Over the past few months, many of these so-called ‘One F’ articles have centered around a theme of growing up in Letterkenny during 1980’s, nineties and turn of the century. A period of Donegal history that often gets overlooked.
By Jonathan Foley
Being a local lad myself, the plan was always to be as authentic as possible – mainly because my fellow townies would surely have no bother in letting me know if I was getting things wrong or if I was guilty of mass exaggeration – which thankfully was not the case.
Not so far as I know anyway.
But for anyone who’s involved in the creative game; be it through their work in music, art or writing, there’s always that niggling issue over how to better your last piece. During moments like these, the dreaded ‘Blank Page’ can become an intimidating adversary … but only if you let it.
On the one hand, for me anyway, there’s the fear that an article could fail miserably, that it would cause embarrassment to someone and give me, the writer, a feeling that I’ve not performed to my full potential.
And yet, on the other hand, this feeling is certainly not unique to just musicians, artists and writers at all. It can apply to pretty much anyone.
Whether it’s someone looking to start up a new business, learn a new language or even somebody hoping to get a leaner physique down at the gym, the all too real possibility of not reaching the goal that was originally aimed for can and will cause many to shy away from their original dreams and aspirations.
We all have ideas about what we wish to write, sing and teach the world about. It’s why we looked up to superheroes as kids, why we idolised the talents (and hotness) of movie stars and probably why we all played air-guitar in front of our bedroom mirrors at some point in our lives. Don’t lie, we all did it!
In that regard, gathering ideas isn’t necessarily the problem. It’s the pursuit and execution of them that makes them a challenge and it’s entirely up to that person – or group – on what the reaction to that challenge should be. Get stuck into it or bow out before the show even gets started.
My ideas for the recent One F columns were based on a simple premise. The plan was to write about aspects of Letterkenny life from the not-too-distant past because, even though I’ve just turned 38, I’m simply not old enough to cover stuff about donkey and cart days in the town.
I’ve seen the photos and the occasional film footage but, in all honesty, I don’t remember the fish market at the Square. I’ve vague recollections of Peader’s Bar with the petrol pumps just outside and I was underage when it was still called Nero’s Niteclub.
In addition to that, I had a feeling that nobody else in this part of the world had been writing up pieces on the trials and tribulations of teenage discos at The Grill, what it was like growing up in Gortlee or spending weekend time at the Music Center or the old Port Road cinema.
So that’s where the lightbulb moment came from for those. Plus, I’d an inkling that these would rekindle memories with people across other parts of Ireland and maybe even further.
To round it all off, my focus would then take on a new challenge.
‘Aye, but who are the people who’ll actually read these?’ Ideally, I’d have loved it if everyone did, but that just doesn’t happen. So, I thought about people who were roughly about my own age group first.
I’d make notes, sometimes from their suggestions, on funny memories about how people dressed during a given period or what were some of the hit pop songs at the time. That kinda thing. Low and behold, the nostalgia would flood in and the article would come to life.
The online reaction from friends, many of whom have since long emigrated to far flung parts of the world, was always positive. If they were locally-based, they’d happily text me on a photo of the article with a brief message stating how much they enjoyed it.
After all, there aren’t many other published pieces about the time and places where they grew up. It gave them something to connect to.
Obviously there’d be re-drafts and edits for me to do because there is some truth to the line that ‘most writing is rewriting,’ but yet, if I passed by someone in the café at Mac’s Mace and noticed they were reading my article, that was usually a victory moment within itself.
The ‘Blank Page’ can be your worst enemy or your best friend (after you spend some quality time with it). The trick is not overthink, but to consider who would enjoy this and why. Don’t worry so much about the product or final destination of what you’re creating but instead, try to enjoy the process and the journey towards it.
You will have to endure a touch of ‘writer’s block’ and a voice inside your head telling you ‘awk, I’m just not feeling wile creative today,’ but if you can break that barrier, you just never know whose day you’ll make when they see, hear or read something you’ve created.
