The Old Bill

(by Gerry Moss, from IMC Newsletter Spring 2010)
One of the IMC’s best-known characters turns 80.

We’ve had our share of mountain days in snow and rain and sun,
But not enough – for every day was full of joy and fun.
Such days are shorter now, perforce, to spare both heart and lung,
Our knees on screes are ill at ease; nor cling we where we clung.
Yet even these bathetic days
Recall the old athletic days,
Those carefree and frenetic days
When all the hills were young!
B. F.

It was a dull, dreary October afternoon, with sheets of fine drizzle and a sharp wind. Down by Dún Laoghaire harbour there was a grey mist on the sea’s face, while up on Killiney Hill a bank of grey cloud smothered all. Not much to be cheerful about, then. Yet, as we stepped through the doorway of The Purple Ocean restaurant, it was a case of all changed, changed utterly. Mairéad and Bill were there on the threshold to greet us, and behind them a host of familiar faces and a hub-bub of friendly banter. There must have been at least a score of people gathered there, most of them current or former IMC members, ranging in age from old to really old. Indeed, it was quite a novel experience to be regarded by the others as something of a spring chicken. We were there to mark Bill Hannon’s eightieth birthday and to celebrate, too, his unique and continuous participation in the activities of the IMC over half a century, and the lasting friendships resulting therefrom.

Having joined the IMC as a young man, Bill soon became involved in all aspects of the club’s activities, climbing and walking in Wicklow, the Mournes, Donegal, Scotland and the Alps. Later, when the time came for him to settle down, he showed remarkable acumen for someone who was originally a northsider, by persuading Mairéad, not just to marry him, but to set up home in Dalkey, only a stone’s throw from the quarry. A masterstroke, and one that has been paying dividends ever since. Thus, during those early years of married life, whenever any of his contemporaries could escape for a few hours from domestic or business duties, Bill was uniquely situated to team up with them for a spot of climbing in the quarry.

It became customary, after these climbing sessions, to repair to Bill’s home on Mapas Road, where he would preside over the learned debates, while Mairéad, the power behind the throne, would ensure that no-one went without refreshments, before she herself joined in the discussions. Down through the years, as these sessions attained almost legendary status, a steady trickle of climbers would come to join in the fun, and a major coup was the luring of one of Ireland’s foremost climbers, Frank Winder, out of retirement and back on the rock.

As his family grew and the number of his climbing peers diminished, Bill, while still maintaining the old links, drew on his ability to mix easily with old and young, to forge new climbing partnerships and widen the scope of his activities within the club. Alpine trips, Scottish trips, the annual meets to The Lakes and Wales, snow camps, night hikes, winter routes in the gullies and rockclimbing on crags from Kerry to Donegal were all grist to his mill. A man for all seasons and all aspects of mountaineering: from putting up new routes in Wicklow and Connemara, to exploring the mountains of Greenland; from climbing in the Tetons and the Dolomites, to backpacking the Lairig Ghru in Scotland or walking the Camino del Santiago in Spain.

What struck me about Bill when our paths first crossed, back in the late sixties, was the speed and ease with which he scrambled or backclimbed down the various gullies in the quarry – the mark of a man at home on steep mountain ground. Indeed, he was always more of an all-rounder than a rock specialist, and never aspired to climb much above the severe grade. All the more remarkable, then, that he was climbing better in his sixties than he was back in the sixties, and I can still remember his satisfaction at making his first VS leads at a stage when most of his contemporaries had called it a day. Ten years ago he decided to mark his seventieth birthday by leading Quartz Gully, a classic but demanding three pitch HS on Twin Buttress in Glendalough. Initial attempts were thwarted by bad weather, but sometime after his seventyfirst birthday, and ably seconded by Liam, he finally succeeded. In recent years trouble with his knee joints has ruled out the rockclimbing for Bill, but he still walks regularly on the hills and we frequently encounter him on his strolls through the quarry, where we exchange pleasantries, while he casts a keen eye over our diminishing climbing skills.

Many of those at the birthday bash are regular participants in a long-standing tradition: an annual weekend trip to the west, based in a cottage at the foot of the Maamturks. Here, gathered under one roof, could be found an alarming collection of ailments, a considerable hoard of prescription pills and potions, and an impressive array of artificial bits and bobs. Yet every year they would answer the call and come together for the craic, for rambles on the ‘Turks and Bens or, perhaps, some climbing on Errisbeg. The Old Affables, The Golden Oldies, The Over the Hill Brigade – call them what you will, these individuals were key players in nurturing a fledgeling IMC and putting the club on a sound footing all those years ago. Inevitably, the passing years have taken their toll on this small band, but there is still a great joie de vivre among those that remain.

Bill has an abiding interest in poetry, and a particular fondness for the the works of W. B.Yeats. With this very much in mind, Michael Lunt composed a few verses to honour the occasion, and recited them to an appreciative audience.

The Stolen Old One

Below the famous quarry
And above the ancient town
There lies a corner semi
Where a man of great renow
n Is likely to be heard –
Pontificating cogently,
On matters of such gravity
We hang on every word.

Come away old William Hannon
To the waters west of Shannon
Where we’ll walk upon the shore;
For the world’s more full of bullshit
And we don’t need any more.

He’s a font of ancient lore
And a mentor to the young,
And he’ll never, ever, bore
– Unless he’s spouting Kung.
Important men would phone him
From Russia to Lesotho;
For such as me and you too
It’s an honour to have known him.

Come away old William Hannon
To the waters west of Shannon
Where we’ll walk upon the shore;
For the world’s more full of bullshit
And we don’t need any more.

Away with us he’s going
To our cottage in the west,
Mairéad will do the stowing
And we’ll all be on our best.
We’ll ply him with some booze
To keep the bugger happy
Before he gets too snappy
– He’s been known to blow a fuse.

Come back old William Hannon
From the waters west of Shannon
When we’ve walked upon the shore.
We’ve put up with you for all these years
We can take a little more.

Michael Lunt.