The Avondhu - By The Fireside
‘IF I DIDN’T GIVE IT UP I WAS GOING TO DIE’
“I will begin my story by saying that I was at a very low point in my life when I took up the role as a community activist. This began when I saw the wall between Redmond Street and Clancy Street in Fermoy town being demolished. I then approached the workmen in question and politely asked them why they were demolishing the wall and their reply to me was to make way for four houses - houses to be built in the top area of the green. I held no animosity towards the workers as they were only following orders.
“I proceeded to take action and went ahead in drawing up a petition which, to my amazement, seven hundred names signed up to, stopping houses being built in the green area. I would like to thank everyone in question for signing up. A committee was then formed and they did some Trojan fundraising to keep this area for a playground and amenity area for the young and old”.
Fermoy born and bred, William Hughes is known around his native town as a former Mayor of Fermoy and for his activism. Lesser known, however, is how Mr Hughes came to live the life he lives today and how his move into activism may, in fact, have saved his life.
Mr Hughes first lived with his family on Connolly Street before moving to a thatched house on Devlin Street, and then to Clancy Street where he still lives today.
While he went to school locally, Mr Hughes notes that his attendance was likely one of the lowest and he started a paper round at age 11.
“I didn’t do much schooling. I’m more or less self-educated, when I was working the paper round I missed a lot of school. As a matter of fact, I’d say if you looked at the record books I was at the top of the list for missing school, but I got on in life,” he said.
Leaving school at age 14, William went on to a job picking potatoes in Jersey island, near France, and when he returned, he started working on building sites for a number of years before taking up a job at Barry’s Yard where he became a shop steward.
At age 21, William Hughes had his first drink and gradually, the drink began to take over his life. Giving up alcohol is what William describes as one of the biggest challenges he has ever faced.
Sampling his first pint in a local establishment, he said that was what ‘finished’ him.
“What the professor said to me in Sarsfield Court was, ‘If you drink when you go out, you’ll be going to the other side of that town and you’ll never be coming in here again,’ and he meant the bone yard.
“I feel sorry for anyone that has been caught up in the drink. I was actually over 21 when I had my first drink. I’m off it for over 30 years now. I gave up the cigarettes when I was working in Barry’s Yard. That was 20 years ago. I did this all cold turkey. I was very persistent. If I didn’t give it up I was going to die. I’m not saying that looking for sympathy. I’m saying it because I know what drinkers go through. Who am I to throw stones? I wouldn’t criticise anyone for being on the drink, but if they could stay off it, maybe, it could be the making of them,” Mr Hughes said.
For the former town mayor, giving up drink was the making of him, and it wasn’t until he had undertaken three terms in Sarsfield Court for rehabilitation that he faced up to the challenge.
According to Mr Hughes, after leaving Sarsfield Court, he had returned to his home in Fermoy and witnessed a wall surrounding a green area known as ‘the pool’ about to be demolished and when he enquired, he discovered that the residential area was going to lose their green space in place of four houses.
Mr Hughes says that it was this battle that turned his life around and saw him remain sober and around 2004, he got elected to the local council.
“It was amazing, I wasn’t expecting to get in at all, to be honest with you. I was in shock when I got elected actually. I was more in shock that I got the fourth seat.
“I actually didn’t want to become a councillor at all. But there were people advising me to take it on. I was doing better as an activist; as an activist, I didn’t have to watch myself. As an independent councillor I did a lot for the town and for the people in the town,” he said.
During his time in the Fermoy Town Council, William Hughes was involved in a number of efforts and projects, with one of the key projects being the development of a playground in the green area which he says he and the committee had fought hard to keep in place for locals.
“The playground was our move. We had nothing at the time, the people had nothing at that time. They were struggling. It was a haven for them because they had no place to go. When they went to take it away, I protested (against) that.
“That’s how Dr Tom Cavanagh and I became friends. We were friends for over 20 years. We did many projects in Fermoy then. There were some big, and some small, but all of them were important.
“Many the project was achieved over those twenty years. I would like to say, may your soul rest in eternal peace Dr Tom Cavanagh.
“That activism wasn’t always in me. When I was drinking, I was doing nothing only thinking of drink. When I took up activism, it changed my life. Dr Tom was a great help to me because he gave me new projects to keep me busy. I commend him highly on that. He wasn’t a good man, he was a great man,” Mr Hughes notes.
From 2007 until 2008, Mr Hughes served as Mayor of Fermoy and remained on the town council for five years, before stepping down to focus on activism within the town.
In 2014, protesting the introduction of water charges was another key battle that Mr Hughes was involved in after joining a committee in Cork.
A march was arranged in 2014 in the town that saw around 2,000 people turn out for an anti-water charges demonstration and Mr Hughes also took to marches in Dublin for the cause.
Speaking on the war memorial erected on a section of the Town Park wall, Mr Hughes appeared particularly proud of this project, as he lent major credit to historian Padraig (Paudie) McGrath and the people of Fermoy, through which funds were raised to erect the memorial. According to Mr Hughes, Paudie McGrath gave three years of his life to the project.
IMPORTANCE OF THE WEIR
To this day, a key focus for William is the issue of Fermoy Weir, an issue which he and Mitchelstown lady Helen White have been campaigning to see repaired and reconstructed. Currently, a planning application for the town weir remediation and fish bypass is before An Bord Pleanála.
When asked why the weir was so important to him, Mr Hughes said “we grew up with the weir. We used to paddle on it when we were children and go fishing on it. It is one of the most beautiful features in the town and it is a protected structure”.
Over the years, Mr Hughes said he is most grateful to the people of Fermoy town and surrounds who supported him throughout a number of projects, noting that he hopes to continue his activism locally.
“I got to know a number of people who put me right in the town. I’d like to mention these people: Paddy Butler, Kieran Moran, Tadhg O’Donovan, Hazel Baylor, Paudie McGrath and Tom Cavanagh. I learned a lot from these people, they were good advisors in everything for the town. I had great advice from these people down through the years. I am appreciative of that. They were very helpful.
“I was delighted to do so much for the town to improve it. The age is coming against me now and I’m slowing down a bit, but I will still be active. I’ll still be as active as I can and we won’t give up on the weir. It’s essential to get the weir done,” he concluded.