LETTERKENNY MEMORIES: SOME HAVE GONE AND SOME REMAIN.
Originally penned by Jonathan Foley in June 2021
Letterkenny is ever-growing with newer faces, more diverse ethnicities and more modern ways of doing things. In a previous article, I wrote about how the best place to see this is by taking a walk through the Town Park. Sometimes though, places in this great town also changed forever but maybe not always for the better.
This town, the place I happily call my home even though I’ve not always lived in it, has produced an abundance of marvelous writers throughout the years. One of those who has stood the test of time is Patrick McArt – a colleague with us here at theLeader and an uncle to a lifelong friend of mine – and his piece in last month’s edition of this paper struck a chord with me.
Mister McArt penned a brief but nonetheless poignant column about how he can’t quite shake feeling nostalgic about the way Letterkenny used to be. He wrote about a time when certain shops and stores lined the Main Street, cafés where locals sat outside and, generally speaking, a time when everyone seemed to know everyone. In short, he misses that era. Understandably.
It got me thinking though about how much this town has transitioned since I was born. With that, a Spotify-headphoned walk around the streets and backroads of the town was required. Starting off closer-to-home and for the purpose of this article’s word count limit, I’ll stay focused on my more local surroundings in and around Gortlee and Ballyraine for this one.
Seeing where myself and the neighbour kids used to play football on the green outside Knocknamona Park was a start. Back in those days, being the youngest, I nearly always landed with the responsibility of being the goalie – whether I wanted to or not was immaterial – and there was no final whistle. The game only ended when the kid who owned the ball was called in by his parents or when the street-lights went on.
We used to have this big wooded-tree area along the roadside that we called ‘the Territory.’ During our games of ‘Block’, it was an ideal hiding place before attempting a dash across the road to free all the prisoners.
It was also once home to a treehouse and an underground den. It was where we gathered tires for the Halloween bonfires every year and it was also where we had a genuine beast of a rope-swing. A couple of the older lads used to bring along a battery-operated cassette player and rock out songs by the likes of Nirvana, Guns and Roses and a bunch of other angry-but-cool-sounding vocalists.
Nowadays though, you would never know any of it was ever there. Some time back, the green where we played three-and-in until all hours was cut down in size to make way for a bigger pavement. As for the Territory, that land was bought up and it’s now the site of a huge house with a long, stretching garden while other places we used now belong to the Beinn Aoibhinn or Whitethorn Park estates.
It’s not that we really minded when this Gortlee facelift took place. After all, we were getting older and were starting to find new ways to keep ourselves entertained. The new houses that came along meant that new neighbours, with kids of their own, had a place to settle, to play and make memories of their own.
So, in that case, Letterkenny moved on for the better but it doesn’t mean you can’t reminisce about the way it was. The places where you scored that wonder volley to win the match just before the call from mum on the back porch signaled the end of the game. When you knew where all the other kids were as soon as you saw all the bicycles were lying down and as I ventured into my adolescence, it was also the place I got my first ‘shift’ with a girl who lived in the back-row of houses.
Sure didn’t I just tell you we were getting older, didn’t I?
Sadly though, some places in the town didn’t age as well. Growing up in the 1990s, visits to the PinTavern down by Ballyraine was just a mecca of fun. The synthetic noises and flashing lights of the arcade games, clinks from the air-hockey table and of the rolling sounds of bowling balls crashing into pins. It’s no wonder every kid wanted to have their birthday party there.
As I moved forward into my teens, ‘The Pin’ was still there. Only this time, myself and a group of secondary school friends would use the outside facilities where you could play 5-a-side football on the astroturf pitches. Games were always good fun, but they were quite competitive and on some occasions, a flare-up over a bad tackle would arise. Handbag arguments that quickly blew over, but maybe it was a sign we were just getting a bit more serious with age.
Last week, after a period of about twenty years had passed, I snuck around the back of the Pin’s building and it was genuinely sad to see how so much of the place had become dilapidated, crumbled and overgrown. Rusted barriers caged up the playing fields and the building where we used to play bowling and spend all our pocket money on the arcades resemembled a bomb site.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with business owners packing up and moving on; it’s part and parcel of life. I suppose there is solace to be taken that maybe this mantle was just taken up for younger kids to make their memories just over the road at Arena 7 or maybe at the newly-developed, state-of-the-art football pitch, just along Orchard Grove at Ballyraine FC.
I get it when people say they miss things about the way things used to be in this town. Heck, I feel that way about places in my own neighbourhood! On the other hand, nostalgia can only get us so far and things just change naturally, sometimes for good and sometimes not. After all, if you ever listen closely to the words of ‘In My Life’ by The Beatles, that’s exactly what they did.
This article got me thinking though … Maybe next time, I’ll have to explore my memories of The Grill! Now there’s a venue of Letterkenny history that makes you think about times when things went good and sometimes not so good!