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Also Innovators

5

Eddie French’s rainbow

Like everyone else in the Altrincham, northern region office of Sperry, I was aware of the sale of a Sperry 1106 to a joint venture between a Dublin-based accountant and entrepreneur, Eddie French, and the Irish Government. The successful salesmen had been Alan Campbell, the regional director, and Pat Cullen, the sales manager. Indeed, one of my system specialists, Bob Devine, our manufacturing systems manager, had been seconded to this project. It made sense. Bob was an Irishman from Achill Island on the West Coast of Ireland.

I had spent a couple of months languishing in the office as team leader of an in-house computerised sales management system that was Alan Campbell’s baby; a baby I knew was in competition with a system being developed by the UK managing director. It did not come as much of a surprise to be asked by Alan to present the status of this project to Mr French one afternoon. During the slideshow presentation, Mr French asked me a couple of times how easily the system could be transferred to another computer system and adapted to another organisation. It was not an easy transfer in an Irish context, because I had decided to use the UK postcode as the prime sort key to lead us to the assigned Sperry salesman and the list of businesses assigned as that salesman’s territory. I had to tell Mr French that, as the Republic of Ireland did not have a similar general area and postman’s walk coding system, we should have to think of another coding strategy and database structure. I also surmised that Alan might have been keen to use the new Irish computer site as the operational computer. Up until that point in time, we had been developing and running TOPSY using the time we had agreed to buy back from James Neill and Company in Sheffield.

It was a shock to be called into Alan Campbell’s office after the end of our working day that same afternoon. Mr French was there. Alan asked me to take responsibility as the project manager for Riomhaire Teoranta — starting today — and asked if it would be convenient for me to catch the ferry from Liverpool to Dublin with Mr French that night. This was a surprise. I had enjoyed talking to Mr French that afternoon and he seemed confident of his business plan. TOPSY was hardly the love of my life, so I agreed.

Eddie and I caught the overnight ferry, breakfasted at his Leopardstown home in Dublin, and we drove across Ireland, stopping for a bacon and cabbage luncheon at Hayden’s of Ballinasloe, in the Midlands, on our way to Galway. In the late afternoon at the Ardilaun Hotel in Galway, we met my new team and colleagues. A meal at Hayden’s Hotel at Ballinasloe became a regular treat during this project in Ireland, and each subsequent visit, although they now have gone upmarket with the huge influx of tourism to Ireland; you are lucky to get bacon and cabbage these days, and even then only as a special.

During that first full day spent with Eddie, I learned that he had a 50 per cent share of the company Riomhaire Teoranta — Riomhaire is the Irish word for ‘computer’ and Teoranta is a company title, the equivalent of ‘limited’. We also traded under the name of Datacom Limited in the UK and Ireland. The other 50 per cent of the company was held by the Irish Government, through the Irish Development Authority. Our project was within the purview of Gaeltarra Eireann, the Irish Government department set up to encourage and promote the continuing use of the Irish language where it was still the indigenous tongue. The computer centre was nearing completion in Na Forbacha (Furbo), next to the Gaeltarra Eireann Ardoifig (head office) close to the village of Bearna (Barna). Our mission was to bring third-level technology to the County Galway Gaeltacht, an Irish-speaking part of Ireland, and operate a money-making service. This would be no mean feat.

Eddie was an accountant. I asked who was backing him in this venture. He suggested that it was the data processing head at Littlewoods Pools in Liverpool, a friend of Alan Campbell. I did not think to pursue this, as his response made sense. He was proud to tell me that Riomhaire had been able to recruit returning Irishmen for the project and that the computer centre was almost ready for our occupation. Eddie had agreed with Alan Campbell that I would be appointed general manager of Riomhaire Teoranta, reporting directly to Eddie and interfacing with Gaeltarra Eireann on his behalf, as he was to stay in Dublin. These days we would have called this an outsourcing/facilities management deal in which the supplier also took responsibility for infrastructure management. The company had three offices: the computer centre at Furbo; a sales office in Harcourt Street, Dublin; and a sales office in Manchester in the UK.

The technical staff in Galway, from where I would manage the company, included Tony Johnstone, who was recruited to return to Galway from Tandy Corporation in San Francisco where he had been the programming manager. Joe Whitston joined Riomhaire from the operations section of Shell Centre in London and was experienced in the operation and management of a Sperry 1100 system. Eddie had appointed Joe as operations supervisor. One of the best decisions I made was that as Joe was doing the operations manager’s job, that was how he would be recognised. Joe still thanks me for that decision when we meet. His staff were all local, raw recruits, and included lads who had been fishermen, farmers, and even policemen. We were bringing third-level technology to the Gaeltacht. Two of Tony’s programming staff, four of Joe’s operators, and six Irish-speaking young girls who were trained as card punch operators were included as part of the training plan.

