“Everyone knew Tommy,” said Sister Margaret Fogarty, when recalling her late brother who, for decades, was woven into the social fabric of the Tannery Town of Portlaw.
Sr Margaret, whose marvellous work through finance charity Clann Credo was highlighted in this publication two weeks ago, was spot on.
Everyone knew Tommy, one of life’s gentlemen, a man who never wore a long face, even for a millisecond, behind his shop counter. And everyone who knew him was delighted and now in retrospect, privileged to have been in his acquaintance.
A trip to Tommy’s (that is how the shop was always known), just over the bridge leading into Portlaw, is one of the many wonderful memories that any child of ‘The Village’ can instantly relate to.
Long before the buggy/wheelchair-friendly ramp and electronic sliding door which now graces the shop front was installed, the steps into the old store presented a mighty obstacle for a nipper.
When you’re five or six years of age, the world around you seems all the more gargantuan and fascinating: and the steps into Tommy’s were no exception, particularly for those of short strided ilk.
That inevitable time in a boy’s life, when he feels he can manoeuvre in public without his mother or elder sibling’s hand, was put to the test by those steps.
But the prospect of a treat awaiting beyond the wooden doors at ‘the summit’, where a treasure trove of deliciousness awaited, was all the motivation a chiseler required.
Once inside, beyond the front window display (regularly adorned by mansize tissues and bleach), a sharp left positioned you in front of the counter, beneath which lay a fridge full of dairy products.
For some reason, blocks of ‘Cookeen’ displayed within that glowing receptacle of freshness remain vivid in this former Portlaw child’s mind.
Beyond the counter, behind Tommy himself lay the serious business, a sumptuously arranged gallery of sugar-coated greats: Macaroon, Big Time, Dib Dab, Mint Crisp and of course, the mighty Mars bar, etc.
The fruit beyond the counter’s edge wasn’t of great interest, as one can imagine – that was something for the grown ups to consider when leafing through their weekly shopping list.
Short-stepping it down towards the end of the shop, where a window faced onto Bridge Street, Tommy’s meat slicer sat atop a shelf, underneath which were stacked cans of exotic soft drinks, such as Lilt.
Situated next to both was the freezer, a hulking chunk of steel from which many a birthday party menu was arranged.
If memory serves correctly, a large tray of freshly delivered bread from the bakery around the corner, often sat on top of it.
Next to that lay the door which led into the Fogarty home and beside it lay the shop’s most fascinating feature, a Narnia-like haven from which there was nothing Tommy couldn’t lay his hands on.
With shelving which appeared to ascend into the heavens, this well-stocked ‘cubby-hole’ was the answer to every Mammy and Granny’s grocery needs (men folk didn’t do much shopping ‘back in the day’).
A child’s memory, being somewhat at odds with reality of course, recalls Tommy, happily humming a tune he hummed every day, striding into the cubby-hole, almost disappearing from sight in pursuit of produce.
And he always came back with the required item. Always.
“He was an extraordinary man, a great man for the people of Portlaw,” said Margaret, during an aside in our interview that helped stir so many great memories.
“When I was in school, I used to work in the shop in the summers and there was a lot of poverty around. And I remember well the way people used to talk when they came into the shop.
“It would go along the lines of: ‘Tommy, could I have four ounces of bacon for Johnny’s dinner’.
“And Tommy would go into the store to cut it and I often saw him coming out, and he’d have the bacon in butter paper and he might say ‘That was the tail end, there’s a pound and a half in and it, but I’ll only charge you for the four ounces. And inside me, I knew perfectly well what he was doing.”
A proud Margaret added: “Tommy knew the women coming in needed to feed their families. He gave people their dignity, one of the greatest things one human being can give another.”
There was scarcely a week that went by that Tommy didn’t drop something extra into the grocery box of any of his customers, which has often led me to question how he ever balanced his books!
He had a heart every ounce as big as his giving nature, a far cry from the collective conscience of the money-grabbing multiples that dominate the Ireland of today. He was, quite simply, like so many of his generation, a magnificent community man.
Tommy Fogarty passed away in November 2005, but to all who knew him, to all who benefited from his generosity and to all who tackled those big steps in childhood, he shall never be forgotten.