The Long Read – Obituary of the much loved Gerry Horgan
At 12.54pm the Fanagan’s hearse stopped on Montague Street. Forty years previously No. 6 had been converted to a restaurant by a returning émigré hotel manager. Gerry’s was on its way to becoming a Dublin institution.
He wasn’t a Dub. He might have bristled at the description but he fitted right in. Open six days a week Gerry’s, over the years, served an estimated 1.5 million of its signature breakfasts- béilí that earned from Lonely Planet the description “a treasure. You won’t find a more authentic spot to enjoy a traditional Irish fry-up”. A journal.ie reviewer who, otherwise fulsome in his praise, was careless enough to term the restaurant a “good greasy spoon” was put right with the retort “we really don’t like that [‘greasy spoon’] tag. Everything on the breakfast is grilled except for the egg.”
Gerry Horgan was born in Court Street, Enniscorthy on 5th May 1955, the son of John, a shop manager, and, Margaret (nee Roche), a strong farmer’s daughter from nearby Caim. The cue for his later career may have come from his mother who was said to have been constantly cooking and baking. He attended the local CBS national and secondary schools before setting off for the bar, and later, hotel business in Dublin. Periods in Searsons on Waterloo Road and The Burlington Hotel led to a six year sojourn in Germany and Switzerland.
On holiday in Dublin in 1981 Gerry met Mary. Love blossomed. On 9th September 1983 the writer’s first cousin was hackneying the then mustachioed model county Adonis to his nuptials in Glanmire, Co. Cork. AIB bank official Mary travelled the short distance from the Sarsfield’s Court, Fitzgerald family farm.
Mary Fitzgerald Horgan became his rock as she moved up the AIB ranks before retiring as a Bank Manager in 2010. Issues were discussed and debated and all major decisions were taken as a twosome. When the occasion demanded, Mary could be found on Gerry’s floor or putting her shoulder to the wheel behind the scenes – roles that beckoned for Olwyn and Daire as soon as they were able.
Mary and Gerry were a couple that delighted in each other’s company. They were discerning diners-out whose travel bug took them on a multitude of short breaks at home and abroad and to holidays in far off parts including Mauritius, Malaysia, South Africa, North and South America. Nothing less than 5 star would do. As Daire said in his funeral tribute “you always brought us to the best restaurants, bought the nicest champagne while buying everything else on special offer”. Socialising, beach baking and ice cream devouring were de rigeur. Post-holiday regaling his customers, part of the price Gerry had to pay was the slag citing our pride in sponsoring such adventures. A lover of walks and trips, with her own circle, Mary was the epitome of the modern independent woman, deserving of a piece in her own right. Mary’s loss in her battle with illness on 29th September 2021 was a devasting blow.
The apples in Gerry’s eye were Olwyn and Daire, both of whose life skills were well honed from years serving in the restaurant. A proud Gerry would often recount Olwyn’s rise in the hotel industry. Fortunately, he was able to enjoy her COVID delayed wedding to Stephen on 26th February 2022.
Daire was the anointed successor. In 2017, after a sojourn in America and Asia, he returned, intent on succeeding his father. Welcoming, personable and calm (only once, according to his mother, and at the end of a particularly trying day, did he claim to be “Gerryed out”), Daire took to his role with gusto but eventually found his plans thwarted by the difficulties posed by the pandemic for small restaurants like Gerry’s and moved into another career.
Rising at 6am, Gerry was at his station getting ready to open at 7.00am. A 2.30 to 4.30pm siesta at home in Ranelagh led to a return until closing time at 7.00pm. A sharp 30 minute clean up brought the working day to an end.
His was the way of small family business capitalism, an unsung and undervalued part of the economy. Proud of his contribution, he abhorred the dependency effects of what he saw as handouts, was no fan of untrammelled public expenditure and saw little value in what he considered the over-regulation with which he had to grapple. He believed in getting things done, paying one’s way, giving value (his prices were never more than modest) and had an old-fashioned belief in standards. A particular bugbear was his belief young people were not trained to properly clean.
Sometimes people could be “Gerryed out”. His regime did not suit everyone. The uninterested, spoofers and lead swingers were quickly identified and dispatched. For those who made the cut a rewarding, enjoyable and customer esteemed journey followed.