The Sperry 1106 system had been installed and was being put through its acceptance tests when I arrived. I did not realise until 29 years later that it was all second-hand equipment that had been staged through the Altrincham office and tested operationally before being shipped to Galway.

At the time, we believed the Sperry 1106 to be the most powerful computer system in Ireland. The plan had been that Bob Devine would fill the role of general manager. He had already performed Herculean tasks in getting the computer centre ready for the housing of staff and the computer itself. However, he had also rediscovered fishing and his Irish heritage — so much so that it was decided he had lost the plot. I replaced Bob and he returned to his job in Altrincham. I felt very sorry for him. It was known that his wife was not at all keen to relocate to Galway. Bob was devastated. He died a short while after.

My introduction to the computer centre was an eye-opener. Although the equipment was unpacked and positioned for installation in the computer room, the room was not ready for occupation. The building was a single-storey construction with a flat roof. It had good big windows, with the exception of the computer room, which for security reasons had disguised slits high in the wall that allowed in a minimum of light. The necessary air conditioning units for the computer room sat outside the building on a concrete platform which we would later need to enclose, again for security reasons. The transformer to convert the Irish electricity supply to drive the US-built computer system had not been planned and was eventually housed in a wooden shed from the local hardware store, which was the cause of an environmental pollution complaint from local homeowners. The foundations for the centre had been blasted out of the granite that comprises the coast above Galway Bay to the north of the city.

The Gaeltarra head office had magnificent views of Galway Bay across to the Burren and the Aran Islands to the west. I was delighted to view the plans and see that my office would have floor-to-ceiling glass for me to enjoy that view. The centre was a few weeks away from completion, but with a most definite completion date. On 11 October the centre was to be officially opened by the Prime Minister of Ireland (locally referred to as Taoiseach), Mr Liam Cosgrave. We took our lives — ankles anyway — in our own hands on our regular visits to the new offices, scrambling over the granite chips and blocks that were the surrounds, until the afternoon before the prime minister’s visit, when tarmac was laid and we acquired parking spaces. For several weeks, Riomhaire Teoranta operated from the conference room of Gaeltarra Eireann Ardoifig. It was not particularly satisfactory, although we did have access to the excellent dining room, which we continued to use for some time after we moved into our own building.

Figure 5.1

Figure 5.1: The Riomhaire Teoranta Computer Centre in September 1974.

Source: Author’s collection. Computer room photographer: Neil Warner of Galway. Site photographer: Jimmy Washe of Galway.

The market we were entering was dominated by University Computing Company (UCC) of Dallas, who was already offering remote job entry services for jobs to run on Sperry 1100 systems. UCC had taken over Computer Services (Birmingham) and had a European presence in addition to a very successful operation in the US. UCC sold computer time at the rate of £400 per hour of 1108 processor time. The Riomhaire basic price was £200 per hour for our 1106 processor time. The Sperry 1106 was designed as a cut-down, slowed-down, more affordable model of the 1100 family of processors. Our prime suspect list was those organisations using the UCC service, particularly if they were government departments, who could be cajoled to switch to our service, which was government sponsored. The UCC users already had programs that were written and running on our competitor’s compatible system, it would cost our prospective customers half of what they were currently paying to UCC, to run the same job, on the Riomhaire computer system. The work and revenue would stay in Ireland. This was the marketing model that Alan Campbell and Pat Cullen had sold to Eddie French, who, in turn, sold it to his backers, including the Irish Government.

We needed to be in our own premises with ready access to the 1106, as our pricing structure only made sense if the 1106 ran a job in less than twice the time it would take to run on the UCC 1108. We could find no definitive benchmarks published by Sperry to prove the case one way or the other. UCC had other charges: for the use of mass storage, tape storage, punched cards read or punched as output, and the number of lines of output printed. We wanted to be able to keep our algorithm simple. I had several heated sessions with Eddie and Derek McHugh to thrash out what it was we wanted to sell and how to achieve this. Working against us was the fact most commercial users do not want to understand an algorithm that described something as obscure as ‘time to run a program on a computer’ — time being divided into and recorded as processing time and input/output processor time. As our sales encompassed local Galway commercial businesses, we eventually simplified our pricing. Our users could better comprehend paying 50 pence per invoice or payroll slip.

I was initially a great source of mirth to my colleagues. I was told my pronunciation of Riomhaire Teoranta, when I picked up the telephone, sounded rather like a cat sneezing. I hope I did not dissuade too many customers. I wanted the telephone answered immediately. We were in the service business and I was not going to countenance any laziness in answering the telephone.

