DAVID MEDCALF TAKES A WALK AROUND BRAY WITH 81-YEAR-OLD JOE AND HIS GUIDE DOG YORK
REPORTER DAVID MEDCALF TOOK A STROLL TO BRAY SEAFRONT WITH AN 81-YEAR-OLD BLIND MAN WHO KEEPS HIS INDEPENDENCE, DESPITE THE HAZARDS OF HEDGES AND CRACKED FOOTPATHS, WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM HIS FAITHFUL DOG
‘ITEND to walk a bit quick,’ warns Joe Bollard as we set out from his home in Bray’s Wolfe Tone Square.
He certainly does build up a good head of steam for an 81-year-old on his daily outing to the seafront. And as he walks he talks, speaking with the ease of a practised storyteller and broadcaster, happy to have company while he takes his exercise.
At his side is the faithful York, an infinitely calm golden retriever who stays tight to the pensioner’s side, master and dog connected by a special harness.
For Joe is blind, a fact which he makes no attempt to hide behind any flim-flam about visual impairment or roundabout reference to being optically challenged.
‘Sight – I have none whatever. These are two artificial eyes,’ he declares simply and without any hint of self-pity.
He retains some far-off memories of being able to see, dating back to his childhood in the 1930s when he was growing up in a slum beside Pearse Street in Dublin.
His father used to enjoy fishing and escape from the city with his little son to cast his line into the sea at Greystones so the wonder of the waves left a lasting imprint on young Joe’s mind.
His last visual memory is of red, the colour of his mother’s coat when she was at his hospital bedside before he was brought off to the operating theatre.
The surgeon saved the little boy’s life by taking out a tumour which threatened to invade his skull but the scalpel strayed to severe the optic nerve. There was no repairing the damage.
Our walk takes us across the O’Byrne Road, with York quietly in command as we pass the shops, other pedestrians parting to allow Joe easy passage.
‘He’s my pal,’ says the dog’s master as we wait for the lights to change at the automated crossing. ‘Don’t give him sweets, just tell him he’s a good boy.’
The pair of them move only when the beeper sounds, trusting motorists to heed the red light. When the beeper was broken for a while last year, they had to rely on passers-by to assist. Though he may not be able to see, Joe has no difficulty reaching out to others, while the golden haired hound is a real people magnet. ‘People stop and say hello but if I have a cane in my hand, then they won’t. The dog is a real great catalyst.’ Instructions from man to hound are imparted quietly. Today, we are not diverting into the grounds of Our Lady Queen of Peace church, where Joe is the organist and the choir master. Instead, we continue along the Vevay Road and tackle another tricky crossing over to the far side of Putland Road without mishap. ‘ The big hazard is the state of the pave- ments – it’s like Beirut,’ says the former National Council for the Blind board member. ‘Another give-out is overhanging hedges.’
He avoids O’Byrne Road because too many proud but unthinking householders allow their hedges grow out over the footpaths, looking lovely but putting his head at risk of scratches or worse.
WATCHING him negotiate the crossings at Sidmonton Road and Meath Road is an education of itself. Without eyes, he must depend on his canine assistant and on his ears.
There is no one better tuned to the sound of changing gears and braking than Joe Bollard.
He knows almost without thinking whether a car is turning (and therefore likely to knock him down) or proceeding straight ahead.
Some motorists stop and wave them on but the gesture is wasted on Joe’s sightless eyes while York chooses to ignore the attempted courtesy, instead staying firmly put until the coast is completely clear.
While the reporter admires the look of the buildings we pass, the blind man
enjoys the small, sniffing the breeze and observing: ‘ They had turkey for dinner in the nursing home today.’
This is a familiar and regularly followed route, so the combination of man and beast is well tuned in to where the worst cracked pieces of path are.
They are also familiar with where those ‘dishes’ designed to assist disabled folk at junctions which are poorly placed, missing or installed with a nasty little lip that can trip the unwary.
Joe accepts that the occasional fall goes with the territory, though York is brilliant at taking him around lampposts or cars parked up on the footway.
It is not his style to confront motor- ists who plant such obstructions in his way but he has been known to engage them in intense conversation.
He refuses to be daunted and continues to travel into Dublin city on the Dart whenever he has business there. The Gresham Hotel is his favoured port of call.
He does not shy away from visiting parts of Bray that are off his beaten track if needs be and is full of praise for the state of the town’s main street.
He intendeds to explore the Bray Head walk this summer and the road from his home out towards Greystones is an established favourite.
‘You get to know where the dogs are,’ he laughs, noting the silence as we pass the driveway of a house where there are two pets in residence. ‘ They must be out today.’
York can be relied upon to ignore such distractions and he is similarly unmoved as a train rumbles overhead when we amble the final few yards to the front.
Then it is time for coffee. He is a wellknown customer as the seaside café. The staff greet him by first name and bring the beverages out to the bench where we are sitting out enjoying the sunshine.
He speaks of his life as a musician, spending 65 years at the keyboard.
His first paid gig scandalised his God-fearing mother. He was paid a small fortune as a member of a jazz combo who played at a night club in Liverpool, where the Bollard family moved when he was six.
The dancers who smooched to his impromptu rendition of ‘I can’t give you anything but love’ were likely bosses seducing their secretaries.
Their indiscretions were safe from Joe, the blind pianist.
After his mother decided that such venues were off limits, he took up with a Doris Day tribute outfit before deciding to return to Ireland.
He made an extended career for himself in the ballrooms of romance during the Fifties and Sixties with the Mayobased Jack Ruane showband, which was in demand on both sides of the Atlantic.
Along the way, he met and married the love of his life, Sarah from Ringsend, and then family life demanded a change of course.
So he bought an electric organ in 1964 and became the resident entertainer at the Silver Tassie in Loughlinstown, which prompted the move to Bray.
He later moved his organ to the Dalkey Island hotel and more recently may be found entertaining old folks and tourists in Bray.
He worked for a while as an RTÉ radio correspondent, meeting such inspirational blind super stars as Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder.
He continues to broadcast programmes he makes in Wolfe Tone Square on the internet.
He reveals that he had to venture as far as Exeter in England in search of his first guide dog. Nowadays Ireland has its own training centre in Cork.
‘I had never had a dog before,’ he says recalling a retriever named Ian, who came into his life in 1975. ‘It totally changed my life. It was an eye opener.’ The ironic use of the eye opener phrase shows the mischievous side of the man.
Ian was followed by Bridie, Whiskey, Baby and Dillon, all with different characters, all giving their master a degree in independence that he appreciates enormously.
Now that we have had our chat, it is time for York, as the latest in the line of guides, to lead us off back up the Putland Road, taking particular care around those dratted water metres.
ABOVE AND MAIN PICTURE: David Medcalf, Joe Bollard and guide dog York during their walk around Bray.