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‘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.

Joe Bol­lard.

ABOVE AND MAIN PIC­TURE: David Med­calf, Joe Bol­lard and guide dog York dur­ing their walk around Bray.

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