Gerry’s may have been called a restaurant. It was much more. For many it was a social centre and daily feature. Particularly for older singles, mostly, but not exclusively, male, it was often the one place they could be assured of daily social interaction. The place had its rhythms. Certain spots were reserved for certain people at certain times. Not because anyone ever said. It was just the way it was. You did not have to be respectable to be part of the Gerry’s community but you had to be respectful. If pluralism means live and let live Gerry’s was pluralist. Courtesy and tolerance were unspoken bywords. The place was a sanctuary. Like the TV show Cheers, in Gerry’s, everyone knew your name. Regular orders did not have to be stated and idiosyncrasies were catered for. Above all customers were treated as valued individuals of personal dignity. Few left Gerry’s not feeling better than when they came in.
The lunch (or, if you like, “dinner in the middle of the day”) menu usually offered seven choices and changed every day. The fare was hearty. A bare majority of the options were generally of the traditional meat/fish/chicken, two veg and potatoes variety with the remainder being more cosmopolitan.
There were several “shifts” – from the early to mid-morning breakfast crowd on weekdays (on Saturdays it was almost standing room only for breakfasters, many of whom were tourists), to the lunchtimers from local offices and DIT, through to the afternooners and dinners on the way home people. Customers were drawn from all walks of life and all strata of society. Senior partners in professional firms and under the radar moguls (the flashy were discouraged) mixed shoulders with academics, lab technicians, poets, public servants, barmen, Gardai, construction workers, road diggers, the unemployed, the unemployable, the undefinable, the pious and the unpious. On at least one occasion a superior court judge chewed while at the next table one of Dublin’s best-known court appearers waited to be seen by Timmy McInerney who for years ran his solicitor’s practice from Table 1.
From his vantage point beside the Falcon grill Gerry surveyed the floor. Every now and then he left his cooking duties to take one of his famous saunters down the aisle with a word for everyone and took in good heart the accusation he was “annoying the customers”. He delighted in new arrivals and made a point of putting each through an interrogation even if most did not realise it. At times he could be mischievous taking pleasure seating incompatibles next to each other. He was an entertainer. The restaurant was his stage. He was also an inveterate, but not cruel, gossip. “Any news?” was a frequent greeting and Gerry’s was the go-to place for the quick confirmation or embellishment of any rumour, scurrilous or otherwise, going the rounds.
Never afraid to show his colours Gerry joined Fine Gael in Enniscorthy in his youth. He often claimed credit for inducting Ivan Yates into the party. In Dublin he was for many years a member of the Ranelagh branch never quite embracing Garret Fitzgerald liberalism. He was an avid print and broadcast news consumer – Al Jazeera an unexpected favourite. Musically he favoured country and western and anything from the 1970’s.
Gerry believed in community. He was keenly aware what is now called the Village Quarter had given him his livelihood. He gave many locals their employment start, supported local businesses when other options were available and contributed to local causes. He saw patronising Ryans, Whelans, The Landmark and other local establishments, especially on his Sundays off, and trading banter with locals as an obligation – not necessarily an unenjoyable one but still part of his responsibility and commitment to the locality.
If Meals on Wheels had not been invented Gerry would have done so. Day in, day out meals were ferried from the restaurant to local homes whose inhabitants could not come to the restaurant. Payment was not immediate and, in some cases, never sought. In Gerry’s the hard stuck found easy credit and many a tin foil wrapped meal found its way to a deserving stomach. He would have been thrilled at the reception from locals as the cortege made its way past the restaurant and gratified by the “Gerry We’ll Miss You” banner they had affixed to the front. Less obviously, Gerry was a guide and mentor. He knew his clientele and was a confidant for many of them. A recommendation from Gerry was often the determining factor in a tradesperson or professional being retained.
Putting his first stroke in 2014 behind him, Gerry seemed to make a good recovery and continued with his zest for life. It was an unequal battle and over time his health deteriorated. On 31st March 2022 Gerry died peacefully surrounded by his family, in the loving care of the staff in the Redwood Ward at St. Vincent’s Private Hospital, Elm Park, Dublin.
One can only imagine the plans Mary and he were hatching to make the most of a long retirement which they were both denied. On 4th April 2022 Gerry was laid to rest alongside Mary’s ashes and his parents at St. Mary’s Cemetery, Enniscorthy. Also predeceased by his brother John and sister Carmel, he is survived by Olwyn and Daire, his siblings Mary, Margaret and Michael, nephews and nieces, including his favourite nephew Nicholas.