And for God’s sake, try and have some fun being creative too.
Sometimes it’s funny when you think about it. If my life depended on it, I couldn’t tell you what I had for dinner every night last week. And yet, if I was asked to name every primary school teacher I had between the years 1989 and 1997, I could rhyme them off without any bother at all.
To this day, I vividly recall my first day of school. In those days, Scoil Cholmcille in Letterkenny was referred to quite simply as ‘the Boys school.’ Even though it has since opened its doors to all genders, there’s probably still a few who call it by the name I’ve just mentioned. Old habits die hard, I suppose.
How I remember my first morning in the school is easy to recall because when a local photographer came in to take a snap of the class for a local paper, it was me who Mrs O’Malley placed on her knee as well as said ‘cheese.’ Every now and again, that photo will resurface online and it’s a certainty I’ll get tagged.
Even though I’m a secondary school teacher myself now, my appearances in primary schools, in any capacity, have been quite rare.
I was chuffed however to be invited back to Scoil Cholmcille in 2018 where I was only too happy to meet up with Mrs McMacken. My teacher in second class (1992/93) who happily reminded me “you were a lovely student Jonathan … but you were a disaster for forgetting your pencils,” she joked.
On that particular visit, I couldn’t help but get flashbacks back to the days of Anne and Barry storybooks, making clay figures out of marla and playing games like tig out in the yard. I’d even forgotten some of the everyday terminology like ‘little break’ at 11am and ‘big break’ at 12:30pm.
Anytime I ever hear mention of ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ or ‘All God’s Creatures Got a Place in the Choir’, then I’m instantly brought back to some of the songs we learned during those more innocent days. And nobody will ever forget the excitement of when the teacher would wheel in the TV trolley.
For third and fourth class, some of us were sent over to what was known as ‘the Old Boys School.’ I remember the playground being quite gray and because you’d sometimes see the monks dandering about in their brown robed attire, it kinda felt like you were in a school that resembled a time that Ireland forgot.
Having said that, I quite liked that old building. The desks were very old-fashioned with their bench-like appearance and there was even a little hole in the corner for dipping one’s ink-pen. The ceilings were abnormally high and our view from the window was dominated by St. Eunan’s Cathedral.
After school, the Gable End shop often got a visit. There was no such thing as an orderly queue as kids squished against the counter to place their order for things like Stinger bars, Woppas, Eye-Poppers, Chickatees or, my own personal favourite, a bag of Rosy Apple sweets that cost 30p.
That particular shop used to be located where the revamped Cathedral car park is now but sadly, there isn’t a trace of it to be found anymore. The main building of Scoil Cholmcille also looks so much more modern nowadays and, while that’s great to see, some of us will still remember how it once looked.
When I was about 8 or 9, I used to think that the boys in fifth and sixth class were so old. Their classrooms were on the top floor at the rear of the building and they played on the back yard at break time. They’d moved on from games of tig and played semi-organised games of football; albeit with a tennis ball.
For my final two years of national school, I’d become one of these ‘older and wiser’ pupils, at the ripe old age of 11 and 12. I jest there, of course, but there’s no denying that when you get to that age, it is a kind of cool feeling to know that you’re older than most of the other classes in the school.
What I really liked about this time was the slight sprinkle of independence that the teachers would sometimes give us. In fifth class, Miss Hennessy was kind enough to give me a plus three after I’d completed my self-chosen project on the Beatles. She even hung my poster of the Fab Four up on the wall.
Nearly everybody in the class played football at the break and it was agreed that the best way to pick the teams was with a simple method. The classroom seating was evenly divided so if you sat on the right hand side, you played for ‘window’ and the left were ‘the wall.’ Thus, we had ‘the Window vs the Wall’ rivalry.
In sixth class, Master Cannon (my first ever male teacher) used to give us a weekly task called the News Report. Basically, we had to get one topic from a newspaper and write a report on it in our own words. The rule was that only one sports story a month was allowed.
