‘I’ve learnt all I know about life from the man in the chair’

Paddy Joe Burke on entering his 50th year in business

The man in the chair.

  The man in the chair is alive. He is dead. He is young. He is old. He is sad. He is happy. He is a millionaire and he’s not a millionaire. The man in the chair is Everyman.

  The chair is iconic for thousands of us – patrons at various or all times down the years – it’s a classic barber’s chair that can rotate and have its height adjusted, elevating you to a certain status in the room.

  He’s already greeted you, looked you in the eye…now he navigates the chair, aligns you with the mirror, applies the gown, and invariably asks how you are today.

  Later this year he’ll have been doing it for half a century. 50 years cutting hair, talking and listening, his Church Street salon a social hub that has brought laughter, companionship and comfort.

  He’s Paddy Joe, Roscommon’s famous barber – a man who has been central to life in the county town for decades. In some respects a larger than life character, he also has introverted tendencies. By now, his verbal utterances are legendary…a mixture of wisdom, wit, empathy, nostalgia, optimism…‘Paddy Joeisms’.

  When I called last Thursday, he closed the door to the world for an hour or so. We sat surrounded by hundreds of images squeezed into every available space on the walls of his salon – newspaper cuttings, photographs, tips on how best to live one’s life – much of the story of his own journey, of what fulfils and drives him, captured in this room.   

  Today, as he reflects on this looming 50th anniversary, Paddy Joe is emotional, proud too, but mainly he’s humbled by the scale of the milestone. Most of all, he is thankful.   

  “Paul,” he begins, “I feel nearly overcome with emotion…when I think of how privileged I have been to have met so many beautiful people here. They took me into their confidence…they shared their joy, their sadness and their happiness with me”.

  He pauses.

  “This is all about the man in the chair. I’ve learnt all I know about life from the man in the chair”.

One thing he has learnt is that listening can be just as important as talking. Sometimes, the man in the chair just wants to be heard.

  Most parts of most days, the hair-care is conducted against a backdrop of conversation about everyday life…but then the important things in life are the bits and pieces that make up everyday life.    

  Paddy Joe: “We’ve had some mighty fun over the years. We’ve written best man speeches, grooms’ speeches, father of the bride speeches! We’ve helped with eulogies, winning captains’ speeches…every emotion that could be shared has been shared here. I got educated about world politics and local politics. One man was a walking encyclopedia on the Middle East, which I was anxious to understand. I learnt about cattle prices, sheep prices, what lambs were making. About grants from the EU. I learnt that I needed to listen to the man in the chair, to be present for him. They are two of the greatest things you can give”.

Paddy Joe Burke, who hardly anyone can believe is now aged 67, grew up in Kinnity, Fourmilehouse, one of the six children of Thomas and Jane. His father died in 1961 (aged 51) when Paddy Joe was just six years old.

  “Even the other day, I saw a father and his son walking into O’Connor Park (Offaly v Roscommon match) and I spoke to them…it dawned on me again that I never knew what it was like to have a dad when I was growing up. I never got to go to a game with him. I was told that my father was mad into football…” His voice trails off.

  He was extremely close to his mother, whom he adored. At “10.28 on the 14th of September 1999” when he was in the middle of a haircut he got the phone call. His mother had died suddenly. He was overcome with grief.

  “I owe a great debt of gratitude to Mam. She was a mother and father to me. I have dyslexia…the school curriculum passed me by. I remember once – I would have been 11 or 12 at the time – I asked Mum how will I get a job when I grow up. She gave me some advice. She said to always have manners, to live my life by common sense, to always make eye contact when I meet someone, and to say hello to them and smile. My whole ethos for life is based on that”.

  When he started out as a barber, there was further important loving support from his mother too. Having completed an apprenticeship, he opened his own barber’s at just 17 years of age, renting Mrs. Cahill’s shop in Abbey Street (where Roscommon Credit Union is now).

  “The rent was six pounds a week but I was only taking in three pounds. Every week my Mam collected her widow’s pension and gave me the three pound I needed. Eventually I was able to meet the rent and began to make a few bob for myself”.

  A popular man called Paddy Coyle had been running a very successful barber shop in Church Street since around 1935. Paddy died in late 1973, and Paddy Joe moved into his premises in ‘74. It was to be the making of Paddy Joe business-wise, as he ‘inherited’ Paddy Coyle’s customers. Most were local farmers. Paddy Joe, being “a farmer’s son” had an immediate affinity with them. He came to love them. Ever since 1974, his Church Street premises has bubbled with all human life.

  “The farmer who is at the mart and wants to pop in for a quick haircut became my typical customer” he says. As the years passed and the town developed, all types of people came in. Paddy Joe’s became a social hub. To this day, men gather there on a Monday after a big Roscommon football match. Often, they have no intention of getting an actual haircut; they are gathering so that can discuss the game, hear Paddy Joe’s view, share in the warmth of a communal experience.

There has been craic…and there have also been moments when a chat in Paddy Joe’s has helped men who may be going through a tough time.

  “An English woman came in one day. She said ‘every time I pass this door I hear laughter…I had to come in and find out for myself!’”

  Women are regular callers…popping in with their sons, collecting husbands, maybe having a word with Paddy Joe about football or other issues of the day.

