IT is with the greatest respect I present these photographs of an iconic figure of the streets of Cork of the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
Andy Egan, known affectionately to generations of Corkonians as ‘Andy Gaw’, was a kindly, gentle soul who wandered the streets, saluting all and sundry and was particularly attracted to mothers with children, whom he’d stop and dispense coins to the young ones.
I must confess to having absolutely no memory at all of our first meeting but my mother often told me that while wheeling me in the pram (no buggies in the 40s) on Patrick Street one morning, Andy stopped her and gave me a half-crown – which I promptly put in my mouth!
That was a typical Andy scenario, played out again and again over the years with a multitude of Cork mothers and their children.
I did some modest research on his history and nobody had a bad word to say of Andy. He lived on Spangle Hill (Farranree) with his sister, Holly, and he was always immaculately turned out, complete with a sparkling white handkerchief.
He suffered from some sort of debilitating illness — maybe Parkinson’s — that made speech difficult and caused him to shuffle rather than walk but that did not stop him getting around. A small and slight figure, he had great difficulty communicating verbally but his shy smile and impish manner never failed to charm.
Many stories were told about him, mostly probably made up, but why let the truth get in the way of a good story anyway?
One day during World War II, when cars were few and far between, a priest ordered him to mind his horse while he called into a shop on Patrick Street.
Andy refused and the priest said: “Do as you are told or I’ll stick you to the ground.”
Andy said: “Why don’t you stick the horse to the ground, so?”
A grandniece of his told of a time when her father was out of work and no money coming in to a house of young children. At the time Andy had some casual work in the English Market in the city, delivering orders for one of the butchers.
As long as her father was unemployed Andy would regularly appear at the front door with a parcel of meat from the market – a very welcome bonus for a hungry household.
Another told of Christmas mornings in her house: the presents were not to be touched until Andy arrived, but to appease the children, Andy would make it his business to appear at 6am each Christmas morning, so there was no delay in tearing open the presents.
The background to Andy’s largesse on the streets was a regular ‘sweep’ he’d make of the major taverns around the town each morning. The Long Valley Bar in Winthrop Street was a particular favourite of his and both management and regulars looked kindly on his activities, knowing where their contributions would end up in the afternoon.
This particular morning his collection was going nicely, with all the regular patrons contributing generously, until one gent refused, saying curtly,
“Andy, I’ve no money, boy.” This was an unexpected reversal and conversation at the bar stopped momentarily. With that, Andy took the man’s hand and quietly placed in it all the money he had collected that morning, before shuffling off out of the bar leaving the customer behind him shocked and embarrassed.
Another morning in the English Market a few hardy boys thought they’d have a bit of fun at Andy’s expense and asked him to sign a receipt for some groceries he was delivering.
To their astonishment, Andy, despite the permanent shake in his arm, signed in the most beautiful copperplate script that put the boys to shame.
I had evidence of this skill of Andy’s one morning in the 1950’s when I went to Egan’s of Patrick St with my parents to have my confirmation photographs framed.
Andy was ahead of us at the counter and was having difficulty making himself understood to the shop assistant. Finally, exasperated, he took a ledger, lying open on the counter, and in that same beautiful style he wrote out his request, leaving not just the shop assistant but both my parents gobsmacked.
I met Andy one more time, in the early 1970s, in the vicinity of the Coal Quay and Castle Street in Cork City when I took these photographs – but not before I returned the half-crown he had given me some 30 years earlier. In return he gave me his shy smile and I’d swear I saw a glint in his eye that said to me, “I’m not as simple as people think I am.” So that’s Andy Egan, a gentle man of the streets of Cork. May The Lord rest his gentle soul.