FOR at least 15 of the 40 years that John Williams operated his pharmacy in Circular Road, Kilkee, he was flouting the law of the land.
Issues of conscience didn’t trouble the recently retired chemist, although a few anonymous, hate-filled letters did drop through the family letter box.
While condoms were not legally sold in Ireland without a prescription until 1985, John started selling them in Kilkee in the early 1970s. He even ran a weekly small advertisement in The Clare Champion for years promoting the fact. While working as a pharmacist in Limerick in the late-1960s and prior to moving home, John was a founding member of the Limerick Family Planning Clinic, along with the late TD, Jim Kemmy.
“When I came back to Kilkee I felt that contraceptives were a right for everybody. Myself and a local doctor decided that we’d force the hand of the health board,” John remembers, ruminating on four decades dispensing medication in the town.
“There was a scheme with the medical cards that if something wasn’t allowed on the medical card but if it was supplied at our discretion, we’d get paid for it. So the doctor in question prescribed condoms. I dispensed them and I did what I had to do to collect my money. I sent the bill into the health board. But the doctor’s writing was so bad and the money that I was looking for was so small that I suppose some poor unfortunate clerk just passed it for payment,” he speculates.
Their duping of the health board, who were forking out for illegal condoms, was highlighted soon after.
“Jim Kemmy brought it up at a Limerick Corporation meeting. He congratulated the health board for their progressiveness as they were now paying for condoms. I was selling them illegally that time, under the counter. But I made no bones about the fact,” John says.
It didn’t bother him but it did result in a few critical missives heading his way. “A bit of hate mail but that goes with the territory. It never bothered me,” he says.
Although the Catholic Church was implacably opposed to the sale of condoms, they zipped their lips and stayed away.
“They didn’t bother with me. They knew I wasn’t one of their crowd,” he laughs.
Ironically, John never considered a career in pharmacy until he was in the car heading for Dublin and had to decide what to study, having sat the Leaving Certificate at St Flannan’s College. His mother Joanna (Green) reminded her son that his Welsh grandfather, also John Williams, had been a pharmacist.
“She said ‘you’ve his sort of personality’. So I said, ‘fine, that suits me grand’. So that’s how I got into it,” he remembers.
Although career guidance wasn’t in vogue in the early 1960s, John made a good decision that day on his way to Dublin. “I enjoyed every minute of it. I hated giving up work. A pharmacist’s job is six full days every week, plus a few hours every Sunday. When you’re doing that for 40 years, you have no other lifestyle. You don’t know any other lifestyle,” he maintains.
“I don’t know what a five-day week is. I do now because when I wake up in the morning I’m saying, ‘God, what am I supposed to do today’, whereas I never ever had that problem. I could have kept going. I don’t feel 68 but it’s getting harder; not dealing with the public but it’s the red tape and bureaucracy that has crept in everywhere. You wouldn’t believe the minutiae that they want. Every pharmacist has to sign in. The time he comes in, the time he goes out for lunch. It’s unbelievable,” he states.
John worked side by side with his wife, Elizabeth, for all of those 40 years. When his Welsh-born father Colston (Mervin) Williams retired from the family hardware business in 1971, John took over, running both businesses in the same building, employing 14 people.
Two years earlier, he married Elizabeth, who is originally from Carlow and worked as an air hostess in Shannon. At the time, he was employed in Widdess’ Pharmacy in Henry Street, Limerick.
“That’s where I met her. The airlines people ran a dance in The George Hotel every month,” he recalls.
After they married, John resigned his job in Limerick and they headed across the Atlantic.
“We spent two months on the honeymoon. We went to Canada and got a Greyhound bus from Canada down through the United States to Mexico City. We were a week in San Francisco. We came back here then in January of 1970,” he recalls.
“The following September we were planning where to go on our holidays. My mother said to me, ‘you’re going on holidays and you’ve just opened a business and you were on a two-month honeymoon’. I said, ‘that was last year’. We never, ever missed a year. That was one promise we made. That we’d always take two weeks on our own away from the children,” John explains.
Two weeks in Spain didn’t cut it. The Williams liked to travel in a meaningful sense.
“Years ago we went to the Soviet Union, China and Cuba. My attitude was, even when times were tough, if this business can’t afford to pay me for a holiday, I should give it up.”