Even though I tried my best to bend that rule from time to time.
In a way, doing those news reports is kinda like what my bosses here at theLeader have me do now. Regarding the monthly sports reports that we could do, they probably look like time-capsules now because of how I’d write about Robbie Fowler scoring two goals in Liverpool’s 5-1 win at the weekend.
Master Cannon was an excellent teacher. He always encouraged us to pursue what we were passionate about and one day every week, he’d read us extracts from a novel called ‘I Am David.’ A story about a boy escaping from a Nazi concentration camp and his ability to act out the characters voices was mesmerising to all our imaginations.
He also showed us how to do cursive (joined) writing and, to this day, myself and a mate from that class still do our capital Z’s the exact way he showed us.
This was also the year that the school choir did really well in a number of provincial and national competitions. Under the tutorship and conducting of Master Breslin, they even appeared on the 1996 edition of the Late Late Toy Show.
Something which many of that group still love to casually drop into conversion today. To be fair, I would if I had been involved too. Joking aside though, we still owe a lot to the school because it was the place where so many of us formed the friendships which many of us are still a part of today.
Whenever we’re having a beer now and the conversation about primary school comes up, you’d be amazed how quickly people can cast their minds back when you remind them about things such as Friday morning spelling tests, learning your times tables and choosing your Confirmation name.
Just as I wrote that, I remembered that mine was ‘David’, but that there was an avid Manchester United fan in my class at the time who went with ‘Eric.’ No prizes for guessing why there.
Still though, while it’s often more common to natter about the divilment of our secondary school days, the primary ones shouldn’t ever be forgotten either. Scoil Cholmcille has come on leaps and bounds with its modern technology, its more cosmopolitan and multicultural ethos but its still a place of many great memories for so many around the town.
I’m sure it will continue to generate great times for many more kids for many years to come.
Oh yeah, before I forget: Mrs O’Malley, Miss Lillis, Miss Surplus, Mrs McMacken, Miss McGinley, Mrs Quigley, Miss Hennessy and Master Cannon. Not forgetting of course, Master Redden as our principal. Look back at the opening paragraph again and you’ll know what I’m on about there.
‘HIS WAS A LIFE OF SERVICE TO MANY’ – SAD PASSING OF ANDY O’BOYLE.
There was a profound feeling of loss over Letterkenny last weekend. As word broke that one of the town’s most popular and well-liked figures, Andy O’Boyle, sadly passed away at the age of 81.
Originally from Claremorris, County Mayo Andy was a retired Garda Sergeant but it was perhaps his community endeavors – especially with Ballyraine FC – where he became best known.
By Jonathan Foley
On Sunday morning last, the hearse transporting Andy to the Church of the Irish Martyrs took a slight detour as it brought him past Ballyraine’s home ground one last time. A guard-of-honour of residents, clubmates old and new and mourners applauded the vehicle as it passed by. Alongside Charlie Shiels, Andy had been a founding member of the club back in 1979.
Over the next four decades, the two shared the managerial responsibilities of a number of schoolboys and schoolgirls teams. Their efforts and endeavors seemed limitless and, as the years passed by, they could proudly boast a wonderful alumni of players who had passed through the club’s ranks at underage level.
Among the names included were Mark English, from the athletics world, Ciara Grant who is a member of the Republic of Ireland’s Women’s National Team who are currently in preparation for the upcoming World Cup finals. Another key name is Rory Kavanagh, an All-Ireland winner with Donegal back in 2012 as well as Julie Ann Herrity who also played at international level.
Another sprinkling of names that Andy would’ve coached include Ciarán Greene and David McGinley who both represented Ireland at underage level. Additionally, there was Josh Mailey, Sean Houston, Gareth Harkin and Cillian Morrison who all went on to play League of Ireland football.
