Sunday, 10 September 2017

Tommy May's and the Liffey Swim

The corner shop, that endangered species... One such local institution in Dublin 7 is - or rather, was - Tommy May's. Remember May's, near the bottom of Infirmary Road, on the wild western fringe of Stoneybatter, where Pat Kenny - the Pat Kenny - was born?

Tommy May's sold sweets and smokes and the evening papers (remember them?) and crips and tins and packets of this and that. It was an off-licence too. The shop took its name from Tommy's da, Tommy Senior. Young Tommy grew up above the shop with seven sisters and brothers.

Only after the shop closed in 2011 did I learn that (a) it was first opened back in Victorian times - the licence for alcohol sales was sourced by a May family friend, Charles Stewart Parnell, and (b) until the 1960s the Mays had a Guinness bottling plant in the basement.

Tommy became a swimming champion while still a teenager. Not just in any old competition either but in the legendary Liffey Swim, an annual race that took place this weekend, more of which in a mo.

Tommy and Irene May ran the shop together until his untimely death in 1995. Mrs May continued to run it herself until 2011. But even then it was never your typical open-plan self-service mini-market where customers were allowed to browse along the aisles.

Browse? As if. Aisles? Far from it. Everything - and I mean absolutely everything except a couple of bales of brickets (peat briquettes) and two canisters of Calor Gas - would be behind the counter. Only a very small coterie of trusted regulars were allowed behind the counter flap to peruse the foodstuffs, Fosters lager and Jacobs Creek red and white.

You couldn't blame the Mays. The shop would have frequent incursions by local urchins bent on mayhem. Oh how the friendly banter and witty reparteee would drift back and forth across that counter ("I'll call the guards," "Go ahead I don't bleedin' care mossis," "Put that back," "What back, feck off mister I never took nothing" and "I know you ye little pup").

* * *

Two years after Mrs May closed the shop for good she obtained planning permission for "a four-storey over basement retail and office development". The proposal included "before" and "after" pics/illustrations of the proposed scheme.

In spring 2017 she put the property on the market, and it was sold a few months back by Quinn Agnew, so that's probably the very final end of Tommy May's as your traditional local corner shop.

The Liffey Swim

But back to the Liffey Swim. Many people who've never been to Dublin in their lives might still have heard of the Liffey Swim, thanks to a famous oil painting of the same name by Jack B. Yeats.

The picture - from 1923, when the annual event was still very much in its infancy - captures all the energy and excitement as the competitors flash by towards the final stretch. In a sense, though, the painting is not so much about the swimmers as such but a celebration of the real spectacle - the crowds of spectators as they lean over quayside walls and hang out of the buses (or are they trams?).

Almost a century ago, the first race took place in July 1920 with 27 swimmers. At the time it was still an all-male affair, and went from a Guinness barge at Victoria Quay to the finish at Burgh Quay.

The length of the race has remained more or less constant ever since (1.5 miles or about 2.2 kilometres) but the start and finish have changed over the years, such as when the new bridge for the Luas had to be built. Nowadays the race would generally be from the Rory O'More bridge to the Custom House.

Cue Pathé News...

Tommy May made his debut in the 1955 race while sixteen, swimming for the Crusade Aquatic Club. All competitors had to wear numbered caps (obtainable on a returnable deposit of 2/6) to make them identifiable to onlookers. Young Tommy was placed fourth, with a two-minute handicap.

The following year he won the race in a time of 25:32, taking the “King of the Liffey” title for the recently formed Colmcille Swimming Club, Club Snàmh Columcille.

The Liffey Swim has always been very much a family affair, and for the 1957 defence of his title Tommy had his younger brothers, Jimmy (15) and Joe (14) among his rivals. But Tommy only finished eighth that year, though he did manage fifth in 1959.

Dirty old town

The very first race back in 1920 was organised by Bernard Fagan, a swimmer himself and a Corpo engineer by day. The secret aim was to show the citizens the excellent quality of the Liffey's waters, and a couple of years later Mr Fagan became a public health analyst. For all that, they still preferred to run the race at high tide, when there was less pollution.

But by the mid 1970s that particular stretch of the Liffey - basically from the Camac outlet under Heuston Station to the Custom House - was so polluted that it no longer met the requirements of the EEC Directive on bathing places. So in June 1977 the IASA's Leinster Branch announced that the race would be discontinued until the river was free of pollution.

Within a week an alternative proposal was to hold the race on the Shannon, as the "One Mile Athlone Swim for the Liffey Swim Independent Trophy and Medal". Francis “Chalkey” White, twice winner of the Liffey Swim, condemned the decision as farcical and made by people who weren't even swimmers. He said the Liffey Swim was a Dublin event through and through which would lose its traditional identity.

Despite officialdom  dropping the Liffey Swim from the 1977 racing calendar, a group of enthusiastic Liffey veterans preserved the tradition with a temporary move to a one-mile course at Islandbridge.

The race returned to its classic course on the quays in 1980. Dublin claims to be the only capital country in Europe to have an annual swimming race bang through the middle of the city, and it would be nice to think that the improved quality of the Liffey's water is a good news story.

Even so, these days the race organisers still have to give an explicit warning both on the application form and in the instructions for the swimmers. "A high number" of competitors fell ill with bacterial infections after the 2015 Dublin City Triathlon, which included a section on the River Liffey,

The Tommy May Trophy

But 1977 was a turning point in the race for another reason. Tommy did his bit for feminism, sponsoring the Tommy May Trophy for a new 500-yard race for women.

One of the prime movers in preventing women from competing in sport -particularly at the same sports meets as men - had been the infamous John Charles McQuaid (1895 –1973), the Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland. As Wikipedia puts it (at the time of writing):

"The idea of women swimming through the centre of Dublin in full public gaze, even in a separate Ladies Liffey Swim, a display which might undermine the moral thoughts of male onlookers, was unlikely to occur during McQuaid’s lifetime. He died on 7 April 1973."

I wonder where the Tommy May Trophy (or Cup) has ended up. Since 1991 the women participants have swum the same course as the men, and proper order too (but why oh why do they persist in giving the "Ladies" label to women's sports, when they never ever add "Gentlemen's" to men's swimming, football, rugby and so on?)

The women's winner is presented with the "Ladies Challenge Cup". The names of all the winners are inscribed on the base, and an inscription on the front says that this is the "Ladies Challenge Cup for Annual Liffey Swim Presented by Electricity Supply Board". The ESB, remember them?