We moved into the computer centre about four weeks before the official opening. We did not have enough furniture to make the centre look even habitable. One area that had been beautifully equipped, however, was the general manager’s office, which had been laid out in conventional public service fashion to have me sitting with my back to one of the best views in the world. I needed to change that. I had a most successful excursion to a local second-­hand office furniture store and caused considerable concern by equipping my office with a long settee which would allow me and two guests to look over Galway Bay, resting our feet on the low window sill. I also acquired a large conference table, placed behind the settee with drawers, for formal meetings, and a flat area for other work. This caused great consternation among the public servants from next door, a government department head office who had shown their set ideas about what should be contained in the general manager’s office, but our new style eventually met with approval after the tour parties subsided because it was purely functional.

I had a telephone call the day before the opening from the Prime Minister’s office to ask:

‘What will you be providing by way of refreshment tomorrow?’

‘Champagne and finger food. We did not think to be different. Is that OK?’

‘Sure. But could we ask you to get some Crested Ten whiskey? Mr Cosgrave does not like champagne.’

‘Of course.’

‘Thank you, enjoy the day.’

The management of Gaeltarra Eireann and local invited dignitaries descended upon the centre and were in place before our guest of honour’s fleet of vehicles arrived on the brand new driveway. The opening was a grand affair, but was partly spoilt for Eddie French because the attention of the Connacht Tribune was focused on a small group of protesters who had taken advantage of the prime minister’s attendance. Eddie and I had purchased a superb oil painting by a Galway artist, embellished with an engraved silver plaque celebrating the date and event. Tony’s wife, Ita, made a small curtain with a pulley to disclose the painting — it was very much a do-it-yourself event.

Figure 5.2

Figure 5.2: The Riomhaire Computer Centre at dawn, 11 October 1974.

Source: Author’s collection.

Prime Minister Cosgrave was accompanied by his wife and the Minister for the Gaeltacht, Tom O’Donnell. We would see quite a bit of Tom O’Donnell, whose portfolio included our enterprise.

We initially met in the computer room, for the photo opportunity. Mr and Mrs Cosgrave were super, and stood and sat where asked for a whole series of photographs of the interested parties, including the Sperry group, the politicians with the Gaeltarra management, Joe Whitston and his team of operators, and more. We then removed to the large open plan area — designated for systems and programming— for speeches, champagne and nibbles. For the most part, the ceremony was conducted in Irish. Not wishing to draw attention to my inability to participate in Irish conversation, I hid at the back.

After speeches by Messrs French, Pitcher, McGabhann and Cosgrave, and the official opening, I was flattered to be sought out by Mr Cosgrave, who approached me with the suggestion: ‘I hear you have got some whiskey for us. Let’s go to your office.’ So we did. We talked about all sorts of things for long enough to have two good measures of Crested Ten each, before Cathal McGabhann knocked on the office door and found us. The Taoiseach was a quiet, modest man. I enjoyed talking to him. We had talked family rather than politics, and had sat on the settee with feet on the low window frame looking at the view. After the crowds had left, I was teased unmercifully about the way I had marshalled our important guests through the photo shoot. It was not something we had planned, but someone had to do it.

Figure 5.3

Figure 5.3: The Sperry sales and management representatives at the Riomhaire opening.

Left to right: Geoff Barton (the northern region technical support manager and my nominal Sperry boss) standing in for Alan Campbell; myself; Ted Jones (UK marketing director); Graham Morgan; Prime Minister Liam Cosgrave sits at the main computer console in the computer room; and Des Pitcher (the UK managing director).

Source: Author’s collection. Photograph by Neil Warner.

Figure 5.4

Figure 5.4: The general manager has two minutes to explain computing to Mr and Mrs Cosgrave. Meanwhile, in the background, Eddie French is busy selling.

Source: Author’s collection. Photograph by Neil Warner.

Figure 5.5

Figure 5.5: The Riomhaire Teoranta management team pose with the Taoiseach.

Left to right: Mike Nevin (finance manager), Joe Whitston (operations manager), Tony Johnstone (systems and programming manager), Vic Saunders (Dublin manager), myself (general manager), Derek McHugh (sales manager), Eddie French (managing director), and the very patient Liam Cosgrave.

Source: Author’s collection. Photograph by Neil Warner.

It was during the opening that local environmentalists raised their concerns about the continual hum from the motor alternator in the gorse between the Riomhaire and Gaeltarra offices. They were quite right, and we had few excuses for the noise which resonated from the hut at all times. The local television channel became interested, and I was approached several times by an interviewer who preferred to speak Irish. Eventually we soundproofed our shed, leaving little room for air circulation around the machinery, which created another ongoing maintenance concern for Joe Whitston.