To say though that it was only the high-end players who appreciated Andy would be wrong. Andy welcomed everyone to the club, regardless of their ability, but through his patience and supportive nature, he seemed to make players feel ten-feet tall. In a way, this was referenced in Rory Kavanagh’s autobiography ‘Winning’ back in 2015:
“Charlie Shiels and Andy O’Boyle and their helpers treated us like kings, like we were playing for Liverpool,” Rory Kavanagh wrote of his former Ballyraine FC managers “They were great men and gave us a tremendous footballing education.”
Anyone who ever played on the Ballyraine home pitch, back in the olden days, could likely bemoan the slantiness of the pitch, the jaggy brambles up by the corner-flag and the unforgiving puddle that usually appeared after a spat of rain.
These were things that the home side often used to their advantage, but it was far from ideal for the visiting sides.
Back in December 2016, the club staged an official reunion. Throngs of past-players met up for a 5-a-side tournament during the day (an ideal opportunity to run off the turkey and sweets) before reassembling later in the evening for finger-food, a table quiz and some speeches to celebrate the club.
Amid all the nostalgia and fun that night at Arena 7, it was pointed out that the input of Charlie and Andy should never be forgotten. The way they provided a social outlet for so many children and teenagers is something that will sit deep in the hearts of these people for many years to come.
On the night of the reunion, Ballraine FC may have been looking back on where they came from. It didn’t take too long though until they started looking forward though and Andy was a pivotal part of this once again.
The club opted to start up the Ballyraine 200 Club which allowed patrons to sign up to a monthly draw for cash prizes. In an overall sense, this was a unique fundraiser for the redevelopment of the pitch into what it is now. A state of the art facility which is almost unrecognizable from what it was before.
Andy had over 26 years experience in running the Donegal Hospice 500 Club and, with his know-how and expertise at hand, he came out of retirement to help run Ballyraine’s version. This was commemorated last March by the club committee who made a special presentation to Andy in recognition of his great efforts.
Earlier this week, a memorial poster was placed on the railings that surround the pitch at Ballyraine FC for a truly legendary figure.
Andy was predeceased by his wife Margaret in February 2020. Deeply missed by his loving family, sons Joe (Fahan) and Sean (Naas), daughters Marie (Letterkenny), Rita Kenny (Donegal Town) and Lucie Donnelly (Dungannon), grandchildren Erin, Oisin, Ava, Maggie, Thomas, Einín, Tara, Eoghan and Leah, great-grandchild Shea, brother Pat (Perth, Australia) and sisters Betty Moran (Ballinrobe, Mayo) and Cora Kenny (Ballinasloe, Co. Galway), sons-in-law, daughters-in-law, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, nieces, nephews and a wide circle of family, friends and neighbours.
A few years ago, to beat a bit of boredom and at the ripe old age of thirty-something, I took this notion – maybe due to a case of having more money than sense at the time – to invest in a PlayStation 3.
At the time, Sony hadn’t yet unveiled the fifth version and, not being too bothered about computer games, I was too miserly to part with my pennies to pay for the PS4. The modestly-priced and ageing PS3 would do rightly.
I unboxed it, used it for a while, blew up a few buildings in Grand Theft Auto and, to be honest, the console has been gathering dust and cobwebs pretty much ever since. I don’t mind the odd game, but I’m by no means what some would call ‘a gamer’, but was this always the way?
I was lucky enough to grow up in a neighbourhood during a time when kids still tended to play outside a lot more than now.
Some of our gang were even dab hands at building tree-houses, dens and tire-swings. Games of block, three-and-in football and something called ‘British Bulldog’ were par for the course. There weren’t too many girls around our estate so games of dares and spin-the-bottle didn’t come along until a few years further down the line.
Despite all of the above, it’s not to say we were the purely ‘outdoorsy’ generation.
Far from it, really. During the early-to-mid 1990s, the tech companies of Sega and Nintendo may have been involved in a fierce battle in the gaming world, but as impressionable kids, we tended to enjoy playing both.
