I only met Jack Charlton the once, and it was – as you might expect – memorable.
It’s surely twenty years ago, or more, back when I was running Charlie Mac’s pub in Fermoy, and as my patchy memory recalls, Jack Charlton came in sometime after lunch-time, and he and his companions – he had two or three friends with him – enjoyed some of Mary Rose Quigg’s legendary cooking. It might have been a bowl of soup and a toasted sandwich, or maybe a cottage pie, or a fish pie, or a beef stew, but Mary Rose’s food was always world-class.
Jack and company had their grub, and three or four pints each. They were staying down the road in Careysville, in Clondulane, enjoying the Duke of Devonshire’s hospitality and fishing rights, and had ventured up to Fermoy for the afternoon. Laws about drinking and driving were observed perhaps a little more in the breach back then.
Jack Charlton was a beloved national hero at the time. It would be hard to imagine a similar figure now. Think Michael D, maybe, plus Doctor Tony Holohan, plus maybe Hozier and Miriam O’Callaghan, and you’re not even half-way there.
When it came time to pay up, Big Jack asked would I mind to take a cheque. I stood him the first round of pints, and said that of course I wouldn’t mind taking a cheque for the rest – this was long before the days of contactless payment – and Jack said something to the effect that while we were at it, could we make it a larger sum altogether, and he’d take the change, as he didn’t have any cash on him. I said no problem. I honestly can’t remember how much the amount was, but I do recall having to head upstairs to the office to get extra cash.
He signed the cheque, and I joked that I’d frame it.
“Doan’t see thet,” he said, suddenly serious. “Aye atchly sued one o’ t’peepurs for seeing thet Aye d’libretly went aboot cashing chiques knerren thet thee wun’t be lodged in t’bank.”
Really? I asked. So, one of the papers said you were writing cheques in the knowledge that your signature was worth more than the cheque it was written on, and you sued them?
“Oh yuss,” he continued, warming to his theme, and I suspected slightly that he had maybe told this story before, perhaps more than once.
“Thee cleeimed I wurr mekkin’ a furrchin be writin chiques and peepull wurr freemin ‘em cos thee wanted me autograph leek. Thee said Aye oanly pedd in chiques so ess to tekk odvontidge of me feem.
“So I set me solicitor on um.
That was my one meeting and only meeting with Jack Charlton. Really nice man. Very funny. He praised Mary Rose’s cooking and the pints, and he shook my hand, and he and his entourage headed back to Careysville.
I wish we’d had cameras in our phones back then, because my selfie with Jack Charlton would be my pride and joy now.
As I recall, I think I never actually did lodge that cheque.
I have another memory too, of a decade or more before Big Jack’s lunch in Fermoy, of being very young and working in London. It was June, 1990, and I was working as a glorified gopher in a newspaper. I was lonely, and very far from home. Remember, these were the days before Ryanair really took off, when a flight to Ireland was still ruinously expensive, and the only other option – which wasn’t cheap either – was to get the coach at Victoria Station and take the long journey across England, and Wales, and then the horrible vomit-and-diesel-scented ferry across the Irish Sea, and a further trip from Rosslare to Cork. That was an overnight job, and God Almighty it was rough.
It was that Monday lunchtime after that Saturday night before, and I had watched the fateful match in the newsroom in our offices on Bowling Green Lane in Farringdon because I didn’t have a television. I knew next to no-one in London at the time, so the joy I experienced at Jack’s Army’s progress was solitary, and in that empty newsroom, lonesome. Nonetheless, I had roared and cheered right until we crashed out, thwarted by History’s Greatest Monster (Until Thierry Henry In 2009), Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillaci, Ireland’s greatest bogeyman this side of Oliver Cromwell.
Two days later, I trudged to the Italian restaurant around the corner, up on Exmouth Market, where they did this amazing takeaway lasagne. At the counter was an Italian guy I knew to say hello to, and he grinned sheepishly at me and half-apologised in a way we would now call “sorry-not-sorry”. It’s funny the things you remember, but his arms had been shortened by Thalidomide.
That lunchtime, he offered me his hand on Ireland’s loss to Italy, and we shook. He told me it could have been worse. It could have been England.
We were always great pals after that.
The thing is, I was never much of a soccer fan. My sister has given up trying to explain the offside rule to me. But when Jack Charlton brought the Republic of Ireland to the quarter finals of the World Cup, it wasn’t really about soccer anymore, it was about Ireland.
Ireland was a dreary, depressed, recession-haunted place back then, with the Troubles still raging, and the Church still ruling the roost, with so many of us forced to emigrate, and suddenly, with Italia 90, the sun seemed to shine. Over the centuries, the English did a lot to keep the Irish down, but thirty years ago, a Northumberland man helped to raise us up.
Thanks for the memories, Jack.
Rest in peace.