More important to the continuity and standard of service we were offering was the build-up of static electricity in the computer room. The design of the room had included the installation of a grid of copper plates underneath the false floor on which each piece of equipment was earthed. We were experiencing unusual intermittent faults. The installation specialists established that their original earthing design was not working. They recommended we adopt a more robust earthing policy, sinking long copper rods into the ground outside of the computer centre. This exercise caused us great mirth. Rather cruelly, we watched one afternoon when two workmen appeared with several long copper rods. One climbed his stepladder while the other held the rod in a vertical position. The higher man proceeded to drive the rod into the ground with a heavy hammer. Our amusement was in watching the rod penetrate perhaps six inches into the ground before turning 180 degrees and emerging a few inches to the side, threatening to wound one or the other of them. You cannot drive copper rods into granite.

The next solution we attempted was the installation of a huge copper plate. A hole, perhaps 6 by 10 feet, was blasted in the granite some 20 feet away from the main building. This itself caused great consternation in the computer room, as we knew that our rotating drum storage equipment was most susceptible to vibration. We had no warning of the blasting and I dashed to the computer room screaming: ‘Lift the recording heads!’ Fortunately, minimum damage was caused to the polished surface of the drum, although we had to take the unit out of operation for a few hours for Bill and his guys to check, and wait for the dynamiting to stop. That afternoon — Murphy’s Law again — Alan Campbell was demonstrating the system from Manchester; I had shut the system down. Such things happen, but should not. Alan was on the telephone by the time I was back in my office. How do you explain the machinations of Irish workmen to your boss in another country? It was not easy. Eventually, a hole of sufficient size to accommodate the copper plate was manufactured in the streambed, in a trickle of water flowing down in to the bay. It was connected to the internal earth grid and the intermittent faults we had been experiencing were minimised.

The year 1975 was a glorious one on the West Coast of Ireland. Lough Corrib, the lake on which we were living at Oughterard, was at its lowest level within living history. It occurred to me that we should perhaps take a look at our copper plate to see how it was surviving the drought. Joe and I eventually found it by tracing the stream. We knew where it entered the grounds. The gorse and ferns had recovered to hide the demolition and there was still a trickle of water, obviously sufficient, running over the plate. The water was warm and there on the down side of the plate sat several of the largest, most contented-looking frogs I have ever seen. We had created the perfect ecology for them.

Another natural hazard was the loss of electricity to the centre. Brownouts were a fairly common occurrence, caused by seabirds flying into power lines and shorting them out. It made for an interesting life.

In planning for the computer centre, the Sperry pre-installation engineers had allowed for a sophisticated burglar-alarm system. Any sensed disturbance in the centre created an automated telephone call to the local Garda Síochána (police) station with a prerecorded message saying who we were and that our alarm had sensed something unusual. My home number was given as the second referral, after Joe Whitston’s. Joe took the occasional call. Initially, we had placed our computer room movement monitors incorrectly and the remotely initiated printing on the computer room prompted a warning. We eventually got this right.

I took a call in the small hours one morning.

‘Hello there. Is that Mr Yardley? This is the Sergeant from the Spiddal Garda here. The alarm has gone off in your factory in Bearna.’

‘Thank you, Sergeant. Will you be going to see what the problem is?’

‘Not us, sir. We are not going anywhere near that place.’

Not terribly helpful. I think on that occasion I drove the 24 miles to Furbo to find everything in good order. We were certainly an unknown quantity to the local populace, although we had previously invited the police and the fire service to come and see us.

Letters between Riomhaire and Gaeltarra were written in Irish. I was so lucky that Brid McDonnagh, our receptionist, was confident in the business language of Irish and English. I had every confidence that I would not be offending anyone through the written word. I would also occasionally need to create documents as the on-site Sperry project manager, such as milestone payments, to send to the manager of Riomhaire. As I was fulfilling both roles, it made for some interesting forms, but the accountants never queried the anomaly. I also had Bill Leahy to witness these documents.

Sales were slow. UCC had its customers locked into solid contracts and it took attrition of those contracts to bring in the easy customers. The sales team, including Graham Morgan, were in Dublin, but the largest group of us were in residence in Galway, so we felt obliged to look to local customers for business. Tony Johnstone had done his first degree at University College, Galway (UCG), and his previous lecturer, Bobby Curren, was head of computing when Riomhaire opened its doors. I met Bobby with Tony Johnstone during a Galway pub crawl. Tony viewed every new pint of Guinness with an obvious delight: ‘The first today, and badly wanted.’ I eventually questioned his numeracy: ‘Tony, we have had six pints already.’ Unabashedly, he viewed the next drink with even more relish: ‘The first seventh pint today, and badly wanted.’ We still use that salutation to one another today.

