Gerry and Bernie with Michael D Higgins.

Walk to Milltownpass started Gerry’s career in construction

Local Lives, by Ciara O'Hara

Gerry Reddin began his life in Bawnmore, 16km outside Galway city. His mother Pauline, “a Corroon from the Downs, famous football people”, met his father Joe, a civil servant from Offaly, when Joe was working in Mullingar. “They got married, and then he was transferred to Galway.”

After six years, Joe’s work brought the family back to Mullingar. They settled in Ginnell Terrace, a lively place to grow up, where “there was an awful lot of stuff happening”.

“Six to seven hundred kids at all different age groups growing up together, plus we were lucky enough to have our own music celebrities living in the estate: Joe Dolan, The Swarbriggs, The Times showband. Sure, we were blessed with the craic and the free records… One of our neighbours, she was an air hostess, had a yellow E-type Jag that used to be parked at the front of Ginnell. It was the first time I ever saw a Jag!”

The second of six children, and the only boy, Gerry started school at the same time as his older sister Mary. “I was kind of a year ahead of where I should have been all the time. I had my Inter Cert done very, very early.” When he was in fourth year, with “no intention of doing the Leaving Cert, ever”, a sign at a building site near his house caught Gerry’s eye. It read, ‘Christopher Bennett and Sons Ltd, Milltownpass’. “And I went home and I said, ‘Where in the name of God is Milltownpass?’ I had no clue.”

After being told by his father, “Sure, Milltownpass is only out the road”, Gerry decided to mitch school the following day and walk there. “This was 1974, now; there was little other ways of going around. Either that or a bike, and I didn’t have a bike… Every mile or so I’d meet somebody. ‘How far away is it?’ ‘Only down the road.’… Nearly 10 miles later, I hit Milltownpass, and I was shocked! All that was in it was petrol pumps, a shop, and I could see Christopher Bennett’s office.”

Gerry walked in to find Pat Smyth, construction director of the company, and Jim Bennett, “who would have been the main man”. Though Gerry was a “very slight little lad” and “younger than the average pup starting”, he was given an impromptu interview. Asked, “Why would you want to get into the building game?”, Gerry replied, “I don’t really know what game I want to go into; I just want to get out of school.” The men then enquired about how he had made his way to Milltownpass from Mullingar. “‘Is there somebody outside waiting for you?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I walked.’ ‘Oh.’ And both of them were thinking, ‘Jaysus, right, ok, we’ve a fair mad one on our hands here!’”

Pat and Jim saw potential in the energetic youngster. Gerry was handed a slip, told to “go in and meet a man” on the site in town, and to register with ANCO (the training body for all trades). “I still have the note upstairs… I have it in a box along with my first wage packet. £5.35.” Then Jim Bennett drove Gerry home. “And that was the first time I ever sat in a Mercedes. So back into Mullingar I went, and the following Wednesday morning, I started with Christopher Bennett and Son Ltd. I had just turned 16.”

Gerry’s parents thought he was “fair cheeky” when they saw him arrive home in a Mercedes, but were supportive of his decision to leave school, saying, “Lookit, you have a job, you have a good Inter Cert and sure, lookit, you’re going back to school anyways with ANCO.” School friend Kevin Doherty was more sceptical. “He said, ‘The Leaving Cert is the way forward,’ but I was having none of that malarkey and was not for turning.”

Gerry started work on a “beautiful morning” in April 1974. “I can remember it like yesterday. I still remember the first man I met, Eamonn Keenan… And that job… that was the last phase of Dalton Park… Eamonn Keenan was setting out the houses. Now that today is done by engineers, but at the time it was done by carpenters. So Eamonn Keenan trained me in the setting out of houses and buildings… so I got an amazing start with amazing men. I’m still very friendly with all the Keenans. I started as an apprentice carpenter. My mentor for many years, and the man that started me, Pat Smyth, a great man, was construction director, and that was the position I ended up with at the time of my retirement.”

