Milkman Tom is the hero of the dawn
REPORTER DAVID MEDCALF SPOKE TO THE MAN WHO HAS BEEN DROPPING DAIRY SUPPLIES ON THE DOORSTEPS OF GREYSTONES AND DELGANY FOR 22 YEARS – A JOB THAT STARTED WITH OLD STYLE GLASS BOTTLES AND NOW RELIES ON THE INTERNET.
TWO decades ago, Tom Quinn joined a profession which appeared to be slipping quietly towards oblivion.
Changing social patterns and tastes put door-to-door delivery of the morning pints on the endangered species list.
Tom’s decision to become a milkman carried a risk but it was one that has paid off.
Today he serves more customers than ever in a business that has embraced the computer age.
The Rathnew man is a familiar and respected figure throughout the Greystones and Delgany area. Now 55 years of age, he first came to general attention as a sporting figure of note on Gaelic and soccer fields.
His career with Rathnew Celtic, which extended into the 1990s, earned him his share of cup medals and league titles.
Off the pitch, he learned his trade to work as a butcher, though the indoor life did not suit him at all.
He found some greater measure of freedom on the pay-roll of the Vita factory in Wicklow.
Rather than remaining at base, he preferred to assist in the dispatch of lorry-loads of radiators from the plant.
But Tom knew that the factory life was not for him either and he was casting around for some other calling.
He still hankered to be out in the fresh air, follow- ing his father and uncles into landscape gardening.
Licking private gardens into shape certainly offered plenty of the open air which he craved.
However, it was very much a seasonal activity, leaving the father of a young family idle too often in the winter months.
The four months down time each year was a worry for a married man with four children and a mortgage when another, steadier change of tack presented itself.
‘A mate of mine had a milk round and he was going on holidays,’ he recalls.
‘He asked me to deliver for a week, so I filled in and then I said to myself “I like this”.’
The mate was Ken Vigors whom he knew through his association with Celtic’s rivals Newtown Phoenix.
Before too long, Ken agreed to sell up to his buddy from Rathnew, who is still on the beat 22 years later.
Back in 1994, the round was a Premier Dairies round, in competition with Golden Vale, Avonmore and Snowcream.
Back in 1994, householders woke to the sound of clinking glass as their milk came to the doorstep in real bottles.
Nowadays, all the various brand names have been absorbed into the dairy giant which is Glanbia.
And though glass bottles are making a nostalgic comeback in some parts of the country, they have long been history for most.
‘ They did away with the bottles in the late 1990s,’
notes Tom who now handles cartons only. ‘ The glass was more awkward for me but a lot of customers preferred them, with the cream at the top.’
Life as a milkman required Tom to provide his own Ford Transit van specially converted for the purpose.
He prided himself on being reasonably fit, while temperamentally unsuited to sitting in the one place for six or seven hours at a stretch.
The new job suited him – and it still does, though it has altered over the years.
The round he took on had 300 houses on the books in Greystones and Delgany, where he now services 550.
At the start, he would not be done until 9.30 a.m., a work practice which proved increasingly out of tune with the lifestyles of his customers.
The gathering pace of the Celtic Tiger meant that people were leaving for their places of employment ever earlier in the mornings.
The rising tide of prosperity also had the effect of creating more and more families with two earners rather than just one.
Parents with steady jobs appreciated their litre of low fat being dropped off – but only if it was waiting for them at breakfast time.
‘ The job has become a night shift – I have to finish by 6.30 or 7 at the latest,’ says Tom. ‘With parents going to work, any later and the chances are that they are gone.’
So now he is on the road from 12.30 a.m. to 6.45 a.m, three mornings per week attending to his scattered flock across the suburbs of the two towns on his round each Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Estates such as the large Eden Gate neighbourhood in Delgany make for handy delivery but many of the houses he visits are single properties.
His body clock has adapted to the nocturnal regime and he is able to enjoy the days off, giving his dog plenty of long walks.
‘I have built the round up over the years and I still have 240 of the original customers, though some have died or moved on,’ he reports.
His householders remain loyal because they appreciate the service.
When recession hit, he and his colleagues feared that they would lose custom but the bursting of the economic bubble actually had the opposite effect.
Tom Quinn wonders whether families were worried that if they popped out for their milk, they would end up spending a fortune on other things – better to have it dropped off in the middle of the night.
One of the most important aspects of the enterprise is the call to collect payment or simply check that everything is in order, because maintaining human contact remains vital even in this computer age.
The milkman is part of the fabric of society: ‘It was on the wane in the nineties but it is coming back again now. I am 55 and I don’t ever remember not having a milkman here in Rathnew.
‘We had a Mister Lambert from Aughrim. When he gave up, we had Seanie Byrne and a brother of his, New Byrne. Now it’s Pat Dunne.’
The calling is being quietly revolutionised by upto-date communications: ‘When I started, mobile phones were only starting. My first was as big as a litre of milk. People left out a note when they wanted extra but now it’s all emails and texts.’
The industry has developed a national web-site www.mymilkman.ie with the slogan ‘Heroes of the Dawn’ which allows the public not only to find their local dairy delivery round but also to order and even pay for the service.
Tom prides himself on knowing his customers very well. He is sometimes invited to attend family events such as wedding receptions or first Holy Communion parties.
He hopes that the internet will not spell and end to all of that and he continues to make his house calls to be a familiar face.
Time that used to be spent on paperwork is now passed peering at the screen of his trusty lap-top and he reckons the texts and emails make life easier for him and for those who rely on him.
Whether responding to an email or a handwritten note, Tom maintains his out of hours presence in the community of Delgany/ Greystones.
He is mister reliable, failing to deliver just once since 1994, stymied one memora ble occasion by the blizzard of 2010.
‘It was never going to happen that night! Temperature minus 14 and the wind coming in off the sea.
‘I will never forget it. You know you are in trouble when it’s warmer in the chill room than it is outside.’
He has seen the area change, with Delgany transformed from a village when no one worried if you left your car in the middle of the road to become a populous dormitory town – and still an attractive place to live.
Greystones, already expanding when he first began dropping off his pints, has been expanding throughout, with Charlesland emerging as a town in its own right.
He says his van is now running at the full of his capacity and he is enjoying life.
‘I am in reasonably good health and I have no plans to retire,’ he declares.
MY FIRST MOBILE PHONE WAS AS BIG AS A LITRE OF MILK. THE PEOPLE THEN LEFT OUT A NOTE WHEN THEY WANTED EXTRA BUT NOW IT’S ALL EMAILS AND TEXTS
Tom Quinn from Rathnew on one of his familiar milk rounds in Eden Gate, Delgany.