Bobby Curren was really supportive and encouraged his users to try our service. They would arrive with trays of punched cards, and at the time we were able to run most jobs there and then. The Sperry 1100 family of computers was well blessed with software languages, and UCG tested us and our support capabilities. We needed to implement a proper local job acceptance procedure, but we were doing real work and were billing real money. Eventually, UCG installed a purpose-built remote job entry terminal, the Distributed Computer Terminal 2000, which was another unique piece of equipment in the country.

We looked for commercial software that we might offer in Galway. We wanted simple sounding applications, such as a general ledger and payroll. But although we searched high and low, we could not find general application software packages we might localise and use to provide the facilities that we needed. Tony and his team wrote the software from scratch. To help with this endeavour, we recruited another returning Irishman, from the Sperry UK Training Centre in Acton, London. 1 had known the man from my time in London, but I had not known he was an alcoholic. I only discovered he had the disease when exposed to him on a day-to-day basis. We were not able to predict a reliable output from him.

The on-site Sperry engineer in charge was Bill Leahy. He and I developed a friendship that has lasted until today. At the start, our relationship was a little strained as Bill came to terms with our both being paid by Sperry and my assumption of the role of general manager for our customer. There were times when, representing Riomhaire, I would have to hassle Bill. He would also need to tell me a few home truths about limitations on the service he could provide — mainly equipment support — and that, because of geography, only a few simple mechanisms were put in place that eased the situation. We agreed that I would never enter the engineers’ office or spare parts storeroom without their permission. I also sought Bill’s input to my regularly monthly report to Sperry UK. I could understand Bill’s concern, although I did not discover that Bill believed his appointment might be precarious until years later. He had very little interface with managers, back in Manchester, who were his line bosses.

One day, when Bill and I were at the local hostelry for lunch, rather than my usual pint of Guinness, I opted for a gin and tonic. When Bill questioned my change of habit, I responded: ‘We have visitors this afternoon, Bill. I shall have to do the selling and I do not want my breath to smell of beer.’

He thought this through and said, ‘In which case, I’ll have one as well’.

That evening, our wives, who were also pals (the two boys in both our families were about the same age), joined us at the Twelve Pins pub — named after the Twelve Bens hills that feature in the Connemara landscape. Bill was beginning to enjoy his first experiences with gin and tonic. Theresa, Bill’s wife, asked what he was drinking. When told, she exploded, ‘Bill Leahy, you stop drinking that gin and tonic. Drink beer like a proper man.’ Theresa has always been a fun person, used to speaking her mind.

I commuted to and from Altrincham for five months. Initially it would be a weekly trip, but as we became busier it would be fortnightly. Eventually, I took my car to Ireland, but I did use rental cars for a while, during which time I had a sequence of three mishaps.

Week one: A driver who had been in the Twelve Pins pub ran into the back of me when I was turning into a friend’s driveway for dinner. The other driver was very much the worse for wear. On the Saturday morning I returned the car to Dublin Airport and completed the formal accident form. No real fuss.

Week two: I was driving in the country when I hit a rook. The impact broke the windscreen and dented the roof. On the Saturday morning I returned the car to Dublin Airport and completed the formal accident form. No real fuss.

Week three: Saturday morning I was again headed for Dublin on a wet and windy morning before sunrise when I hit a cow on the road. Although it was drizzling, we had not had much rain, and it was known that the farmers were putting their animals on the long acre to feed on the grass verges of the road. The penalties for damaging a beast on the roads in Ireland were severe. I saw the animal too late to avoid hitting it. The animal travelled up and over the bonnet in slow motion. I stopped to see it drag itself off the road trailing its back legs. As luck would have it, a police car came from the opposite direction almost immediately. I flagged it down and the policeman listened to my explanation of what had happened. He was sympathetic. He got a crowbar from his car and somehow we managed to lever the front left wheel arch off the tyre so that my car might move again. That done, he asked where the animal had gone. He drew his revolver and suggested I drive on: ‘We do not want any bother now, do we?’ I returned the car to Dublin Airport and completed the formal accident form. No real fuss.

Somehow, when I left Altrincham the next day for the return trip I did not pick up my wallet and credit cards. A passport was not necessary for the flight. Shamefacedly, I approached the Avis desk to explain my predicament.

‘Do not worry, Mr Yardley. Of course you can take another car. We know you. You are one of our best customers.’

Thank you, Avis, and thank you, the Irish sense of reality. Lovely people.

