Corncrake of the streets, that's the Echo Boy!

The cries of the Echo Boys are dimming, but one man can still be heard loud and proud in Cork city after 41 years. In this poignant and touching memoir which appears in this year's Holly Bough, COLM SCULLY pays tribute to Dave Hogan, who he has known since they were teenagers
Corncrake of the streets, that's the Echo Boy!

Colm Scully with Dave Hogan at his pitch at the GPO. Picture: Denis Minihane

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.”

Their herald was renowned in Cork, a sing-song lilt in a tenor’s voice that finished in a long, drawn-out ‘ooo’ that pervaded the soundscape, until the shops closed and the people went home.

Each had their pitch, maybe in the treacherous centre of St Patrick’s Bridge, where a boy as young as ten might risk life and limb weaving through the traffic to deliver the folded broadsheet through the half-open window of a barely stationary car, having to work with speed and agility to receive and deliver change, before the lights turned green.

Or the handy spot outside The Bank of Ireland, where Michael O’Regan seemed to have an endless supply of regulars, with a few words of familiar conversation for every one of them.

I knew little of this strange world of scruffy boys and middle-aged men, I came from just outside the city, in a bungalow, where the idea one could get a job as an Echo Boy would never have been contemplated.

“They’re worth a fortune, those lads,” I recall someone saying. “They make grand bobs out of it. Four or five hours a day. I knew a fella that bought a house out of it.”

The job was apparently passed down the generations and I never doubted the urban myth on how handsome a sinecure it was.

I used to see the crowd of boys gather outside the Examiner on Bowling Green Street, at the back of what is now Opera Lane, to collect their foot thick slab of Echos, empty sheets protecting the front and back, tied with a small strip of plastic. Giant rolls of newspaper, ready for the morning printing presses, lay behind them in the warehouse.

They would scatter in every direction across the city once they received their quota, as many in number as you have Deliveroo cyclists traversing the city today.

The Echo was a staple part of every Cork home, providing the evening’s reading for all and sundry. A compendium of local news and sport without pretensions. I’d get hold of it after tea and settle in to read Mutt And Jeff, The Ghost Who Walks and Ripley’s Believe it Or Not before scrutinising the TV listings to see what was on in our one channel world.

That was the sum of my perusals of the paper those mysterious boys from Northside council estates sold. Boys who must have left school at 13, or else rushed from their studies to collect their round. Boys who were such an iconic part of the city landscape that stonemason Barry Moloney immortalised one in life-size bronze (inset above); his hand to his mouth amplifying the chant, his short pants, his scrawny limbs. That sculpture stands outside the old Patrick Street offices of the Echo and Examiner now, having taken the short trek from Cook Street.

When I was 19, I got to know one of the Echo Boys. It was 1986 and I was studying in the Tech. I had to repeat first year after failing some exams. I had a limited social life and time on my hands and began volunteering with a group called CASA, organising activities for young people with disabilities.

We’d meet in a northside hall on Sunday evenings, organise games, and chat for a few hours. It created a social outlet for young members and volunteers as well. That’s where I met Dave Hogan, who was about 16. He was bright, lively and talkative, with ginger hair and glasses. He had plenty of friends among the group.

He also had a serious physical disability. When he stood, one leg turned off at an angle from the other, so he could not support himself or walk without a rollator. He looked older than he was, no doubt from the difficulties of living with his cerebral palsy, however he was nearly always in good form. He would joke and laugh with everyone.

He’d chat to me about his Mam at home and boast about being out bush-drinking with his friends. I would ask him what he wanted to eat and get his favourites, Tayto Snax and Fanta, from the stash at the top of the hall.

He would dig in with relish until the disco music started and we’d all make shapes on the dance floor; kids in wheelchairs, teenagers with Down Syndrome, the priest who organised it, volunteers - mostly college students. Dave shuffled his rollator around and flirted with any female with possibilities. I made my awkward shapes and did the same.

He told me he was an Echo Boy of a few years standing already. I would see him sometimes outside the main Post Office, give a wave and talk for a few minutes about how he was doing, and if he was going to the social on Sunday.

US Ambassador to Ireland, Claire Cronin catching up on The Echo in Cork this year, with Cllr Colm Kelleher Lord Mayor of Cork and Echo boy Dave Hogan. Picture: Shane O'Sullivan
US Ambassador to Ireland, Claire Cronin catching up on The Echo in Cork this year, with Cllr Colm Kelleher Lord Mayor of Cork and Echo boy Dave Hogan. Picture: Shane O'Sullivan

I don’t think I ever discussed being in this club with my college friends, it would not really be a cool thing to be involved in at 19.

As time went on, I drifted from the club. Being busy at work or study gave me the excuse to stop going. After college, I worked away from Cork for six years.

I’d still see Dave from time to time outside the Post Office, but I stopped saluting him, thinking he would not recognise me anymore. He had thick glasses and tended to gaze down in front of him, due to his poor eyesight.

He held the same spot, and I’d wonder, was he making good money from the job, like the people in the know used to say.

But the archetype of the Echo Boy was changing. At some point, the very young boys no longer existed, forced to stay in school or constrained by labour laws. By the time a new century dawned, Eastern European immigrants began to take their place.

As the infrastructure changed, they began to radiate out beyond the city’s traditional boundaries, started to appear at roundabouts at the ring road’s edge. That’s where the people moved now, and a Romanian with a battered trilby would fly through the zipping cars when he caught the nod from a passing motorist.

As quickly and adroitly as the waif on Patrick’s Bridge before him, he would fold the paper through the window, extract the pay, and return the change. The skills had been passed on, but the dynamic of the trade was on the move, just like Barry Moloney’s statue.

The city people still loved the Echo, and my mother would often regale me with titbits of news from it… whose photo was in it… who had died.

Of course, technology moved on, and the ways people found news changed. Paper sellers outside Sunday Mass might remain, but the sound of the Echo Boy has gradually dimmed. Like the call of the corncrake, their human song grew less and less a part of the city’s sound-scape.

The evening paper became a morning one. The old quip, ‘Did you bring the Echo?’ if you were late to work can no longer be called out. Many today get their news online - the Echo and Examiner both have popular websites - and the tactile act of opening the paper is no longer a necessity for many.

****** 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.

Dave has a bag by his side and a bottle of Fanta on the ground. While I am watching he reaches down and draws out a bag of Tayto Snax. Still his favourites, I think.

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.

Colm Scully with David Hogan, Echo Boy, at Oliver Plunkett Street, Cork. Picture Denis Minihane.
Colm Scully with David Hogan, Echo Boy, at Oliver Plunkett Street, Cork. Picture Denis Minihane.

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.

Dave said he was at the Brass Booth on Oliver Plunkett Street for ten years after that. Then he moved to the Post Office corner, where he has been ever since.

“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.”

Read more articles like this in the 2022 Holly Bough, on sale now.

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