  I ask about arguments or rows, whether the conversation amongst customers has ever boiled over.

  “Well I remember one particularly heated row over politics. All of a sudden the man in the chair hopped up and went out the door! I had to go out into the street after him to retrieve the gown! He’d heard enough from the fella he was arguing with…it was pure Civil War politics”.

  Another time, Paddy Joe had gone ‘walkabout’ – as he has a tendency to do. He might pop down the town for a coffee, happily leaving the door open (“I trust the man in the chair”). On his return, there’d be a customer or two, maybe reading the newspapers. He recalls returning to his barber’s from a ramble down town some years ago.

  “I looked in the door and there were four men inside, all of them singing. It would be fair to say they had drink taken. They were singing four different songs! Seamus Duke was with me. I remember Seamus saying ‘You wouldn’t get a quartet like that anywhere in the world!’”

  Another story that always brings a smile to Paddy Joe when he looks back on the decades comes to mind.

  “These two local men, who will have to remain anonymous, arrived into town every Friday. God help them, they were cursed on the double…they were fond of money and fond of drink. They’d collect the pension in the post office and then go to the pub, where they’d order two glasses (half-pints) of Guinness, one each.

  “When the first man got his glass and had it paid for, he looked at the barman and asked if he could have an empty pint glass. When he received the glass he emptied the contents of his half-pint into the pint glass, draining the froth into it. The barman put the emptied half-pint glass into the sink, then asked the customer would he mind explaining. ‘No problem’ said the man. ‘It’s just in case someone comes in and wants to stand me a drink, it’ll be a pint I’m having!’”

  There have been other experiences too, many times when ‘the man in the chair’ opened up to Paddy Joe.

  “One day a man came in…I waited for him to sit into the chair, but he’d come in for a chat. I could see he was suppressing tears. I pulled down the blinds and closed the door. He talked and I listened. He left slightly the better for it…nine years later he came in with a spring in his step and asked how I was…I told him I was in the bunker that day. Then he shut the door and I talked and he listened. That’s a true barbershop story”.

  Paddy Joe talks, and Paddy Joe listens. He’s had low points in his life, so he understands much about the human condition, about the challenges we can all be faced with. Having given up alcohol himself in 1988, he is familiar with drink-related issues, and able to identify with the struggles faced by people dealing with addiction. The man in the chair has helped him too, whenever Paddy Joe facilitated it.

  “If my own ego and pride didn’t get in the way, the man in the chair would always sort my head out”.

  

The GAA is enormous in his life, in his barber’s. Every trophy won by Roscommon since 1972 has made its way to Paddy Joe’s, with players and management in tow.

  “Roscommon football keeps me awake at night. I can’t sleep before a big game. I go to all the games”.

  His favourite ever match was Roscommon’s 1980 All-Ireland semi-final win over Armagh. It’s his favourite because it signalled that his county was into an All-Ireland final.

  “I froze the moment in my mind…I thought ‘this doesn’t get any better. This is magic. We will be there on All-Ireland final day, behind the Artane Boys Band, Roscommon emerging from the tunnel’”.

  After that semi-final win, there wasn’t much hair-cutting done at Paddy Joe’s for a while.

  “We partied for a week. We came home on Thursday. I had travelled up as part of a full car-load. The plan had been to stay Sunday night, but when Roscommon won, that plan changed. We borrowed a few bob from friends…over the following few days we let the world know that Roscommon were in the final. Pints were bought for the Dubs…we were great ambassadors!”

He met Maura by chance, over a cup of coffee. She’s Maura McGettrick from Co. Sligo, and now she’s his wife. On their second date – in Strandhill – Maura asked Paddy Joe if he’s into sport.

  “I said I had a passing interest” he says, not being sure how best to deal with the query. As it turns out, Maura is “obsessed with sport”.

  Paddy Joe recalls: “I remember thinking me and this lovely lady could have a lot of happy times on the road going to ball games!”

  They got married in October 2016.

  “I was so lucky to meet her. I was blessed to meet a woman that’s as nice and as kind and who fully accepts Paddy Joe the way that I am. What a gift from God Maura is”.

  Since marrying Maura, he’s moved to Ballymote in Co. Sligo, making the 44-mile journey to Roscommon for work every day.

  “I love the drive from Ballymote to Roscommon, across the Curlews and into Boyle. I’m more enthusiastic now than when I started, but I recognise that I’m in the twilight of my working career (pressed, he says he intends to keep going for some time yet). I love the town of Roscommon, and the county. I have a childlike love for this town. It has been exceptionally good to me.

  “I cannot believe that I’m into my 50th year in business. I’m blown away by the love and affection of the man in the chair, by his loyalty. How blessed I’ve been. They’ve been 50 wonderful years of enjoyment and privilege. I’ve been touched, moved and inspired by the man in the chair. I’m eternally grateful to each and every one who sat in the chair over the 50 years. Thank you very much”.

  He’s a touch emotional, as well one might be. I can see that the memories have flooded back…the joys, the sorrows, the fun, the camaraderie.

  What will be lost when he eventually hangs up his scissors, I can’t imagine, but the end of that era is a while off yet. As I depart, the chair is empty, but it will swivel again in the morning and the chatter will resume and someone will pick their Roscommon team to start in the championship. Paddy Joe will make eye contact, smile, talk…and listen.