It was eventually decided that my wife Audrey and the boys would close the house in Hale Barns and come to Ireland. I travelled to Galway on 27 December 1974, and Audrey and the boys came in her car by ferry a couple of days later. Audrey came in time for the Gaeltarra New Year’s Eve party. My work colleagues set me up to make a fool of myself with an Irish New Year’s salutation that was not what I thought it was, but no offence was taken. It was interesting to Audrey and I that the Gaeltarra management were most solicitous with Audrey and assured her: ‘Do not worry. No harm will come to Chris.’

When we questioned this, we were told that the Irish Republican Army, the IRA, had kidnapped a Ferenka factory manager, an expatriate who was doing, we supposed, a job in Ballyvarra that was similar to mine. The victim, a Mr Tiede Herrema, was car-jacked outside his home in Castletroy. The Garda Síochána searched for him for 18 days before information painfully extracted from two IRA men led them to a council house in Monasterevin, County Kildare. The ensuing siege lasted a further 17 days. Barricaded in an upstairs bedroom, Herrema was tied to a chair and wired to explosives. The kidnappers were demanding the release of three notorious IRA prisoners in exchange for Herrema. Eventually, the siege broke and Herrema walked away a free man. I had travelled through Monasterevin a few times on my way between Galway and Dublin and recognised, on the television, the terrace where Herrema had been held captive.

As all this was happening, I was stopped on the road a few times, during the countrywide search for Mr Herrema, close to Oughterard, the village where we now lived. On one occasion when I was flagged down, the policeman approached me.

‘Good morning, Mr Yardley. Would you be identifying yourself, please.’

‘But, Gard. You know who I am.’

‘Of course I do, but I still need to see some form of identity.’

I felt quite safe.

I feel obliged to make note of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. We had got to the republic shortly after the time when political leaders from North and South had announced at Stormont in November 1973 that they would form a new government, with power to be shared, for the first time, with Catholics. The (Protestant) Loyalist paramilitaries immediately announced their opposition, and the IRA set off a series of explosions to show its disapproval. The government caved in after the Loyalist-dominated unions called a general strike, shutting down the province for more than two weeks, and scrapped the agreement. Galway did not appear to be overtly interested or involved. We were aware of rumours that Teach Furbo, the hotel opposite our office, was used as a rest and recreation centre for IRA soldiers. It was not a particularly good inn, and we seldom used it except for a quick lunch. IRA songs were a part of the spontaneous music-making that would ignite the pubs of Galway. I learned the words, but did not join in. My Riomhaire workmates were not in any way so constrained, and we enjoyed many a good craic. Once or twice, Ma Cullen, the proprietor of Cullen’s Bar in Station Road, would shake her head when Audrey and I went in. So we did not venture past the front door.

Tony Johnstone’s father died while we were there. Audrey and I were invited to the funeral to be held in Limerick. We met up with Tony at the Durty Nelly’s hostelry on the outskirts of the city for lunch and several pints of Guinness before going to the cathedral. The celebration of Tony’s father’s life included a full funeral mass, and there were many anxious glances when, after the two-hour ceremony, we lined up to follow the hearse to the cemetery — the boys lined up, the ladies followed in cars. Good as gold, the cortège stopped outside the first bar on our route and half of the male mourners rushed in to relieve their bladders. The other half left when we stopped again outside the second bar. The mood of the event was a true celebration, until unexpectedly a darkly dressed, bereted man in dark glasses came to the front of the crowd and fired a revolver over the open grave. He dissolved into the crowd just as quickly, but Audrey and I sensed an immediate change in mood and removed ourselves to the back. As family guests, we had been invited back to Tony’s home and we went there, but were left alone in the front room. Tony was most concerned, but we decided discretion was the best course, and I took off for Dublin by train as planned. I was so pleased that Joe and Florence were there to take Audrey back to Galway. The only explanation we received was that Tony’s father had been a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, an organisation that evolved into the IRA, and that permission had been obtained for the soldier’s farewell. In retrospect, that was the only time we felt uncomfortable. I have subsequently had a great interest in the history of Ireland in the twentieth century. Understanding has to be key.

Audrey and I were stopped when the Garda Síochána had their regular purges against the manufacture and distribution of poteen, the illegally home-brewed whiskey. If only they had known: I was stopped possibly half a dozen times with a couple of crates of poteen in the boot of the car. I had guessed it was an initiation test. When Paddy Clancy, my farmer neighbour in Rinnerroon, Glann, discovered I was working with Gaelgories (a slang term for Irish speakers) from the Gaeltacht, he suggested: ‘You should be able to get some of the good stuff from them.’ I asked Joe and Tony at work and, of course, the younger lads were able to provide it for a few shillings per bottle. Paddy seemed to have his own sources as well, and we soon recognised poteen as a cure-all for any problem. Paddy would even give it to sick animals. We also saw the Gardaí motor boats patrolling Lough Corrib, which we overlooked from our lounge. We never gauged the seriousness of these purges, and the smell of the illicit brew was one we learned to recognise and accept in the countryside.