To this day, John is involved in a lot of Kilkee-based community organisations. He produces a typed list, detailing his involvement, which is about the same length as his arm.
“I still can’t believe that I was involved in all these organisations, many of them at the same time. But in a small town like Kilkee, there are only so many people that will be active. You’re sort of drawn into the different organisations,” he feels.
One committee that he didn’t fit into very well was Kilkee Town Commissioners, now Kilkee Town Council. He lasted one term as an Independent commissioner, before retiring from representative politics.
“It was one of the jobs I didn’t care for. I found it very frustrating. The council was treated in a very off-hand way by Clare County Council. My very first statement when I went in was, ‘from the Kilrush Road, to the Carrigaholt Road, to the Doonbeg Road, this is our patch. I’m not interested in talking about other issues. I don’t feel that I’m representing anywhere else’.”
Everyone agreed with him. Half an hour later though, everyone seemed to have forgotten what they had just agreed with.
“One of the first things was a letter from some other town council demanding that the Government never build a nuclear generation plant. They [Kilkee commissioners] all agreed. ‘Hold on a second now,’ I said. ‘Number one, it has nothing to do with us. There’s nobody here that knows enough about it to make a decision like that’.”
Not as many agreed this time. John didn’t stand for election next time around.
Having been born, reared his family and made his living in Kilkee, John doesn’t hide his feelings for the town but neither is he one-eyed in his appraisal.
“I always had a great interest in Kilkee from a historical point of view, as well as currently. I was described recently by somebody as a Kilkee nationalist. It’s a nice town but unfortunately it’s not as nice as I’d like it to be business-wise,” he states.
“The main street, when I started the pharmacy in 1970, all those shops were all occupied, all selling stuff. I know time moves on and you can’t keep looking back but I still think that a lot more businesses could be operating in Kilkee. A lot of it is, of course, family businesses where the parent gets on in years and the children don’t want to go back to a small town. Then the older person doesn’t want to sell it. It’s their home. They hang on and the next thing there’s lace curtains in the front window. It’s happening in Kilrush, Ennis and everywhere. But in bigger towns, with more shops, it’s not that noticeable,” he believes.
“Whereas in Kilkee if you go down O’Curry Street, every second building was a shop one time. It means that the pool is getting smaller and smaller. You don’t notice the gradual closure until all of a sudden you see that there’s no shop left in the street. Most of it is by stealth. I’d be hoping that maybe with a change in the economic climate, younger people might feel that there’s a future in retailing in Kilkee. But the people that are running their businesses well, the younger people in business in Kilkee, they’re doing very well,” he thinks.
One of the umpteen organisations that John has been part of is the West Clare Economic Task Force, who produced a detailed report last month. His involvement has ended though. He didn’t think that the task force met at sufficiently business-friendly hours.
“I was on that committee for three years, representing Kilkee Chamber of Commerce. I resigned from it. Number one, it was meant to be for business people but it [meetings] was always in the middle of the day. It appeared to me that the representatives of the semi-State bodies and the local councillors, all of them could take time off. If they really wanted business people to be involved, which they said they did, it should have been at a business-friendly hour. Eleven o’clock in the day or 2pm in the afternoon, these are not times that business people can just walk out of their premises,” he points out.
John was not happy to learn that one of the task force plans is to close Kilkee Tourist Office and expand the Kilrush one.
“I’m told that there’s a plan to close all the tourist offices except in Kilrush and to build a big new one in Kilrush. I’ve a problem with that. There’s five hotels in Kilkee. There’s no hotel in Kilrush. Kilkee is a tourist town. Kilrush isn’t. And yet the tourist office is not going to be in Kilkee,” he adds incredulously.
Although the pharmacy has been taken over by Maria Casey, John still gives a hand to his son Paul in the hardware store. Apart from trying to fill time, now that he has retired, John hopes that Kilkee can hang in there economically.
“I certainly wouldn’t like to see any more closures of retail premises. I don’t want to live in a ghost town for the rest of my life,” he muses.
As for retirement, he is still adjusting. He loved life as a pharmacist too much to let go too readily.
“I miss it. People tell me that they miss me in the shop but they don’t realise that I miss them more,” John concludes.
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