Jerry Ryan kept our town clean for a good many years. He ran to the shop for the older ladies, gave a hand in the bog, whitewashed, babysat and, if he did take a drink too many, most of us knew why.
There was the time he saved the litter of abandoned kittens from a town bin. Jerry made sure they got a good home. “Sure, they’re like meself,” he said.
The little orphan was one of us, one of our own. Empathy grew into fondness, and in time that fondness became a communal love. Jerry’s family rejected him after his mother died – and while she was alive. He was born in Tipperary in times when unmarried mothers were treated like criminals. The newborn was taken into an orphanage in Dublin. The terrible, awful irony was that Jerry was abused sexually by the clergy from the same church that condemned his mother.
He graduated into a fully-fledged character. Small-town characters are registered by their stories and are cherished.
Jerry was sure he was late for work one July nearly 30 years ago. He pushed his bin-mobile down into the town. He was surprised when Jumbo’s takeaway was very busy at such an early hour of the morning, when even Elvis wouldn’t have mind for a burger.
He had been out for a few drinks with his colleagues from Listowel Urban Council on Saturday afternoon. He had been dispatched to bed at about five or six in the evening, but the impostor clock had him out of the cot just a couple of hours later. His eight in the morning was really eight in the evening. Jerry was sure some of the youngsters had been out all night and warned them to go home to their mothers.
His own mother, Madge, eventually ended up in Dublin, and so it came to pass that Jerry became a Dub. He always supported Dublin against Kerry and wore the blue jersey every time. His great Dublin salute was: “How are you, me auld flower?”
Jerry was transferred to the orphanage in Tralee.
His friend, Tom Bawn Enright, worked with him in the council for many years. He told Tom Bawn he had been sexually abused before his first communion, which at that time took place when the children were as young as seven. He was then still in Dublin.
The small lads were beaten in Tralee. Jerry had a flashback episode in a local pub when he spoke about a boy named Mikey, who he said was struck with a pike and died from his injuries. There is no evidence to date other than Jerry’s recollection.
Jerry was sent out to work on local farms. One of the farmers made him sleep in a bath in a cold shed. He was never given any meat, and the scraps from the farmer’s table were given to the dogs. Jerry had to fight the dogs for food.
Most of the farmers and their neighbours treated him like one of their own. The Porters and the Kellys from Fourhane asked Jerry to become the godfather to their children. Myles Porter wrote on RIP: “Jerry was the most amazing godfather growing up.”
The McElligott family from Rathea loved Jerry. There, he had his own room and the best of food, but most of all he had a home. Jerry stayed for several years until he left for England. He didn’t drink or smoke at that time.
He came back home to Listowel after a few years working as a labourer in London. By then the loneliness and hurt had him on the booze.
Jerry received abuse compensation from the State and he bought his own home just across the street from Tom Stack’s pub. Tom’s wife, Bea, took care of Jerry’s money and tried her best to mind him from himself. “Tough Love” was Jerry’s name for Bea. She was a mixture of a mother and a manager. He always said he’d be laid to rest near Tom and Bea.
Jerry’s friend, James Browne, placed his prosthetic hand up on the radio to improve the notoriously poor reception in Tom Stack’s. The aerial worked a treat. It was Kerry versus Dublin. We loved to wind him up and he jumped for very ball. There were as many came in to watch Jerry as were there to listen to Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh.
He was one of us, though. Jerry was invited to several houses for Christmas. “I’ll give them all a turn,” he said.
His colleague, Christy Hartnett, made sure Jerry got home safe, and it is rumoured he even did some of Jerry’s council work when he wasn’t up to it.
In time, Jerry opened up. Toddy Buckley, his foreman, knew Jerry’s back story. There was leeway.
Jerry did have a drink problem. There was the night about 40 years ago when he shouted at the priest during midnight mass.
The hurt came out. None of us knew why back then. The local priests were always kind. It was more a case of an abused orphan striking out at the institution that blackguarded him as a small boy. Would you blame him?
He was invited to the garda station for a few drinks every Christmas Eve after that and was escorted home when mass was over.
Jerry was welcomed into Aras Mhuire nursing home. Tom Bawn, who was his best pal, called nearly every day. Trish Parkes, the manager, said Jerry lost all interest in drink when he got the Alzheimer’s. The craving left him. He was lucid and funny for most of the five years he spent in Aras Mhuire.
If the slithering serpents from one institution stole his childhood, Aras Mhuire gave him a beautiful, loving and caring old age. Good won out in the end.
Jerry passed away a couple of months ago. The people of the town and surrounds lined the streets he always kept so clean to see him off.
He was laid to rest close to “Tough Love” and Tom. They’d been expecting him.
Jerry might have been born an orphan, but he didn’t die an orphan. Our own Jerry Ryan was adopted many times over.