Audrey and our two boys joined me in Galway. Audrey had found us a rented cottage beyond the fishing village of Oughterard. The house was in Glann. It was approached through a gateway, partly hidden by wild fuchsia bush, across a cattle grid, and round the edges of three or four cattle- or sheep-filled fields onto a track where a group of half a dozen cottages were widely scattered at the end of a peninsula in Lough Corrib. Lough Corrib was reputedly the best salmon and trout lake in Ireland. The view from the cottage, the summer fishing home of Lady Barrington-Ward, was 180 degrees of water, and we had a boat in the stone jetty off the garden. We put the boys, then seven and eight years old, into the Oughterard Catholic school. We knew that they would receive schooling in Irish, but that was why we were there. They coped wonderfully. I had been travelling during their first week at the new school. Pat, the village mechanic, picked them up in the school bus along with the other Glann boys for the six-mile ride to Oughterard.

We were breakfasting on the Saturday morning when I asked:

‘How are you getting on at school?’

Adam, the elder, looked at me with a puzzled expression and asked:

‘Dad, what’s a Protestant?’

‘You are, son. Why do you ask?’

‘Well, dad. The boys at school are hitting us because we are Protestants.’

‘So what are you doing?’

‘Hitting them back, of course.’

‘Good boy.’

The younger lad, Jason, was also perplexed.

‘Dad, I think you might get cross with this school.’

‘Why, Jason?’

‘Well, dad, at the start and finish of every lesson we all have to do this.’

He quickly genuflected.

Audrey and I kept straight faces and assured them that they would get used to the school, and they did. In days they changed from being the polite, smart, school-uniformed pupils we had loved in Altrincham to the casual, roughly dressed country lads they needed to be to survive in the two-class village schoolhouse. Audrey had to wash their clothes every day, as they brought back rural smells and muck into Lady Barrington-Ward’s house. The boys would even help Paddy’s youngest son, Michael, with farm chores on their way back home from where the school bus driver, Pat, had dropped them. The young (village) priest was a regular contact with the lads at school and took it upon himself to keep us advised of the school activities that were announced in church. He had sought advice after Adam had argued ‘The Creation’ with him during catechism classes.

Our boys did us proud and continued with the full Catholic schooling curriculum. Interestingly, they were able to revert straight back into the Cheshire system when we returned to the UK a few months later.

Business was slow. But it did give us the opportunity to get on with the training of the new recruits, who were most willing pupils. We were very proud of them all. Our approach was that trained people would produce more, reduce costs, eliminate costly errors, and generate new worthwhile efficiencies, and we looked to create reusable code wherever possible. Gaeltarra management were excellent and allowed Riomhaire to make a claim for training expenses, including payroll, in addition to whatever other grants we were taking. This money kept us going through a most difficult period.

We also had time for Eddie French’s continuing training and computer orientation. He came to Galway every other week to see us. I went to Dublin most weeks that Eddie stayed there. We developed a good working relationship, but it was occasionally strained. We had agreed to participate in a Gaeltarra exhibition in Limerick and sent Tony Leonard and Jim Butler off with a computer terminal in the boot of the car to help demonstrate our wares. Eddie met them at the Limerick Conference Centre. He anxiously called me by telephone. As he was a quick speaker, I initially had trouble deciphering his concern until he slowed down.

‘Tony Leonard has gone mad! I could see that the display was not responding as it should. He has taken a hammer from his toolkit and is hitting the back of the terminal. He will ruin it and it cost us a lot of money.’

Not to mention the fact we needed it for the show.

All sorts of images went through my mind. Tony Leonard was a bit mad, we all knew that. Then I realised: the UTS 200 was a new device and reputedly did not travel well. The printed circuit boards tended to loosen and had to be reseated with a large rubber-headed mallet, provided in the engineer’s toolkit, especially for that purpose. Tony was just reseating the boards. Phew! None the less, I thought it wise to travel to Limerick to placate Eddie.

I had some additional contact from Sperry UK as well as my regular sales visits to Manchester, in order to assist with and close business from the UK. I would try and see Geoff Barton on these trips. I was sending Geoff a copy of my monthly general manager’s report, which was written for Mr French, so he was quite well advised of successes and problems. Charles Pigden, the Sperry UK training manager, visited us in Galway, both at home and in the office during the time we were developing the Riomhaire training plan. He was most taken with the fact that I was carrying a fly fishing rod and my waders in the boot of my car, and that we had such easy access to fishing rivers. One day he even managed to cajole me into donning the waders over my suit pants and waving the rod over the stream that went through the grounds at Furbo — the stream that kept the earth-plate wet. He had organised a photographer, but I am pleased to say that I never did see the resulting photo in any Sperry documents. That particular stream was never going to contain a worthwhile trout.