I think it was Christmas 1991 when my older brother got a Sega Mega-Drive; from Santy, of course. Who else?
That meant for much of the next year (providing our homework was done and our bedrooms tidy) we could immerse ourselves in the world of Sonic the Hedgehog.
Jumping and speedily racing through the levels and zones, springing high and rolling low while stomping out enemy crab-looking thingies and collecting rings on the way to defeating the divil that was Dr. Robotnik.
For its time, the 16-bit graphics looked mesmerizingly colourful and the fact that each level had its own toe-tapping dance-sounding theme music gave each stage its own sense of uniqueness.
The feeling of accomplishment you got after successfully passing a tricky-level was a joyous moment and the trepidation and anxiousness you felt when you were on your ‘last life’ was very real.
Then again, there were some other earth-shattering dilemmas you had to overcome. Remember that most platform games like Sonic started out originally as one-player games.
So when you came to realise that your elder sibling was lying all along as they handed you an inactive, dormant spare control pad and went “See? You are playing! Now shut up and stop crying to Mammy, will ya!”
That was when you knew that people told lies; something your primary school teacher repeatedly told you ‘made the wee Baby Jesus cry.’
Sega vs Nintendo
When Christmas ‘92 came around a year later, we were lucky enough in our house to also get our hands on a Super Nintendo Entertainment System, or SNES for short.
Santa Claus pulling off back-to-back successes. What a guy!
With the SNES, who could forget their addictive and generally great fun games such as Super Mario World, Donkey Kong Country, Mario Kart and The Legend of Zelda to name only a few.
Owing to the fact that more and more games were becoming two-player, this led to a greater sense of ‘community spirit’ among the neighbourhood kids, even if we were a bit more ‘indoorsy’ at this point.
It wasn’t uncommon for a sitting room or bedroom to become crowded out and swarmed with kids patiently awaiting their turn on Street Fighter II: The World Warrior; a competition run through the ‘winner stays on and best-out-of-three in the final to decide the winner’ format that we’d all agreed on.
Plus, there was always high praise (and envy) of the kid who could pull off the illustrious Dragon Punch manoeuvre. Looking back, God knows how our host’s parents stuck the noise of us down those hallways.
I still have some hazy but definite recollections of some boys bringing in chairs from a kitchen, or sometimes even the garden furniture, into the bedroom just for somewhere to sit.
It may have been officially the pre-internet era, but gaming in those days still generated research and communication. If someone got a hold of a particular game’s cheat-code, usually a pen-and-paper scribble, they were hailed for making life so much easier.
“See what you do is … when the music comes on at the start and Sonic waves his finger, right? … Ya hit up, down, left, right, then A, B, C and then A and start together. Got it?“
And we’ll never forget that this was also a time when if a game wasn’t working properly, it was easily fixed by taking the cartridge out of the console, blowing the dust out of it, and putting it back in. Job done.
Definitely, one of the most memorable games I had at that time was one that you couldn’t even get in Europe.
My auntie who was, and still is, living in the United States was well aware of my keen interest and fascination with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
For a birthday present, she posted me over a copy of ‘Turtles in Time.‘ Because it was an American-style cartridge, she also sent over a special adapter that enabled it to work on this side of the Atlantic.
To this day, I still think it was one of the most enjoyable games I ever played. Your mission was to rescue the Statue of Liberty from the evil Shredder and Krang.
You’d start off by battling it out, in a side-scroller fashion, with the Foot Clan on the streets and alleyways of Big Apple before being transported to variety of different time dimensions.
The gameplay was great fun and the music that was used got better each time you moved onto a new level.
As a child, I used to love drawing and stories. Still do. And I always think that there was something with the way that game caught my imagination so much.
