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)


  1. Can't comment on Forty Coats but you're correct about the meaning of dekko. I don't know the origin but it's an expression my mother would use , meaning "give me a quick look". My mother was born in 48 and grew up on the North side so the use of the word in the article would be a similar era.

  2. I was born in 1960 and I remember Fran playing the part on Wanderly Wagon.
    In Cork for "Dekko" we say "Give us a sconce of that"! D'Echo is the evening paper!!!!
    Weren't things nice and social.

    1. Might one suggest that 'dekko'' is merely the Irish word ' dearcha' which means look, gaze ?
      Seamus O D


  4. My late father, Jack Flanagan, was a reporter with the Irish Independent in 1943 and wrote several pieces about Johnny Fortycoat. You'll find a copy of one of them at

  5. Dekko is British army slang from Hindi. dekk is to have a look. Have a dekko was shorthand for reconnaissance.

  6. Bang Bang, Johnny Fortycoat, and Jembo No Toes are all still alive. One of my Grandsons has a dog called Jembo Notoes.
    From they were Babies I would keep them quiet with stories of these great Dublin Heros

  7. Bang Bang, Johnny Forty coates, and Jembo Notoes are not dead.
    One of my Grandsons has a dog called Jembo Notoes.
    As babies I would keep my Grandkids amused for hours with stories of these great Dublin heroes,the kids would be terrified but loved it.
    Even in their 20s they still want to hear of Jembo walking up Meath Street with a silk hankie held to his throat