IT may sound like something from a fairytale, but ask John McGrath what his childhood was like and his answer is honest: life wasn’t always easy for the family of six who lived in Youghal’s Clock Gate Tower, where John’s dad, Christopher, was in charge of winding the clock to keep time for the town.
“It was like living in a grandfather clock,” John says. “There were two weights running down on either side and a big pendulum, and the clock had to be wound manually, twice a week. When my father moved on in years, I came to his assistance.
“The clock gate was like a fridge, with three-foot-thick walls. It was the same temperature winter and summer. If you stood very still in the first floor at night when there was very little traffic, you could hear the pendulum tick. Just before the hour was about to strike, you’d hear the noise of all the ropes creaking and straining.”
Three generations of McGraths lived in the iconic former gaol and gallows, until they vacated it in favour of the comforts of a council house in 1959.
John McGrath, now in his early eighties, was one of four children born to Christy and Agnes McGrath. The job of clock caretaker had passed from father to son: Christy’s parents, John and Julia, originally moved into the tower with their 16 children in 1915.
Living conditions in the tower were tough, John recalls: his mother cooked dinners on a makeshift slow-cooker made from a biscuit tin packed with sawdust. There was no electricity in the tower until 1953, when the council decided to install lights for the clock-face: a sympathetic electrician helped the McGraths with an unofficial connection for their own household use.
To compound the difficult living conditions, John’s eldest sister had a disability and was wheelchair-bound, an additional struggle as accommodation was from the first storey and up. However, from her seat at the window above the arch, she had a bird’s eye view of happenings in the town.
“She used to sit at the window in the first floor and as people went about their business in town, they’d look up and wave to her,” John recalls. “Sometimes they’d make their way up the steps and sit and have a cup of tea and talk about the local gossip, so there was a big social life for her there.”
The clock tower was built in 1776 and originally served as the town’s gaol and even a gallows: at least two hangings were known to have been conducted from the tower.
As a small child, John’s fertile imagination could get the better of him at night.
As well as winding the clock, John’s father had other duties as gatekeeper. He had to run up the tricolour if any visiting dignitaries were set to pass through the gate and into the town and he also had to ring the bell to notify the fire brigade in case of a fire or other emergency.
John remembers several instances of his father ringing the bell in his childhood, and of being told to climb the tower to alert his father that the fire brigade was on its way.
Having moved to Scotland for work in his late teens, upon his return, John persuaded his parents to apply for council housing.
“When I came back, I couldn’t get over the conditions and the misery,” he says. “I said to my mother, you can’t keep carrying my sister up and down those steps.”
“I went to the council, and I think they were probably only waiting for us to say we wanted out of it, because they could see the conditions too. A house became vacant at the north end of the town.
“But I don’t think my sister ever forgave me for it, and my parents felt her sorrow. Her life became much more isolated: when you’re out of sight you’re out of mind and now she was tucked away down the back of the town.”
John McGrath with students of Pobalscoil na Tríonóide.
In a decision that John brands as “unforgivable,” the council renovated the tower he says insensitively in the 1960s.
“They took out the clock, the pendulum and the weights and then gutted the building from top to bottom,” he says.
“They put in a spiral staircase that ran all the way up to the top. They never took a photograph or anything. They kept no plans.”
The most recent €750,000 renovations that saw the tower re-opened as a tourist attraction in 2016 saw designers and architects consult extensively with Mr McGrath on his memories of the interior and the features of the clock itself.
John is no stranger to telling his story and a song about him, ‘The Ballad of John McGrath’, even features on a recently launched Comhaltas CD, Oidreacht Eochaille (The Heritage of Youghal).
Now, his story features in a new documentary on the clock tower made by young filmmakers from Transition Year in local secondary school Pobalscoil na Tríonóide.
Mentored by filmmaker Max Le Cain and Chris Hurley of Cork Film Centre and funded by an Arts Development Grant from Cork County Council, the group of 17 filmmakers researched, planned and filmed the project and the resulting film is set to be screened as part of First Cut! Youth Film Festival this week.
John says it’s been a delight to work with the students on the project, and that knowing he’s playing his part in recording the lived history of his beloved hometown is very satisfying.
First Cut! Youth Film Festival was founded 11 years ago and has screened over 3,000 short films by young filmmakers since.
Mary McGrath, festival director and local Cork Young Filmmakers co-ordinator, produced the clock tower documentary.
She says the film’s screening will be an important celebration both of the work of the young filmmakers and of Youghal’s unique and fascinating history.
“Showcasing the film on a local platform demonstrates the accessibility of filmmaking to the filmmakers and a broad audience of their peers,” Mary says.
“The project has really increased their appreciation of the rich heritage of their local history, and for the public, the film is such an insight into the iconic building, and its place in the history of the area.”
John McGrath: My Life in the Clocktower will screen free of charge at the Mall Arts Centre in Youghal on Friday March 13 at 7pm as part of First Cut! Youth Film Festival 2020. www.firstcutfilmfestival.com