Peter Jackson, the specialist central computer unit regional support engineer, was Manchester-based and visited us twice, coming during the two times when Bill and his lads were not able to fix a specific problem. That did not necessarily mean that we had to suspend our service, but we were aware of a problem. Peter immediately impressed us all. He would fly from Manchester to Dublin in the late afternoon and drive across the country to reach us late evening, around 11.00 pm. With minimum fuss, he would stand at the engineer’s panel, where he was able to manipulate the contents of registers in the processor, and would play the machine like a piano. Every few moments he would ask for a different printed circuit board, which one of the lads would get from the spares holding, until he had diagnosed the problem and determined its resolution. It was inspiring stuff, made all the more impressive as Peter would have purchased two half-bottles of Scotch at the duty free shop on his trip, one of which he would sample as he worked. If the job took him three hours, that was probably the two half-bottles. We would then convey him back to the Ardilaun Hotel for a beer, where they obliged, no matter how late it might be.

I enjoyed being a general manager. I had a good team and could effectively leave a clean desk of an evening, having gained acceptance from Tony, Joe, Mike Nevin, or Bill Leahy for a resolution of any of the day’s outstanding issues. I would then try and get back across the bogs to Oughterard in time to see Audrey and the boys before the boys went to bed. I would often spend a couple of hours on the Lough, alone in the boat, enjoying being in such a fabulous place. I would drown flies, but the actual catching of fish was not necessary for complete enjoyment and relaxation. I could not have imagined, had I not experienced it, the thrill of being aware of salmon leaping from the water as they travelled up the lake, or knowing the delight of being splashed by them.

Late one Friday evening, at home in Glann, I had a most surprising telephone call from Graham Morgan in Manchester. He had been to the Altrincham office where the rumour was that Alan Campbell had left Sperry. Graham said that the story was most confused, but seemed to be Riomhaire/Datacom related, and that it concerned the commissions that had been paid to Pat Cullen and Alan Campbell at the time of the sale of the 1106.

There was a knock on the door very early the next morning. It was Alan Campbell, who came into the house while I dressed and had a quick breakfast. He asked me to take him to the computer centre, which he had never seen. I never did discover how he found me — the postal address gave no clue as to the actual whereabouts of the house. Glann was such a small village that the postman knew all our names or used house names rather than street names or numbers.

In the car to the computer centre, Alan told me he was the owner of Riomhaire — he was Eddie French’s backer. Ever the salesman, he elaborated upon the point that my appointment had been about placing the best man in the region for the job. Now I would understand why he had me, back in Altrincham, in a technical holding role to develop my software understanding. I took him to the centre using the scenic route, across the peat bogs along farm tracks, and he was surprised to see how rural our location was. He liked the centre. Alan could not believe, however, that I did not have the keys to the actual computer room, and was quite dismissive of my reasoning that I had never had cause (until now) to want to enter that area.

I called Joe Whitston. While we waited for him to arrive, I tried to explain our full complement of equipment. Alan was amazed that he had sold and had been expected to run a bureau service with so many single points of failure, and so little random-access storage. He had to believe it. Joe left his keys with us. Alan and I spoke for most of the day and went through the company’s business from my point of view — but only that material that I had already provided to Geoff Barton and that which Eddie French knew that I had shared. I left Alan at a Galway hotel and spent Sunday with the family.

On Monday morning I had a call from Alan Wightman, who had been appointed the replacement Sperry regional director on Friday. His advice was for me to quit Riomhaire at once and to get back to Altrincham lest I be tarred with the same brush as Alan Campbell. I was never given an official version of what caused Alan Campbell’s dismissal from Sperry. Was it the double commissions as Graham Morgan had said, or was it discovered that Alan Campbell owned the company to whom he had sold equipment? The commission rumour was partly substantiated when it was discovered that there were two sales entries of the same Sperry 1106 in the branch records, one to Aer Lingus, and the other to Riomhaire Teoranta.

I took Alan Wightman’s advice. What a bloody shame. It was all coming right. We had created a technical and support team that worked, and I was disappointed to leave it. I discussed what had occurred with Gaeltarra Eireann management, who very kindly offered me a position with Gaeltarra. I discussed this with Audrey, but by then she had had enough of the chauvinistic society that she perceived that was Ireland in the mid-1970s, and we headed back for the UK.


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