Friday, May 30, 2014

Johnny Forty Coats (1943)

"Forty Coats, how many coats ye wearin' today?" - Forty Coats chatting to a young lad in Dublin, February, 1943 (Independent Newspapers)

Most Irish people of a certain age have heard the name Forty Coats. Those familiar with the name will probably recall the popular children's TV character on RTÉ in Ireland in the 1980s. What you may not realise is that the character was loosely based on a real person, PJ Marlow. Marlow, and perhaps other vagrants in Dublin in the 1930s and '40s, was known by the name Johnny Forty Coats or Forty Coats.

RTÉ's popular Fortycoats (

Johnny Forty Coats was a Dublin vagrant who was so named for his habit of wearing multiple overcoats regardless of the weather. Francis Mc Manus, writing in an obituary for him in the Irish Press in February, 1943 described him thus, "Winter or Summer, he dressed as if he were living in some blizzard-stricken spot within a stone's throw of the Arctic Circle. He wore innumerable overcoats - perhaps he himself forgot how many of them there were! - until he was encased and layered like a fine onion."

 Another snap of Forty Coats from February, 1943 (Independent Newspapers)

Forty Coats cut an odd figure traipsing the streets of 1930s and 1940s Dublin but he was well regarded and well recalled. Apart from his gentle eccentricity, his only apparent vice was his habit of spitting on the floor of the cafés that would allow him be a patron. He seems to have been particularly popular with the children in the neighbourhoods he wandered. McManus, again writing in that 1943 obituary,

I take it that "dekko" means a look at but it's not a term I've come across before. Pete St. John, writer of such perennials as The Fields Of Athenry and Dublin In The Rare Old Times, referred to Johnny Forty Coats in the chorus of his song about the Dublin of his youth, The Mero. The song also references Bang Bang, another still fondly remembered Dublin street character.

And we all went up to the Mero,
 hey there! Who's your man?   
 It's only Johnny '40 coats', 
sure he's a desperate man.    
Bang Bang shoots the buses
 with his golden key.   
 Hey! Hi! Diddeleedai, 
and out goes she.

Forty Coats gets several mentions in the papers in 1943 and it appears that he passed away sometime that year. However, despite the appearance of an obituary for him it isn't at all clear to me that he did indeed shuffle off then. For example, having published an obituary for him the Irish Press ran a short story, a retraction of sorts, headlined "Forty Coats Is Still Going Strong" later in February, 1943, which includes some extra biographical information on the man. 

Mentions of Forty Coats trail off in 1943 but his name appears in passing in articles in 1944 and 1946. If anyone has further information on the man please leave a comment. 

Johnny Forty Coats, sans hat, 1943 (Independent Newspapers)

Monday, May 12, 2014

Old Borough National School, Swords, Co. Dublin (1809)

Visitors to Swords brave enough to venture beyond the palatial confines of the Pavilions Shopping Centre may have noticed the Old Boro Pub, a rather imposing building that sits at the junction of the Malahide Road and the nowadays rather forlorn looking Main Street. Its size makes it look more like a hotel than a simple public house. The building operated as a primary school for 191 years until closing in the year 2000. A new school was built around the corner and the Smith Group took on the old school and converted it into the popular watering hole it now is.

The Old Boro Pub in recent times (Source:

The town has its fair share of notable buildings, including the Round Tower and Clock Tower of St. Columba's and the 800 year old  Swords Castle, all of which are mentioned in a previous post of mine. However the school building is by far the most significant one constructed in the town during the 19th Century. 

The Old Borough School as depicted on a postcard circa 1900

As the 19th Century commenced Swords was a small village mainly populated by farm labourers. It would be many years before its character would be irrevocably altered by the construction of Dublin Airport at Collinstown, a couple of miles to the south, and the rapid suburbanisation and industrial development of the town it spurred. While the town was not of any great importance throughout much of its history by some quirk of politics it was allowed elect two MPs to the Irish Parliament. Weston St. John Joyce had this to say of the political arrangement:

"Swords was constituted a borough by James I, returning two members to the Irish House of Commons, and was one of the few free boroughs in Ireland (ie, not private property), the franchise having been vested in what were called, in the slang of the period, "Potwallopers", meaning Protestants who had been resident for a continuous period of six months."

With the Acts Of Union of 1800 and the consequent dissolution of the Irish Parliament, Swords was granted a juicy compensation package for foregoing its political clout. The princely sum of £15,000 was awarded to the town. Local grandees decided that the entirety of this money would be spent on a school or schools in the locality. 

The Old Boro National School as it was in the 1970s looking pretty much the same as it had for the previous 160 years. (Source: South Dublin Libraries/ Patrick Healy Collection)

The construction of the school was a big deal as save for Swords House and the vicarage on Church Road, there had been no significant buildings erected in the town since Norman times. By all accounts the construction caused a mini-boom in the hitherto economically depressed town, as it took a lot of labour to bring the project to fruition. The design of the school building was tasked to Francis Johnston, better recalled these days as the architect responsible for Townley Hall in Louth, Dublin's storied GPO and St. George's Church on Hardwicke Place, also in Dublin. It seems his initial designs were rather extravagant and it was only on the fourth revision that his more frugally minded design was given the go ahead. Consequently, the structure has none of the finesse of many of his other works but is still to my mind a handsome building. 

One of Francis Johnston's plans of the Old Borough School (Source: Áine Shields)

In my younger days I wondered why the handful of Protestants of  primary school age in the town got this seemingly enormous building to themselves while the Catholics and everyone else attended drab utilitarian looking 1970/80s built schools with plenty of prefabricated additions. Initially the school was integrated, taking children in of school age, regardless of denomination, and due to the endowment, no fees had to be paid by any of the childrens' parents. There were other perks to attending the school, such as free coal and funding for several apprenticeships every year.

While the student body was integrated the ethos of the school was Church Of Ireland. This didn't sit well with the Catholics of the town, who lobbied for years to have the issue redressed. Catholic primary schools were established in the town's former chapel in the 1830s although they were fee paying and it wasn't until 1853 that the last Catholic students ceased attending the Old Borough school. In 1855, a dedicated Catholic primary school was built on Seatown Road in the town.

Catholic School, Seatown Road, built 1855, obscured by a horrendously misjudged Celtic Tiger-era addition. (Source:

Although the issue of ethos and curriculum was addressed by having separate denominational schools there still remained the issue of funding. The administrators of the Old Boro School still controlled the purse strings of the endowment. The provision of funding would remain a contentious issue for years to come, which wasn't fully resolved until 1887 when an equitable division of endowment funds between the Protestant and Catholic schools was agreed under the provisions of the Educational Endowment (Ireland) Act, 1885