A hard worker “from the get-go”, Gerry built and repaired boats, and was employed part-time in Sullivan’s Menswear, while still at school. When Gerry was 13, “the first night classes ever in Westmeath” started in the Columb Barracks: boat-building workshops taught by Peadar Caffrey and organised by the vocational school. “Every year they used to put out these adverts: we’re going to build 14 boats, so we need 28 men.” Gerry’s father and his colleague, both office men, jumped at the opportunity to “learn how to do something with the hands”, saying “Jaysus, sure we’ll build a boat!”. The colleague was taken ill “the very second night it all started” and Gerry became his father’s partner instead. “So, I’m now helping him and I was only a gosson… So we built our boat… it’s only in the last couple of years the boat is gone, believe it or not!”

The classes ran from September to May, when the boats were blessed “at the beginning of the fishing”. Instructor Peadar Caffrey and Gerry “got on very, very well” and Peadar asked Gerry if he would be interested in coming back the next term to sweep up and look after the “big pot-bellied stoves on either end of the shed”. “So, the vocational school employed me the following year, as a child, to light the fires, sweep the floors, and you’re supposed to be studying as well when you’d all that done, but that never happened either… The government used to pay me £16 for the whole year… They taxed me on it and I only realised they taxed me on it many, many years later! Shortly after the second year started, there was another group of men came in, and didn’t one of them get sick, and I ended up making a boat again!”

The classes lasted four years and Peadar brought Gerry back every term. “Myself and Peadar Caffrey had a great rapport… everywhere Peadar went, I was there.” Peadar was “a genius with his hands”, the main boat-builder in St Loman’s, and he used to make boats at home too. Gerry was also kept busy fixing damaged boats at the side of his house in Ginnell.

“They’d lift the boats across the wall, and I would repair the boats… and then I was working part-time in Sullivan’s every night. So I used to leave school, say at half four, and go to Sullivan’s until six… The lad that I used to be building the boats with, I was always building a boat with somebody, would pick me up from Sullivan’s at six o’clock and I’d land home then at 12 o’clock that night, up for school the following day… But I used to love the boat building class.”

After two years with Bennett Construction, Pat Smyth sponsored Gerry to train with ANCO in Thomond College, Limerick. “I got my diplomas in project management and this that and the other… and every year it was another step up the ladder, then I suppose I had lucky breaks at other people’s misfortune.” When Gerry was a fourth-year apprentice, foreman Donie Rex became ill. Asked by Pat Smyth to step in as foreman, Gerry decided, “sure, I’ll give it a go”.

“So I never looked back after that. I finished the job and from one thing to another, I got from foreman to general foreman, into the project management, and I eventually ended up as a construction director of the company… the second-biggest company at the time in the country. My job in latter years would have been all office, but I never took all the office; I walked and tramped every site… it was my way of getting jobs over the line… You have to know every guy’s name that’s working with you, and call him by it, and better than that, you have to know his wife’s name. And believe you me, you’ll get a lot of work done when you’re on first-name terms with – I’d never call them people that worked for me – they were people that worked with me.

“I started right at the very bottom, with a note in my hand, to find the man and the job. That’s how I started. That never has left me… I think the secret from my end of it is not to panic on any job. Because many a job goes wrong. Many, many jobs. But if you panic, you lose; you’re gone. But you have to have the lads with you, and I mean from the lads sweeping the floors to the top managers. Because they are the people who are going to get the job handed over when the time comes.”

In all his years in construction, one project stands out as “probably the funniest period” of Gerry’s career. In 1996, while digging the foundations of Buckley’s supermarket on Mullingar’s Austin Friar Street, the graveyard of a medieval monastery was found. “I was the project manager and it was myself that discovered the bones… We knew there was the potential of finding bones, but we were hoping we wouldn’t.”

“I had to notify the OPW, and they sent down this fella by the name of Michael Gibbons, and he was the head archaeologist… and by default, he’s supposed to be one side of the table and I’m the other side… but it didn’t work like that… The two of us gelled really well, and instead of being at opposing ends of the table, we got on very, very well… and everybody was happy… It was a very, very interesting period… I think we found 47 skeletons, including a woman, and including a baby, in a monastery! So there’s a lot of things not explained. We found a scallop shell, two of them, and I happened to find one of them… If there’s a scallop shell on a skeleton, it means they had travelled from Mullingar to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain… what’s known as the Camino now.”

