A man for all seasons
In 33 years living in Westport, Tony Naughton has become one of the most familiar faces on the town’s streets
THERE is nothing heroic or flamboyant about Tony Naughton, and that is just the way he likes it. For over a quarter of a century he has been ensuring the streets of Westport are sparkling every morning before most people even get out of bed. Through this work, he has become an unlikely ambassador for the town and has also been placed in a unique position to map the changes in Westport down through the years.
A native of Tuam, Tony met his wife Ursula at a dance in the TF in Castlebar, and from that moment his life changed. The couple married and moved to Ursula’s home on Castlebar Street in Westport in 1975. Last Wednesday they celebrated 33 years of marriage, but for Tony it also marked 33 years living in a town that has changed dramatically, though one he still calls home.
“People from Tuam used to always come down here to climb the Reek but Westport town was never really mentioned. It was around 1970 before I ever really heard of Westport. My sister lived in Islandeady and I used to go there on holidays when I was a young lad.”
The youngest of eight children, Tony holidayed at his sister’s house every year and, as he grew up, his visits became more regular.
“My friends and I used to rent a Morris Minor for ten bob for the weekend and drive to Castlebar to see Big Tom or someone at the dances in the TF. We might also go to Westport to the Starlight on the Saturday, with the wrappers off Lucozade bottles over the lights when there was fog. When I moved to Westport in 1975 I couldn’t get over how busy the town was. There were more tourists here than in Salthill.”
Tony began working in the Textiles at the Demense, where he says half the town worked. He later moved to Molloy’s Hardware Store on Shop Street for several years, before joining the Urban District Council’s outdoor staff in 1983. Beginning work at 6am every morning, Tony’s responsibility is to get the town looking the way people have become accustomed to it being. Some people might never see Tony working, maybe others just think Westport is always clean, but most locals know the affable blow-in and appreciate his daily toil for the benefit of all.
Through his work, Tony has also watched Westport transform dramatically in the last 25 years.
“The town has changed a lot,” he said. “Nearly every place I knew when I came to town and nearly every shop is different now. You’d go over the bridge at The Mall every morning and Martin McGreal would always be outside his butcher’s shop going on about football, sure all of Bridge Street is changed now, bar maybe Dominick Moran’s and Tony O’Grady’s.
“The town has become very built-up and the local heart is gone out of it – it is certainly not the same. A lot of people don’t know anybody now. There was a time when it’d take me hours to get up Bridge Street for all the people I’d know and have to stop and talk to, whereas now I meet people and I know none of them. It used to be like opening a photo album, but now I often don’t even know where people live when I am asked for directions. There are so many housing estates and residents now, that I often direct people to the Post Office to find who or where they are looking for.”
For Tony, what is really missing today is the old Covie heart of Westport town.
“Westport has grown, it is a big town now with a lot of new buildings. The families that were the heart of the town are gone and very few people from Westport still live in the town centre. When I came to town there were loads of families living on Castlebar Street and they are all gone now. The Octagon and James Street are also very different, sure every street is gutted. It is sad.
“I am only here 33 years but those who have lived here a lot longer must be very saddened by the decline when they look back. The old pubs and shops are gone. I remember John O’Grady’s was a lovely shop with the shovels and buckets outside, but it is very different now. That era is long gone and Westport now barely resembles the place I moved to, but I suppose you have to move with the times even if you are saddened by such changes.”
Tony has witnessed this personally, as he and Ursula moved to The Quay six years ago, during a time of great transition on their beloved Castlebar Street. “When we moved to Castlebar Street in 1975 it was full of families,” he said, “but when we were leaving at Christmas in 2002 there was nobody to say goodbye to, only the Brehenys in the garage across the road. It was emotional when it came to the time to go, but it was the only thing to do. Like a lot of others, we had to get out of the town.”
Apart from his work, which he loves as it has allowed him to meet thousands of people – ‘including a lot coming home from the night before when I’d be starting work’ – Tony’s other great passion is sport.
“I love sport,” he said. “Every young fellow kicked a ball in Tuam when we were growing up. Our mothers would have to call us in at half ten at night and we’d still be kicking a ball of newspaper tied up with string between two stones for goalposts. You could score three goals with one kick because the ball would fall apart. I’d watch any kind of sport, but coming from the town of the terrible twins GAA is my main one.
“When I came to Islandeady as a kid I also got caught up in Mayo football. I remember playing junior football with Islandeady even though I was illegal – I suppose they won’t suspend me for it now.”
However, his loyalty still lies with his native Tribesmen, something that Tony’s many friends in Westport have been unable to change.
“I’d be telling a lie if I didn’t say I still support Galway in matches against Mayo, but I would never begrudge Mayo a win. I shake hands with my friends before and after a game and we never fall out about it. I always have support on my side in the form of Christy Hyland – another great GAA man from Tuam. I still go to a lot of matches with Tom Navin and the lads. I always say that Tom Navin is the only man that will bring you home – dead or alive – from a football match, and I feel it would be great for the county if Mayo won an All-Ireland. I go to a lot of local games too, and one of my best memories is the famous Westport United FAI Cup Final in Kilkenny. It’s lovely to see both GAA and soccer being played in Westport. I see a lot of lads involved in sport and they never get in trouble. I think sport is a great thing for all youngsters to be involved in. It’s healthy and they learn to respect people.”
A pioneer, Tony takes great pride in his work and likes Westport to look well for the tourists as well as the locals. He is proud to have played such an important role in Westport’s Tidy Towns successes, and is also well known to the children of Westport, through his role as the ‘lollipop man’ at Scoil Pádraig.
“I do take pride in keeping Westport clean. I’ve passed through several towns in the past going to matches and the state of them – that is when you really appreciate the effort that goes into keeping Westport the way it is. It was great to win the Tidy Towns twice, I went to Dublin one of the times and it was a really proud moment. This is the fiftieth year of Tidy Towns and I believe we have a real chance of success. A huge amount of effort and time goes into the Tidy Towns in Westport. Some people say it to me and I take pride in compliments that the town looks well and clean; it’s better than having them complaining. I suppose it is an important job and it is only if it was not done that people would miss it.”
As for the future of Westport, Tony would like to see more green areas and says that while it might be no harm that the town has developed over the years, he would not like to see this going much further.
Alas, he still laments the loss of friends whose lively characters have never been replaced on the streets of Westport.
“There used to be a crowd sitting on The Mall for a while every day. You could pass hours there just chatting and watching the world go by on Bridge Street. Joe Berry and my brother-in-law Joe Crawford and a few more that have since passed on would always have been there chatting to everyone. The town looks well but the ould stock are just not here anymore and the heart is torn out of the place a bit. The days of young lads playing football on the streets of Westport are long gone.”
For now however, Tony and Ursula are fulfilled in life. They still travel to dog shows – including Crufts – all the time, but otherwise like to live a quiet life doing some gardening with their Cairn Terrier, Laddy. Along with his wide circle of friends, Tony’s nephew – Parish Administrator in Westport, Fr Denis Carney – is always close by for a chat.
Having paid his dues to his adopted town, Tony says he is now very content in life and is still charmed by Westport.
“They never gave me the freedom of Westport yet,” he laughs, “and I’m still waiting to be formally declared a Covie, but there was probably as much chance of me having won a gold medal in Beijing last week as that happening! Still, maybe some day I’ll be inducted to the Covie Hall of Fame!”