FOR a man who had spent his entire life devoted to reading, learning, and literature, losing his sight was a huge blow to Billy Coleman.
After years of deterioration, the 90-year-old Corkman fully lost his eyesight early in 2020. Then, in March last year, he became one of the first people in Ireland to be diagnosed with Covid-19 and ended up in hospital.
Although Billy made a full recovery from that, 2020, with all its restrictions, cocooning, and uncertainty, was turning into a terrible year for him.
But then something uplifting happened; something which elevated his spirits and put a smile on the face of this well-read, highly-educated man. His granddaughter Adel Coleman takes up the story.
“Last December, my grandfather was listening to the radio and heard the Holly Bough was out. He told me he was gutted he couldn’t see it and wouldn’t be able to read it this year because of the loss of his eyesight. He has been a life-long Holly Bough reader and he was going mad that he couldn’t enjoy the articles.”
However, the combination of the spirit of Christmas, the grá for the Holly Bough, and the love of a close family, came to Billy’s rescue.
“I decided to read the articles aloud and gave him recordings so he could stay connected to the Holly Bough,” explains Adel. “He told me it made an old man feel young and that it made his year!
“I wanted to reach out to the Holly Bough team and say how much I enjoyed the 2020 edition and to thank you for a fantastic publication! After a tough year of cocooning, being isolated from family, and overcoming Covid, Billy was able to enjoy his Christmas 2020 Holly Bough nonetheless, coupled with his pint of Beamish and ‘dropeen’ of whiskey.
“He had had such a tough year — he had Covid in the March and had a short stint in hospital after having trouble breathing, but made an incredibly swift recovery and was delighted to be told he had the heart of a 20-year-old!
“Although fully recovered, he was finding life without sight quite tough. He was gutted that he couldn’t see the Holly Bough and wouldn’t be able to read it.
“The publication is so important to so many Corkonians near and far, and to see my grandfather, after a really hard year, brighten up and get so excited about listening to the articles, made my heart skip a beat. Thank you to all the team, what you do is so important, it certainly made a huge impact on my family.”
Billy Coleman was born just after midnight on March 18, 1931, on Dominick Street, under the bells of Shandon. A few minutes earlier and he would have been christened Patrick!
At a young age, he acquired proficient reading and writing skills and regularly read newspapers and articles aloud for neighbours in the surrounding area who could not read themselves. “This no doubt included the special Christmas time treat of the Holly Bough,” says Adel.
“His love of literature, the arts and theatre was shared by his late wife Ellen (Nelly) Curtin, a Sunbeam seamstress and talented knitter, with whom he had seven children and lived in Churchfield.”
Taking after his father, Billy was a skilled City Guild plasterer; one of five generations of Billy Colemans to take up the trade. For years, he worked in Lady’s Well Brewery, Blackpool, as well as at landmark sites such as Fota House and on the renovations of the Quad and Windle Building in University College Cork.
A skilled soccer player, he was a founding member of the Temple Acre Soccer Club, where he was later the chairman.
Not afraid to use his voice and with strong public speaking skills, Billy was also a workers’ union leader and regularly called upon at all manner of occasions to deliver a well-worded speech. Nelly would often attempt to lessen his ego, calling out his use of ‘big fancy words’!
Adel adds: “My grandfather was an avid gardener in his younger days, winning a multitude of Cork County Council prizes for his landscape design and rock gardens, his garden was a playground of excitement for his 15 grandchildren.
“A further connection with the next generation is his curiosity of technology. Many mornings in his retirement were spent with Nelly in the Cork City Library, where she would gather recipes and knitting patterns and Billy would learn how to use a computer.
“His curiosity and ability to move with the times resulted in him graduating to an Alexa and iPad!”
Even at 90, Billy still holds an incredible interest in world events and history.
Adel, who works at UCC, says: “Having lost much of his sight in the past few years, it can be difficult to engage with reading materials, as he once would have.
“Alexa, iPads and all the technology in the world cannot replicate opening up a fresh copy of the Holly Bough and diving in. Being able to read the articles for my grandfather was such a joy for us both. I will be doing it again this year.”