THE newly-elected metropolitan mayor of Limerick Cllr Jerry O’Dea says he traverses both the city and county having worked, lived, and been raised in both.
“I feel I have always crossed that divide. I feel like I am a real city person at heart, but very familiar with the county,” he said, revealing how he spent many summer weeks in Garryspillane, while helping in his family’s pub at Mulgrave Street.
Three weeks after being elected to the role as metropolitan mayor, the Fianna Fail councillor feels he has hit the ground running.
“It has been fantastic. It was a huge honour both for myself, and my extended friends, family and colleagues, who helped me get elected last summer,” he said. “There has been a lot of activity, and an awful lot to be done. Interestingly, the first call I got was for the last evening of the Novena in the Redemptorists church. Fr [Donal] Enright, who comes from Mulgrave Street originally, called me to officiate.”
Born in 1966 to John-Joe, and the deceased Margaret (nee Crawford) of Garryspillane, Mayor O’Dea was one of four children growing up over the pub in Mulgrave Street.
But at the age of 12, and going into his first year at the Crescent College Comprehensive, the family moved out to Ballyclough, where he has returned to live today.
“My Mum had decided that the lack of a garden, and the fact my father was forever up and down the stairs working, and that she had four teenage children, meant we should moved out to Ballyclough,” he said. Having been raised in a pub, it was no surprise that Mayor O’Dea embarked on a career in hospitality.
After four years studying at the Shannon College of Hotel Management, he headed off to the bright lights of London in 1988.
Taking up the story, he says: “I worked for what was the old Trust House Forte group in England. It was the largest UK chain, and an awful lot of people from the Shannon College were linked in there. I was fortunate enough to go to work in the Cumberland Hotel in Marble Arch, which was the biggest hotel in the UK at the time,” he said.
The manager of that establishment Patrick Dempsey, took a wide-eyed Jerry O’Dea “under his wing”. Working in all parts of the hotel, he was then asked by Mr Dempsey to join him working in a hotel at London Heathrow Airport.
Following a short spell here, Mayor O’Dea then flew across the Atlantic Ocean, working in hotels first in Florida, then New York City.
But having spent seven years abroad, the rumblings were coming from home.
“My Dad was semi-retiring, so I needed to make a decision. My pub had been in my family for five generations, and I wanted to keep it that way. It was the right decision.”
Returning to Limerick in the mid-1990s, Mayor O’Dea was astonished to see the change which had taken place in the relatively short time he had been away.
“It had declined quite rapidly. When I left the city, it was still quite vibrant, and there was a lot going on. When I came back, I saw a lot of people had moved to the suburbs. A lot of planning permission had been given to shopping centres outside of town, and the city centre was starved. It closed at 5pm, and even to this day, at 4pm you cannot get a coffee in many places.
Mayor O’Dea’s family pub suffered as a result of one of the big changes in that time, the closure of the Clover Meats factory.
Limerick’s move from the Markets Field had also hurt the once-bustling bar. “I had to redesign the pub, essentially. I came up with a plan to reduce the size of it and we built a Chinese restaurant and a bookmakers, and a couple of apartments overhead. If one part goes badly, there are two or three other parts,” he said.
“Pubs are changing. They need to offer more, they need a food offering, or an entertainment offering. It is not just about going into a pub for a pint anymore,” he added.
The pub does not offer food at the moment, but is he hoping to change that when the new courts complex moves to Mulgrave Street.
Mayor O’Dea’s first foray into representing people came when he became Limerick’s representative on the national board of the Vintners Federation of Ireland.
One of the notable achievements was securing a limited licence to have pubs open on Good Friday in 2010 for fans attending that day’s Munster-Leinster clash.
“In a way, this kick-started the buzz for the politics, because I found myself involved with people, organising events, and making things happen, and I enjoy that.”
He is realistic enough to recognise that the goals he has are not achievable during his single year in office. “My vision for Limerick won’t happen within a year. But if I was to give a vision, it would be of a living city. A vibrant, modern European city, which would have the university and fine establishments in its centre. I really hope it all comes together, and I will be pushing for that throughout my year. I think City of Culture proved to us that we have so much to offer. We have diversity, multi-culturalism, the Pride parade.”
Away from work, he enjoys holidaying in Kilkee – and plans to take-up cycling, and reduce his golf handicap. With his two children, Catherine and JD, at boarding school, he is enjoying spending more time with them during the summer break.
As the interview draws to a close, one thing remains on the agenda – Limerick’s dual mayoralty. While acknowledging Cllr Liam Galvin is Limerick’s true first citizen, Mayor O’Dea feels he still has an important role to play.
“I do feel Limerick city has had a charter for over 817 years, and it is the envy of modern cities around the world. I think we need to approach very slowly how we change anything – if we do change it,” he said.
“The thing is not to throw away all of what was good in there. I don’t believe in having a completely clean sheet when you have the history that we have.”