Bridie Breen enters the Fusion office on a bitterly cold afternoon in the city. She is elegantly wrapped in a green wool coat, a beautiful chocolate brown fur stole and matching beret, set off by a brooch with multi-coloured stones like hard boiled candy. We are introduced by her son – actor, writer and director, Myles Breen.
Bridie has lived all of her 94 years in Limerick, so naturally there will be a lot for us to talk about. Once we’ve warmed up a bit, I ask her to start in the logical place: from the beginning.
She talks about her father, James Walsh. “He was a very smart man. He worked with the Embassy, travelling all over the continent. He spoke many languages, and was completely fluent in French. After some years, he became homesick and returned to take on the role of butler to Edward Thomas O’Dwyer, the Bishop of Limerick.” It was during a visit to Shanagolden that he met her mother, then a housekeeper. “She didn’t like him much at first – found him too bossy, always fussing.” Not quite ‘love at first sight’ then? “It didn’t appear to be, but when he asked her to marry him, she said yes!”
It was their marriage that led to the family’s life in the Limerick Chamber of Commerce. “The Bishop knew of my parents’ desire to start a family and when he heard of a job going at the Limerick Chamber, he put in a word for my father.”
As we walk through the early stages of her life, she remarks to Myles on the memories that keep springing to her mind: “Isn’t it funny, the things I’m remembering? They seem like small things, but they were important to me at the time.”
She recalls a remarkable amount of detail. From the colours and patterns of the outfits she wore while competing in Irish dancing in schoolhouses, to the sights and sounds of the Chamber. She may well have been the most well-connected child in Limerick. “I knew all the big businessmen – though, of course, I didn’t think much of it then! I knew them from them visiting the chamber, and from cycling to each member house to deliver invitations when my father was too busy to do so.” Bridie went back to the Chamber, which is currently celebrating its 200th anniversary in January of this year. She explored every room in the place she once called home. “There are photos of former Presidents of the Chamber on the walls – I remember most of them from our time there.”
She also remembers a happy childhood. Irish dance was a big part of their lives, Bridie danced all over the country and her brother Jack became 1931 Irish Dancing Champion of Ireland. “Jack competed until he felt the call of the priesthood. He was about 17 when he told my parents, and soon after he went to study in Surrey, England.”
Jack was ordained in 1941. “It was wartime, and as you can imagine everything was in a mess – it was difficult to travel as a civilian, passports were out of the question so my parents couldn’t travel to the ceremony. Such a big moment in his life, and they missed it. That was sad.”
The family had its share of tragedy. Bridie’s sister Peggy, born two years before her, died of meningitis aged two and a half. It was December 24th that her brother Jack died. “We got the call around midnight to say that he was gone. Christmas Eve is a sad time for me. To make it worse, his funeral was delayed for more than 2 weeks – there was such a hard frost that they could not even dig the ground. That was hard on my parents, and on all of us. All we wanted to do was say goodbye.”
Bridie and her family stayed in the Chamber for many years to come, but it was her mother’s talent for cooking that lead to a different path.
“My father’s wage wasn’t great, so after my grandfather died in 1938, we started the family catering business. As the business grew, it took us all over the country. We catered for racing, golf clubs, funerals – all sorts of events.”
Then, in 1956 Bridie purchased the old Country Club which she turned into The Cecil hotel, and the family relocated there. It very quickly gained a strong reputation. In the same year, a Limerick Leader review of the hotel wrote ‘Miss Walsh takes a keen personal interest in every aspect of her hotel… In these charming surroundings one could not but enjoy the delicious repasts all served in that high-class tradition that has characterised Walsh family catering for so many years.’
The family business also led her to meet her husband, Myles Snr. “We were catering at an event at Shannon Rowing Club and this young gentleman entered the room, stopped to shake my hand and complimented our food.” After that meeting he invited her to a dinner dance and soon they were married at St Joseph’s Church.
Myles was a widower, with 6 children. “Two sons and four girls. His sons stayed with him, but the girls were younger, so they were taken into the convent at The Mount St Vincent.” At that time in Ireland this was common practice, as young children were not to be brought up in a ‘broken’ home. “The first thing I did after we were married, was go to get them out of there.” Myles and Bridie then had two children of their own: Myles Junior and John.
As she did when talking about her days of dancing, Bridie recalls the most details when she talks about the arts. She and Myles reminisce animatedly about The Savoy Cinema, The Coliseum (now The Belltable Arts Centre) and Carlton Cinema, “all gone now”. It’s easy to see where her sons got their inspiration for their chosen careers.
“Oh she dragged us to everything!” Myles says fondly. “Every show or film that was on, we would go. Though I suppose it still came as a shock when I returned from studying a degree in commerce and declared I wanted to become an actor.”
“Shocked? I nearly had a stroke!” Bridie laughs. “Especially when not long after, his brother John told us he had similar intentions…”
Myles is quick to clarify: “Despite the initial surprise, my mother and father were amazing, and they couldn’t have been more supportive of us.”
Myles’s brother John Breen, as theatre and rugby lovers will know, is famed for his play Alone it Stands, based on Munster’s victory over the All Blacks in 1978. Bridie saw it when it opened in London.
There is another association that the Breen name holds: Limerick’s Myles Breen pub. Bridie and her husband Myles were at the heart of the Limerick social scene. “We knew all the famous rugby players,” she says proudly. She also talks about serving the bingo crowds who would burst in on their break. “They had 15 minutes, which meant we had less than 10 to get their drinks lined up on the bar ready for them!”
In 94 years, Bridie has seen many changes in the city. I ask what is the main difference between the Limerick of her early days and the city today? “Well, the traffic is terrible! When I was growing up it was mostly horses and traps. Occasionally, a horse drawn carriage would rattle down O’Connell Street and we’d all rush out to look. Then came the motorcar, and we had to be much more careful on the road. I was hit by a car once when I was young – I was running across O’Connell Street and either I ran into it or it ran into me. I can still see it now.”
Bridie remains a regular visitor to Limerick theatre, particularly the Lime Tree, which is close to where she currently resides, as well as going to see shows at UL.
Arts, business, hospitality and community: Bridie is a living embodiment of Limerick, and she and her family have played a part in so much of what makes the city such a vibrant and fascinating place to live.
Article & Interview by Kayleigh Ziolo
Photography by Tarmo Tulit & The Breen Family