I asked some close friends of my Dad’s to put some words together about their memories of him for the centenary of his birth back in 2010. Despite good intentions, work and the business of settling back to Ireland after 21 years abroad got in the way of publishing these at the beginning of the decade.
The first appreciation comes from Fr Eugene Kennedy, an adopted member of the Kilmore Quay community since 1975. I assured Eugene in 2018, when he was suffering from ill-health, that his fine appreciation of my Dad and his associates would see the light of day soon. Sadly Eugene passed away on 13 March 2019 and I attended the very moving celebration of his life in his former parish church of St Thomas the Apostle, Laurel Lodge, Dublin, two days later. The warmth and kindness of his words are a testament to his deep humanity and care for others. Thanks for being part of this Eugene and thanks for your encouragement. Ar dheis Dé go raibh d’anam dhílis!
Dublin, January 2010
A hundred years ago on the 24 January 1910 Willie Bates was born. That day he brought a smile to the faces around him. For the rest of his life Willie Bates’s wide, roguish smile brought a smile to my face and the hundreds of others who were privileged to meet him. The world was a better place the day Willie Bates was born and one felt the better for meeting him whenever.
I first met Willie in 1975 when I and the O’Connor family purchased ‘An Teach Bán’ – a lovely old thatched house – in Kilmore Quay. That house was once the family home of Willie and his family. He was one of the ‘three grand old men’ of the village at that time – Willie Bates, Jack Devereux and John Sutton – three highly respected people – who between them and their more than 250 years of life, living and wisdom and memories made Kilmore Quay what it is. Those lives, those memories, enshrined the ups. the downs, the good lives and the bad since the beginning of the 20th century. Down the years that trio hugely enhanced the quality of my life with their advice, their knowledge of local history, customs and legends. The colourful confusion of fact and fiction on occasion did and still does add a mystique and magic to my whole experience of ‘the Quay’. Gone to God they may be, but their spirits still live on at every corner of the short journey from Willie’s gate to the end of the harbour wall.
Priority in his, and his wife Maggie’s life was the family. They reared a great family, a family that distinguished itself in academic and business life at home and abroad. I too remember the 40s and the 50s when life was hard. The men and women of that generation were a hardy race of people who worked their socks off to ensure a better quality of life for their children. As long as I knew Willie Bates he was never not working. For decades before it was the same story. I’ve been told that he was courageous and enterprising enough to buy the Mystical Rose immediately post-war. It was the largest fishing boat in the Quay at that time and it was never idle. When he retired (if he ever did) from fishing, it was the ferry to the Saltees. In between times Willie was forever mending, making, inventing in that Aladdin’s cave which was his shed beside the harbour.
What memories I have of those trips to the Islands. Often I would go out and back without going ashore just to site on the stern with him while one of the grandchildren took the helm. He was a great conversationalist over a wide range of topics, stories from the old days, the sailing ships on the east coast of England, local lore, religion – and never a harsh word about anyone.
Willie loved a laugh and a ‘leg pull’. In younger days I occasionally ventured out in early June mornings down the bay with the sea mist creating a vague and nebulous atmosphere. “That old compass won’t work well in this fog” Willie said to me from the slip. Knowing little as I did then (and maybe now too) I listened carefully to his advice. “Catch an earwig and put him in a bottle. At sea an earwig will always be facing the shore”. I believed him. That the earwig might be in need of oxygen in an airtight bottle never crossed my mind. Later that day out of the shed door Willie shouted as I passed, “you can’t beat the earwig to get you home on a foggy day”.
Important to Willie too was his community, especially its seafarers. His association with and work for the RNLI is well recorded. As bowman and mechanic he played a vital role on the lifeboat. His religion and church were very important factors in his life. Many a question, many a debate about the church and its future took place on the stern of the Mystical Rose during island trips.
The O’Connor children and their many friends just loved Willie. His big gentle smile made them feel so welcome aboard. They loved listening to him and his stories about the sea, the birds and the fish and the seafaring fairytales invented just for them.
Often after landing tourists on the island he would take the children to the ‘Ring’ of the big island just to make their day with a few shiny mackerel or pollock. One of them, Cliodhna, now 30, still has a photo of herself, her first catch and Willie on her mantlepiece in Mullingar.
On and on I could go. To this day I regret that I was abroad when Willie went to God. And what a photograph of Willie I have. It was taken the night before he died holding in his arms his most recent grandchild (Sam) christened earlier that day. And you guessed it – Willie had that great expansive smile on his lovely old face. Ar dheis Dé go raibh an anam dhílis.