WHEN I was young, they were on every corner of the city, shouting their famous cry from about 3pm: “Echo, Echo, get your Evening Echo.”
****** I am in town walking with my family. It’s Christmas, but during the pandemic, so the place is quiet. The background noise of cars, buses and the odd busker is broken by a lone chanting voice, a voice that attracts no reproachful looks or reprimands, a voice that was once among a choir of such voices across the city’s air, but now sings like a lonesome street crier, a relic of a simpler past.
Dave is sat on his aluminium seat which doubles as his rollator, his voice as strong as it was 35 years ago. He is still calling out across Pana with an innate confidence. His frame has changed little. He’s tubbier, like me, but his face is the same and his red hair is as vibrant as ever.
Dave has been sitting outside Brown Thomas, his back against a portable charity shed, for the duration of this festive period, as his regular spot outside the GPO is temporarily taken up by a huge plastic illuminated Santa and a similar sized fluorescent postbox for Santa’s letters.
We’re getting smoothies at Gino’s ice cream parlour at the corner, where Cudmore’s Sweet Emporium used to be, long ago. Dave holds his post with pride ten yards away, a stalwart upholder of tradition in a changing world. I think about going over and buying one, maybe even introducing myself. No, I decide.
My 19-year-old daughter emerges from Gino’s, a milk-shake in hand, turns away from me and walks towards Dave. I’m wondering what’s going on. His Fanta bottle has been caught by the wind and is rolling away along the footpath. He stares after it, worried, knowing the difficulty he will have in retrieving it. She has seen it. She picks it up and returns it to him, starts chatting to him.
I’m impressed by her kindness. When she returns, I tell her I used to know him. She urges me to talk to him. I stroll over, a little embarrassed, and buy a paper. I introduce myself.
“I used to know you in CASA,” I say. “Up in Churchfield Community Centre on Sunday evenings, back in the ’80s. What’s your name again?” He thinks for a moment, gives me a quizzical look. “David Hogan,” he replies. “Who am I dealing with?” he adds warmly, sussing me out.
“Colm Scully,” I say.
“Oh yes, I remember,” he pretends.
We chat about CASA - the Caring and Sharing Association - which marked its 40th anniversary last year.
“There’s still a charity shop, on North Main Street,” says Dave.
We chat more, he opens up and tells me about his 40 years as an Echo Boy, from age 11. How, one day, he introduced himself to the Mahoney’s, who held the Post Office pitch. The father was slow to give him a job, because of his physical difficulties, but the son said: “F*** it, you’re retiring. I’ll give him a chance.” Dave got a note from his mother, allowing him to work there in the afternoons. He used to skip school in the Divine Child in Ballintemple (latterly Enable Ireland). At lunch time, he’d tell his teacher he had to use the toilet. He’d go out the back door and his mother would have a taxi arranged to take him into town.
One day, his principal turned up on the street corner and said: “That was a funny toilet break.” She gave him a £50 note and asked for change from three papers. When he was able to provide the correct change, she was happy.
At a school board meeting, the priest in charge said this was the first time a pupil had tried to be self-sufficient. It was a brave business venture and they okayed it.
“Back when I started there were 80 or 90 Echo Boys,” he tells me. We discuss Michael O’Regan, who had the patch up by the old Bank of Ireland from the early ’60s. “He’s gone from there three years now. He used to come up and down in the bus from Kinsale six days a week.” Now the Echo is a morning paper, Dave works nine to six. I am taken aback by how positive and chatty he is, so proud of his role. He tells me he’s been on YouTube, and in Cara, the Aer Lingus magazine. He was on a plane to Texas, to see his sister. He opened up the in-flight journal and there he was.
We chat about our CASA days, run by Father Donal. “The last I heard of him was when he said my mother’s funeral mass up in Gurranabraher church in 1989. He was a nice fella,” Dave says.
I had forgotten how interesting Dave was. Maybe I was expecting someone worn down by their disability and years of working on the street, maybe creating a narrative in my head of how poorly people with special needs are treated in Ireland. But no, Dave is rightly proud of what he has achieved, proud of being independent. As he said himself: “I dragged myself out of a wheelchair to get this job. I never let my disability hold me back.” We agree to meet for coffee some day and have another chat.
As I go, he calls me back: “You left me short eighty cent for the paper.”