I loved how the creators didn’t neglect the backgrounds with their vivid and eye-catching depictions of the New York City skyline’s bright lights. If I ever found myself doodling a drawing on paper since then, I often found myself adding in some sort of attempt at a big city backdrop and I guess this is why.
Of course, it wasn’t just the fun games that made this time memorable. There were other factors too.
People playing games on their phones and other handheld devices nowadays is nothing new, but I doubt anyone will remember them as well compared to their memories of playing Tetris on their Game Boy.
Some might even say that this was the first time in history when gaming could be carried out during a visit to the lavatory. One for the History books there.
Video Rental Shops
Another thing from back in those days, for many, there was something of a weekly Friday evening tradition to go and visit the video shop. In my hometown of Letterkenny, this was either the Midnight Owl or Xtra-vision shops that could both be found just off the Pearse Road in the centre of town.
The main way I can describe the difference between the two was that, for me anyway, Midnight Owl always seemed to have more of an underground alternative indie vibe compared to the big lights of Xtra-vision.
To round off the working week, my mum would always treat herself to a rented film that she could watch after the Late Late Show.
As a wee bonus gift for me, I’d go along and I’d be allowed to take home a game to play on my SNES. This was on the condition I’d behaved and been a good boy all week, of course.
Say what you like, but there was a wonderful feeling of anticipation and excitement when you entered a video shop.
One could browse through the shelves to see what was available. They even had a small popcorn machine behind the counter just to add to that whole cinema feel.
The aroma of butter and toffee had its way of telling you that the weekend had arrived. Not forgetting the signpost that reminded everyone that there was a £1 fine for not rewinding the tape.
Much more often than not, I recall being in the back seat of the car journey home and I’d be hugely excited to get into the house, down to my room and fire on and see what this week’s game was like.
As a rule, I used to never skip the intro segment of a game when I was playing it for the first time. I dunno why, it’s just always been a thing of mine.
In a way, perhaps it’s not that the games were all that great. Of course they were fun, but maybe it’s more of a case that they somehow created great lasting memories with your siblings, friends and family.
Streaming services allow for instant access to a lot of these things nowadays, but the days of the video shop and the Friday night game are treasured memories to behold.
Modern day ‘Gamer?’
As I mentioned earlier, by no means would I ever qualify as a ‘gamer’ in more modern times. As a teacher, I overhear the pupils discuss ‘FIFA points’ and Fortnite which are concepts and games I’m completely oblivious to.
Even when I first pressed the power-on button on my fairly-redundant PS3, something appeared on the screen asking me to log on. ‘For a computer game?’ I thought, bemusedly. Must be a sign of my age, I suppose.
Still though, there have some positive knock-on effects from my previous days as a 90s gamer at least.
A little over four years ago, I traveled to Japan. Aside from everything that makes that country as unique as it is, one thing I couldn’t help but notice was how into video games they were as a nation. Young kids, adults, men, women. You name it.
Arcade places were popular hangout spots for so many people and, maybe this was just me, but they seemed to be taking some of their games very seriously indeed.
That’s not where it stopped though. Upon my wanders through the likes of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, I passed by hundreds of shop windows were the most artistic figurine models of popular game characters could be found.
The craftsmanship that had gone into them was nothing short of immaculate. As a nostalgia purpose, I just had to fork out the few hundred Yen for a model of Ryu; the main character from Street Fighter.
Upon that same trip, mainly to get out of the heat, I stumbled across a much more lowkey arcade joint. It wasn’t as flashy as the other ones I’d been to. There were no neon-lights and dinging of machines this time.
This was more of a ‘retro’ kind of spot which, as you can imagine, suited me down to the ground. It was great to see that the games from my generation was still somewhat cool and trendy in Japan.
A kindly and mild-mannered local Japanese lad approached me. I think we weren’t too far apart in age. Of course, there was a strong language barrier but I soon twigged that he was offering me a one-on-one match on Street Fighter.