Gerry had never heard of the Camino before the discovery at Buckley’s but he has since made the pilgrimage twice with his wife Bernie, an “amazing” experience he highly recommends, “even if you only done the last 100 kilometres”. The first time they made the journey, he and Bernie went with a busload of people from Mullingar on a trip organised by Fr Michael Gilmartin, “but nobody on the bus knew” Gerry’s connection to the Mullingar monks. “The very first night we were in this pub in Spain… Fr Michael comes up to me and he says, ‘Now Gerry,’ he says, ‘I want to explain a little bit about the Camino, where it all started… a brief history on it.’ And I said, ‘Jaysus Michael, you won’t have to tell me much because it was me that found the bones!’.”

Although still involved with the Bennetts, Gerry retired from the building side of the company in 2011. The same year, when he was 52, Gerry married long-term partner, Bernie Murtagh. “A whirlwind romance: 30 going on 40 years!” Bernie and Gerry had met at school. “I know Bernie since the early ‘70s and we started going out in, officially, I suppose, in 1982… Anyone that knew us was shocked when we actually got married… the vast majority of people that knew us just thought we were already married!”

In 2012, the government headhunted Gerry to oversee the extension of Loreto convent in Mullingar. “One of the first jobs we did in the school was right beside a job I’d done in the school in 1975. I had built the stairs from floor to ceiling. It was one of the first concrete stairs ever in a school… So here I was after retiring, I was back pretty much where I started!”

Gerry has met many public figures over the years. When having tea with Michael D in the Áras, “a magnificent day”, he found Sabine Higgins a great character. “She was hilarious. I mean, hilarious. And it wasn’t put on either.” Bertie Ahern, although “not too popular any more” was “up for the craic” when Gerry met him at a presentation. “And I mean, up for the craic; he really was. I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed that night too.”

A firm believer that the people you meet “shape your life”, Gerry feels fortunate. “The Bennetts were incredibly good to me and still are… I still actually have to pinch myself; I really do. I can’t believe how good they were to me, really and truly, really good people. They gave me a start like nobody else… They’re amazing men… John and Christopher Bennett, without a doubt, everything I have, I owe to them.”

Gerry met lifelong and “most precious” friend Kevin Doherty “walking in the gates” on his first day at school, and he remains close to his old neighbours from Bawnmore. “We were born in the gate lodge of a big house, Bawnmore House, and in that big house were 12 kids. My oldest and dearest friends on Planet Earth would be Larissa Golding and Regis Golding. who lived in Bawnmore house…

“And even though we were only six years living in the gate lodge, my mother and father were very friendly, right up to all their deaths, with the mother and father of that house… Any holidays that ever was down through the years, the Goldings came up to Mullingar; we went to Galway. And that is still to this day. I had Larissa and Regis up for the fleadh… During the summer months, when I’d have been a teenager, Larissa and Regis and their cousin from England, Steven, would be home, and he used to have his father’s car.

“We were building the vocational school at the time and Larissa and Regis would pull up at five o’clock of any given evening during the week, and they would have a sandwich in the car, at that time there was no takeaways, there was nothing like that; they’d have a sandwich in the car and probably the clothes I had on the night before, and we’d go straight to Galway from there and we would party the night away and they would drop me back at eight o’clock the following morning… and that could happen twice or three times in any given week. But when you’re young, you’re young! I do be thinking, ‘Jaysus, did that happen?’ But that did happen, several times a week!”

Gerry also enjoyed Mullingar’s annual steak festival, which was held until the late ‘70s. “It was a festival of two weeks where the pubs used to stay open till one o’clock. There was dances every night in Mullingar, in the County Hall, and every showband that was in the country would be down… It really was good craic… the Goldings would be coming down at night for that, and we could be going back up to there for another festival… I get a hangover every time I think of it!”

According to Gerry, “without friends you have nothing”. “There is no ifs, ands or buts about that. Unless you’ve somebody keeping your back, you have nothing.” Gerry’s upbeat attitude also keeps him going. “Everything is positive with me, everything… There is a way out of it, no matter what problems you’re coming to… I won’t be long around anybody that’s negative, just won’t. Only brings me down… I’m on the endgame now, so I’m keeping the bright side out the best I can!”