like an ungodly hour to us but to an American tourist, that’s a long time after breakfast and they’re wondering why nobody in Ireland is up!
“I’d finish the last tour generally around 9.15, 9.30 at night and while each day varies, most of my days around this time of year are 13-hour days.
“When you go home, you’re tired alright. There’s a lot of talking and shouting to do; the walking is not so difficult, it’s not a huge distance. But as the city quietens down at night, it does get a little bit easier without the construction noise or traffic noise, particularly traffic noise on a wet day.”
The one-hour long tour’s content largely depends on the nationality of the group.
“British people are not the same as French people and American people are not the same as Canadians, so I choose from a menu of different features in the city. Every tour will see the two Cathedrals and the four major national monuments.
“But depending on where the pick-up is, which hotel or what the nationality is, other things can come on the menu for that tour.
He continued: “Groups also have variable interests. All the companies do special itineraries for groups – it might be wildlife, architecture, folklore or botany, for example. You learn all the time and you’ll never know it all. And sure the day you stop learning, you’ll start to get rusty, cobwebbed and all that. But I still enjoy it.”
Jack Burtchaell offered an interesting insight into his day-to-day work and saluted the flexibility of the hospitality trade. “If other businesses were as flexible as the hotel businesses, this country would be much more successful, he asserted.
“For example, when people hear AA Roadwatch, most instantly think about the Ferrybank Dual Carriageway or the Cork Road. But I listen to it for the ring road around Cork, the Youghal bypass, the Red Cow in Dublin – any delays there can affect the time that people arrive in Waterford.
“That affects the dinner time in the hotel, the arrival time, the baggage time, the walking time. Because of that, there’s a constant communication between me, the hotel receptionists, duty managers and so on – and that happens a lot, but we all cope with this very well. It works.
“Personal relationships build up because of this communication and trust is developed. If I promise to have a group back to a hotel for six at dinner, I’ll have them back at six because you can’t sit two people in the one seat.
Jack said there was no denying the dip in tourist numbers following the closure of Waterford Crystal.
“Now there’s been a drop in numbers caused by the recession anyway,” he stated.
“There’s also a drop of in numbers due to the weak Dollar vis a vis the Euro and even though the prices here haven’t gone up, in terms of exchanging money from either the Sterling or Dollar areas, we are more expensive than we were last year.
“As well as that, our ‘Premiership team’ so to speak, was Waterford Crystal and the rest of us in tourism in Waterford lived on the splashes of that great wave and we had it easy for a long time. Other cities and towns had to work extremely hard to get tourists.
“Waterford tourists emerged from the woodwork because everybody had heard about the Crystal – now that’s no longer the case.
“We’re going to suffer because of that but we now need to pull together as a team and get the word out there that we have more to Waterford than crystal – now the crystal was great, but there’s more to us than that and we have to push it.”
Plotting the way forward, Jack said the city’s rich heritage must now be pushed firmly to the centre stage.
“Waterford has some of the best historic fabric left of any city in Ireland – walls, towers, abbeys, a fantastic museum and beautiful unspoiled Georgian architecture,” he said.
“In the past, people may have come because of the crystal, but they remembered Waterford because of the history and that’s why I’ve been successful for the past 19 years. This has to become central to the whole city’s ethos.”
When asked what was the best single thing about his job, Jack Burtchaell couldn’t select one particular element above another and offered the following reply instead.
“I enjoy what I do,” he said. “I enjoy having Waterford up there with the likes of the Cliffs of Moher and the Giants Causeway as the most enjoyable experience in Ireland for the people I bring around.
“One of the best things funny enough is down to the fact that I’m a contrary kind of a devil. I can look in the mirror in the morning and tell the boss to ‘eff off’ and I can’t get fired!”