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Johnny Middleton, Graball, Crosshaven – Man Of Many Talents

Writes Leo McMahon

Publican, hotelier, builder, farm labourer, fruit and veg seller, fishmonger, GAA administrator and much more. Seventy-five years young Johnny Middleton from Graball, Crosshaven has done it all in the course of a fascinating life recollected recently to The Carrigdhoun.

Johnny was born on the 2nd of November, 1948, the son of Billy and Annie Middleton, the sixth of 13 children. In the family were his brothers William (Liam), Patrick, Con, James, Denis, Noel and Michael and sisters Margot, Alice (Coniry), Marie (Alexander), Patricia (Alexander) and Anne (Maverley).

‘My father was a boat builder and repairer in Crosshaven and my mother Annie O’Callaghan, hailed from Donoughmore. My uncle Johnny by the way ran the chipper in the village.

‘I grew up where I’ve ended up at Graball,’ said Johnny. ‘It was known as the spud house and had a galvanised roof and belonged to a farmer’.

The family then moved to Rose Cottage, Camden Road where her mother continued to reside (with his brother James) for 83 years until her death aged 94 in May 2013. He attended Crosshaven Boys’ National School in Upper Road where his teachers included Ms. Holland, Jeremiah Murphy and his wife.

Johnny Middleton with his faithful friend Charlie outside his home ‘St Pious’, Graball, Crosshaven – photo Leo McMahon

In 1958, he went to school in Camden, where the GAA clubhouse is now located, while the national school was being extended. It was then part of the Army fort.

‘Our house was at the back of what was to become the Majorca Ballroom. Among my pals growing up were Colman O’Leary of Kennefick’s Hotel and Bar, sister of writer and journalist Colette who married the late Cork Examiner photographer Mick Olney and Alan Barry (now Ramble Inn, Half Way). Later on, another close friend was Michael Desmond.

Aged just 13, Johnny left school and worked many years for a farmer, Nashie (Ignatius) O’Flynn, a former Cork senior hurler, and his wife Etta at Graball Hill. ‘I did everything; milking cows, ploughing, driving a tractor working machines while my workmate Mick Byrne would sell the milk. I learned a great deal and the O’Flynn’s were very good to me.

‘There was a shed in his yard I called the Haycock Hotel because if I had a falling out at home, I would sleep there as did many who missed the last bus after a dance in the Majorca dance hall in the village. There would be a fight for places to sleep!

‘I recall that on the first day the Majorca was due to open in 1963, part of the asbestos roof blew off. My father and my brother Liam went over to the boatyard and covered it so that it would open that night’.

‘While working for the O’Flynn’s, who kindly gave us use of their gear, Mick Byrne and I got con acre (i.e. letting of land) where we set vegetables: spuds, carrots, onions, cabbage, beetroot etc. We supplied several local shops as well as the Grand Hotel and the yacht club and sold the rest out of a car. The pair went around in a Morris Minor car which one day ended up in the Owenabue River near Ballyygarvan!

When Johnny was about 20 years old, he decided to go into the building trade working for Cecil Day of Gayline Construction based in Station Road, Carrigaline where one of his workmates was Crosshaven man George Vickery.

After that, in 1971, he worked for another builder, Michael O’Brien from West Cork who built one of the first new housing estates in Carrigaline, Glenwood.

At the same time, Johnny, who had become good friends with Michael O’Brien, got land for con acre, mainly for rearing Friesian cattle in the Carrigaline such as just off Church Hill next to where the pitch and putt club used to be and at Mick Canty’s, Fountainstown. Livestock at that time were quite cheap and Nashie would give them a loan of his machinery.

Yet another enterprise the young Johnny got into was hauling in boats at the boatyard with a tractor for about £1.50 per boat.

On March 4th, 1972, Johnny married Catherine O’Sullivan, daughter of Denis and Nellie O’Sullivan, who had a small farm and lived ‘in the last house in Tracton parish’ at Killeens, Fountainstown.

‘I first met Catherine in 1969 when she was working as a barmaid in Kennefick’s. It was during a game of rings and we got friendly. I had a Honda 50 bike at the time and we would go to matches all over the place. We got married in Minane Bridge in 1972. Fr Richard Harris PP was the celebrant and the reception was in the Helm Hotel which was then run by Harry O’Meara.

That same year, he decided set up his own business, John Middleton and Sons (Denis and John) Builders. The workshop they used belonging to Tom Spillane, was at the Glen across from the yacht club which in former times was a tyres store for Dunlop’s in Cork.

