Memories from a great man and a different era

His talent for hard work was first utilised on the family farm which his father bought in Killoe in 1917 and which they moved to in 1919 after John's father Pat gave up on America due to the imminent arrival of prohibition and the family came back to Longford. For John, a sixteen year old American lad, used to the hustle and bustle of New York, and a few bob in his pocket from work, Longford, a small rural Irish town was something of a shock.

When his father passed away in 1934 John was left to run the farm but he knew it offered him no real future and by the end of the economic war in the late thirties John’s natural instinct was to try something new. It was an attitude and approach that served him well in life. With his friend MJ Lyons he brought Greyhound racing to Longford in 1939. They later developed the old Forresters hall on Water St. into the Odeon Cinema in 1941. He owned the Annaly Hotel and these were just some of the highlights in the 100 years of one of the county’s first truly great entrepreneurs.

John Doris sits patiently answering questions. He is in no rush. After the excitement of his 100th birthday party last week he has little demands on his time. He has lived for so long, and in so many different places, it is as if he is used to dealing with anything. Patience born from experience. And what experiences.

John Doris came to Longford just as the War of Independence was heating up in September 1919. It was quiet enough at first, he recalls some eighty odd years later but things soon got going.

“The first crowd that came over were the Black and Tans and they were followed by the Auxiliaries or the Auxies as we called them. I remember the burning of Granard, and the Irish boys were waiting for them in Ballinalee after the fire. I remember because I was on the roadside one morning, and a Tander came by - that’s what we called the trucks that the Tans travelled in, back to back with their guns facing outwards, which were always accompanied by an armoured truck.

“Anyway I noticed that there were legs hanging out the back of the Tander. They were coming back from the ambush at Clonfin. They had surrendered to Sean McEoin. Another officer wanted to shoot them all down, but McEoin told them to get one of the trucks and bring their wounded back to Longford. I watched them go by the house,” he remembers.

“It got so we knew the sound of the engines. When we were out in the fields working we’d hide in the ditches because they would be fond of just opening fire, taking pot shots along the road. They’d also arrive a a public house and collet up a group of men and bring them out to unblock roads that the IRA would have blocked the night before. They’d usually take a case of whiskey for themselves, they’d tell the publican to put a case in the truck and for peace’s sake the publican would do it. John continues warming to the task of explaining a sense of the turbulent time.

The British for the most part left the Doris’s alone in Coradooey. For the most part.

I don’t know whether they knew we were Americans or not, but they seemed to leave us alone. They did raid the house once looking for guns. Somebody told them we had arms. My father had a shotgun, and two revolvers that he got in New York that he had brought back with him. One day the police and two lorry loads of soldiers came into the yard, and the knock came on the door. “They told my mother they were going to raid the house for arms. As the troops were gathering outside preparing, she realised that there was a shotgun in the kitchen. She hit it quickly under the stairs before the soldiers came in. They searched the house top to bottom, behind pictures, in the front of the piano, they even went down the yard looking but they left having found nothing,” John recounts.

The man of the period was undoubtedly Sean McEoin, and John’s father and mother knew him well, both when he was on the run, and after. His parents were guests at the wedding, while John himself remembers the scene at the Cathedral.

“He was marrying Alice Cooney who was the aunt of Pat Cooney who was later Minister for Defence. I remember on the main gate of the Cathedral was a motion picture camera filming the event, and as I looked around Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins walked right by, as close to me now as you are,” he says stretching his hand over the kitchen table between us.

His final memory of those times is the family driving in to town to see the British leaving, mostly by train, and the Irish Army parading up the town to take over the Barracks led by Tom Carter, father of Frank Carter later a TD for Longford.

But it isn’t only the Irish independence struggle he recalls. He remembers meeting the great Jack Dempsey, in Dempsey’s pub in Time Square, New York one time when he was over there staying with relatives.

Jack made sure to welcome everyone who came in, and after being greeted John sat down at the bar to have a glass of beer.

“A fine strapping young fellow came in to the bar and I said ‘hello’, and I invited him to have a drink with me. ‘I will’, he said, and we chatted for about half an hour and then he left. The barman came over and asked me ‘how I knew Joe Di Maggio’. I said ‘I didn’t’, and he said ‘don’t you know you were just talking to him’. I went home to Brooklyn that night and told my female cousins and they nearly swooned right there on the spot,” John chuckles.

He also recalls a funny incident in wartime London, where he was visiting his sister Novena. The American War Office had already been in contact with John, as an American citizen to register and be classified for being called up. As a 37 year old male with no previous military experience he wasn’t top of the draft list, but he was given an ID which was emblazoned with the stars and stripes, and the eagle and the whole nine yards and the Americans might say. It entitled him among other things to free travel, and he went across to London to see his sister.

