Big Eddie Forde by Eamonn Forde

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“Edmond J Forde – building contractor.” That’s what it says at the top of his company notepaper. Everyone calls him Eddie. Except me, my brother and my sister. We call him Big Eddie. I’m at least a foot taller than him but he’s still Big Eddie.

He is, as you might have gathered, a builder. He’s also the hardest working person I’ve ever known. Loads of people probably think that about their dads, but he rarely has any time off. He left school at 14 to work on the building sites. He gave his own father, the local school headmaster, the bus fare back when he was supposed to go into Ballymena to sit the 11-Plus as he knew it was a waste of money. Books never interested him. Only working and maybe hurling, Gaelic football and, latterly, golf.

He’s been working solidly ever since. He gets up at about 5am every day, spends it on a building site, comes home at 6pm, has his dinner, then either goes out to do more building work or else works on the small farm he runs. When it’s lambing season, he gets up in the night every two hours to check the sheep are OK. I’ve never known him to take a Saturday off. He even works many Sundays. He doesn’t need the money, but he needs to work. When you spend half a century working every hour there is, you can’t stop.

When he and my mum got married, they lived with my grandparents (his parents) next door for 18 months. Every night he’d get home from work, have his dinner and then go across the yard to build his own house (the one I grew up in and the one he and my mum still live in). He built his own house singlehandedly in his spare time. I’ll never wrap my head around this.

When we were kids, we’d go on holidays to Donegal. My dad, as it was the summer, couldn’t afford to take time off as the good weather meant he could get more work done. So he’d drive us all the way there on a Friday night, drive home the next morning and then come and collect us all the following Sunday. That was his summer holiday – driving between Martinstown and Donegal.

He almost lost his eye when a piece of burning metal flew into it from a grinder. He wore a patch and was back to work that afternoon. After a colleague hadn’t nailed laths to a roof properly, he fell through it, down two storeys and broke his leg. He was back at work two days later with his leg in a cast.

After university, I didn’t have a job so there was no way he was going to let me sit around and do nothing. So I spent a year working with him on the building site. They had always been places where we’d be taken as kids and teens in the summer to work, digging holes, carrying bricks, mixing cement. I always resented that as I’d rather have been playing with my friends. But during that year I finally appreciated just how exceptional he is at his job and how hard that job is. He’d magic up things, like impromptu cupboards under stairs, without any plans. He’d just know innately what was needed and he’d do it. Perfectly.

He is a man of few words and too much work. He’ll spin yarns and tell jokes (the same jokes), but you’d never really have a conversation with him. When I ring up and he answers, we have the same dialogue.

Me: “Hello, it’s me.”

Him: “Is it you?”

Me: “It’s me.”

Him: “Send me some money. I’ll get your mum.”

That’s how it’s played out for years. Until one day, and I don’t know why, he answered and I decided to have a conversation.

Me: “Hello, it’s me.”

Him: “Is it you?”

Me: “It’s me.”

Him: “Send me some money. I’ll get your mum.”

Me: “Wait a minute. What have you been doing? What’s the news?”

Him: “Och, nothing really. Working away up at McKendry’s putting on a new roof. And sure now I have cancer.”

Me: “What? You’ve got cancer?”

Him: “Aye.”

Me: “What kind of cancer?”

Him: “You know, cancer.”

Me [sensing I was getting nowhere]: “Get mum on the phone.”

It was prostate cancer. He was operated on. He’s fine now.

He’d go to the local pub to see people about work and drink a bitter lemon or a Lucozade. He would have one beer a year, maybe. He’s never been drunk. You can’t work when you’re drunk or hungover. But he loved being the centre of attention and making people laugh. It was almost impossible, however, to make him laugh.

During that year I spent with him on the building site, I told him a long, improbable story about someone accidentally drinking a pint of Guinness with a turd in it. He laughed so hard and for so long that he was red-faced and crying, incapable of working for at least an hour as he was shaking with laughter. Weeks later, he was still laughing at it. It’s probably my proudest achievement.

Eamonn Forde writes stuff about the music business and has a decent theoretical understanding of building work but, as with most things in his life, the practical side leaves a lot to be desired.