‘At the start, we were very busy building milking parlours and silage pits which were all the rage at the time. After that, we started building new houses and renovating. The first dwelling we completed was a bungalow for the late Dr Paddy Smith at Myrtleville for £35,000 which sold very recently for over €400,000. He never took the key off me because I maintained it myself for him all through the years.’

Johnny estimated that his business built over 50 homes all over South Cork including at Ballinaclashet, Belgooly, Crosshaven and also in Ballinacurra, Midleton. He was particularly proud of three dwellings the firm constructed on the Ballinhassig side of Ballygarvan. ‘I also built my family’s house at Killeens near Fountainstown.

At one stage, Johnny employed 27 men and they included Sonny Desmond and Danny Desmond. His own brothers also worked with him. ‘I was very sticky over how work was done, very hands-on and proud of what was done. What makes a good house is a good foundation that’s wide enough for the weight of the blockwork to prevent cracks later on’

He said he still dabbles in the building trade and continues to get the phone calls but leaves most of this to his sons in the business.

‘The first house Catherine and I had was in Middle Road, Crosshaven which we did up before we got married. We had tremendous neighbours including Eddie and Eilis Buckley nearby in The Anchor Bar, Bill and Ann Condon, John and Ann Sugrue and also the late Kathleen Murphy, and Mary and John Wade across the way’

The hard working Johnny built a shed in the garden where he started making fancy paving slabs blocks and kerbs. The couple had two rooms upstairs and a basement but turned the ground floor at road level that was formerly Canty Butchers, into a shop from where he would sell fish he bought off the trawlermen every Thursday and Friday.

‘Our next house was one I built on the land of Catherine’s parents at Killeens in the countryside. My wife got stuck in helping me put up all the blocks and mixing the concrete which helped keep down the costs. She also loved looking after the garden.’

Johnny and his late wife Catherine had four children and seven grandchildren. Son John and Fiona (Keating) and grandson Joey; Son Denis and granddaughter Talia; Daughter Eileen and John McGuire and grandchildren Caoimhe and John Alex; and daughter Christine and Seamus Murphy and grandchildren Shay, Bobby and Hughie. Eileen and John’s family reside in Dublin and the other three live in the Crosshaven area.

Outside of work, Johnny and Catherine loved to travel, especially to Turkey which they visited 29 times, especially Bitez to the same hotel where they made great friends including the Mayor of Bodrum.

‘In 1988, without even seeing it, I bought the Admiral Drake pub in Crosshaven from Denis and Margaret Harrington.’ Asked what possessed him to do this he replied: ‘I was always inclined to try out things. We had great times living and working there and the biggest regret is that I sold it in 1990 because it was a goldmine.’

‘Two years later, I fulfilled an ambition when we bought the Helm Hotel, Weaver’s Point at a time when interest rates were 24%. Catherine and I worked hard and we enjoyed it but we couldn’t get grants from Bord Failte unlike some other local premises. Changes in the drink-driving laws the first year they had it and putting in too much money without sufficient return persuaded us to sell it at a loss in 1996, after which it became apartments. However, we hosted very good weddings and dinner dances for local clubs etc in the ballroom with its magnificent views of the harbour. A highlight was soccer great Paul McGrath staying there for 10 days in 1991, a true gentleman’.

During that time also, Crosshaven Tourism was founded in a major effort to promote and revive the village and bays. A superb free colour tour guide was launched in the Helm and among the members Johnny could recall were JJ and Bernie Kelly, Tom Donnelly, Elgin Davies, Sean Hanley, Michael Desmond, Betty Barry, Tom Donnelly, Catherine and himself. The couple also supported Tidy Towns and many other local organisations through their hospitality businesses over the years.

Undeterred following the sale of the Helm Hotel, Johnny leased Johnny Fitz’s from Sylvia Fitzgibbon and Donncha Long in 1996, renamed it ‘Johnny’s Return’ and lived there.

‘We had great times and great customers there until September 2015. Among those who visited our pub were Irish soccer stars Paul McGrath, Pakie Bonner, Chris Hughton and Kevin Sheehy. There was music every night in July and August and every weekend in the winter. We also had quizzes and fund raisers, ran a ‘Live at 3’ for older customers every Sunday and finished up with a clean licence from all the establishments we ran. Sean O’Donovan from Bandon, who is now a county councillor, took over the leasing of Johnny’s Return which became Fitzgibbon’s Bar after us and he too was a very good barman who loved the craic’.

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