Delighted thought she was to see him, in time of rationing they couldn’t exactly feed him, so she sent John down to the Food Office to register for rations. When John saw the queue he decided to take a chance, walked up the front and presented the card expecting to be told to get back in line.
“The woman saw the card, and called out the manager and he started to apologise for keeping me waiting. He asked how long I was staying and I said six weeks and he went into his office and brought out a package in a cigar box and said that should keep me going for a while. I went back to my sisters and she said John, you have enough coupons to feed 100 people for 12 months,” he laughs devilishly remembering his brass neck.

And still he sits, engaged and interested, telling the Leader anything that takes his fancy. Memories from a different era, and a different world joined to this one by an incredible and energetic life span.
Putting flesh to the bones of history that you read about in books. A century of experience, which he shares humbly.

John Doris is well known for his achievement in business in Longford and in Ireland having owned the Annaly Hotel, the Odeon Cinema and the internationally famous Glencormack Hotel. What many may not know is that he got his first job while on holidays from school at the age of 12.
While still in America he and a cousin decamped from their homes one morning at 5am and went into town looking for work.

“I put on my fathers long pants and we went looking for jobs. At that time there was lot of people looking for work. We joined a queue and by the time we got to the top of it, it was 9am. The man at the top asked what my name was, and what age was I, and I wrote down my name and my age at 18. Then he said write down how much I expected, and I wrote eight dollars a week.

“So we started working that day, my cousin and I. We were manufacturing lynotype machines (for painting works). We were working a week and the office went out on strike, so we went out with them. We were out for four weeks and I came back to work on twelve dollars a week, and we worked for the rest of the summer until September when school started again,” John says with a chuckle in his voice.
From there his talent for hard work was utilised on the family farm which his father bought in Killoe in 1917 and which they moved to in 1919 after John’s father Pat gave up on America due to the imminent arrival of Prohibition.

In 1934 when his father passed on John took over the running of the farm but with the hard economic circumstances of the 1930s eventually sought revenue in different enterprising ways.
With his friend MJ Lyons he brought Greyhound racing to Longford in 1939.

Unfortunately it wasn’t a source of any huge wealth, but his enterprising ways went on. MJ Lyons, John, Stuart Glass (Head of Western Electric) and Bob Kickham (a well known builder) developed the site of the old Forresters Hall into the Odeon Cinema in 1941.

“People asked where we were going to get the people to fill it, it was a big barn of a place” John told the Longford Leader some 60 years later, but as he says himself they needn’t have worried.
“It was packed to the doors every night. There were queues over the bridge to get in.”

The venture was so successful that the four built another Odeon cinema in Tuam in 1942, also refurbishing an old pub and shop on site and selling them on. The Adelphi another cinema that had opened in the wake of the Odeon in Longford, run by Frank Farrell on Killashee St, was eventually bought as well. At one time John also owned the Ambassador Cinema in East Belfast before having to sell it a couple of years later because the city’s Orange brethren didn’t like a Southerner round them parts.

He was not deterred. By the 1950’s he was a very successful businessman and had grown to national prominence. He had bought a share in the Annaly Hotel, when Paddy Groake wanted to get out and eventually he owned it outright. He had a half interest in the Midland Warehouse where Supermac’s is now located in town.

And he bought the famous Glencormack Hotel which was 10 miles out of Bray sitting on ten acres of beautiful land.

The hotel had a very good reputation, and had pictures of famous guests who had dined and stayed there. Government Minister Frank Aitken often dined with guests of the state at the Glencormack. John also had a nearby pub, Sweeney’s which did very well but which he sold off again after four of five years.

By this stage he was a well respected figure around town and was asked to be joint trustee of the Longford Leader with the late John Quinn, while Lucius Farrell jnr came of age. This followed Lucious snr passing on in the mid-fifties and John has the height of respect for his widow Eileen Farrell,whom he says saved the Leader at that time and was one of the first true Irish women of business.
He also helped the late John Quinn to set up the Midland and Western Building society, serving as a director and as Chairman before it was bought by the Educational Building Society.

In 1964 however the jewel in John’s crown, the Glencormack burnt down. He remembers the night it happened.

“We had a fine dance every Saturday night, and I had just arrived up from a race meeting I had been at. I was talking to friends in the bar, when some of the staff came to me and said there was a fire, and that they had called the brigade. I rushed upstairs, and the fire was contained in one room. I opened the door and closed it quickly such was the intensity of the flames.

“I went into the room next door and the flames were shooting out the window. The Fire Brigade came out and tried to put out the fire. We had a good water supply but they used it all fighting the fire. The fire spread into the roof of the hotel which was good pine wood, and after that the flames went 100f in the air. The place was a shell before too long. People said we should rebuild it, but you couldn’t . It was an old Jameson house,” John says, reliving the night of the blaze.

At this stage, one of his old haunts is being refurbished with the Annaly Hotel due to reopen after years of disuse. John is glad.

“Jim Reynolds has told me that I have to come to see the opening. I told him that I will come, but that I’m not sure how I’ll get there. My eyesight is not as good as it was.”

Whatever about his eyesight at the moment, his entrepreneurial vision has never been in doubt since that first foray into the business waters all those years ago.

Courtesy of the Longford Leader
July 2003