I kindly obliged with a bow and a smile and off we went. It had been a long time since I had used the combos for certain special moves, but after he won one game, and I won the other, we smiled, bowed again, high-fived and left it as a draw.
Mind you, ending in a draw would’ve been completely out of the question three decades earlier.
Many Irish kids will have had some sort of GAA involvement as a part of their upbringing. Growing up in Letterkenny, I was no different.
After all, people around my age would’ve started playing in the early 1990s. Owing to the fact that Donegal had won the 1992 All-Ireland, we had no shortage of heroes to look up to and emulate.
Football has changed a lot since those days.
This was a time when the jerseys we wore were made out of cotton which, when they got soaked in the rain, became unusually heavy and difficult to run around in.
Collars seemed to protrude up as far as your ears if you happened to go for that Eric Cantona-look while our gloves were itchy yellow-coloured woollen things with sticky black velcro dots.
The Mikasa gloves, as you might recall.
In those days, being a Donegal supporter, my early heroes were the likes of Manus Boyle, Anthony Molloy, Tony Boyle, Charlie Mulgrew and Declan Bonner to name but a few.
In the back garden of my family home in Gortlee, it wasn’t uncommon for me to pretend I was playing in the forward-line for the county team alongside these guys.
My youthful imagination would transform it into Croke Park on All-Ireland Final day where I’d be providing my services as a commentator too.
Of course, a sprinkling of drama had to be thrown in just to add to the occasion. Usually it was a scenario where my invisible opponents – mainly Dublin – were two points up and within touching distance of a victory going into stoppage time.
“Foley in possession … plays a one-two with Boyle [in reality, off the oil tank] … and Foley has it back and there’s the shot! There’s the goal!!! (Yaaassss!!) Johnny Foley scores the goal that will surely see the Sam Maguire cup go back to Donegal! What a moment for this young man. Foley is the Hero!!”
Then I’d run around in celebration. Taking in the raucous applause from the adoring fans all waving their green and gold flags [in reality, the garage] before raising the decorated trophy aloft [some random generic sports day trophy that had been left lying about the house].
The players we looked up to in those days often seemed to be of a stockier build and frame than today’s more athletic-looking lads.
The sort of people you’d imagine when you’d hear the phrase: “Back when men were men … and sheep were nervous!”
At underage level, I remember some of the coaches even then, being somewhat bemused to the idea of players even wearing gloves while anything other than a black pair of boots would run the risk of having you tagged as something of a ‘Fancy Dan.’
The first GAA club I joined as a kid of about eight years of age was St Eunan’s. Nowadays they have a state of the art facility at their O’Donnell Park grounds on the outskirts of the town.
It looks fantastic and very fitting with the modern day. Hundreds of kids take part in the Sunday Morning Academy where all coaches are properly trained and experienced.
That wasn’t always the case back in my day.
The training area was often knee-deep with rushes which had sprouted up out of the ground. Behind the goalposts, there was a splattering of stingy nettles.
This meant that retrieving a ball (as per the rules of ‘hits it, gets it!’) entailed rolling up your socks to your knees and maybe having a docking leaf to hand just in case the worst happened. Ouch!
Owing to the fact that my dad took on a voluntary coaching role with the Letterkenny Gaels, when they were founded as a club in 1996, I found myself playing there for a season-and-a-bit at under-12s.
“Sure there’s not much point in me driving you to Eunan’s and then me heading across town to the Gaels, now is there?” was his philosophy on the matter.
I didn’t really mind what club I was playing for, to be honest.
When you’re that age, you’re content enough just to be outside in the fresh air, running around and kicking ball with your friends from school.
One of my earliest recollections from the Gaels was that so many of the grown-ups at the club were ‘blow-ins’, usually from more midwestern and southern parts of Ireland.
Granted, my parents were too, but when compared to St Eunan’s – where everyone spoke more like a true Townie – I quickly had to familiraise myself with more southern-sounding terminology.
“Now, yer sucking diesel,” was one and “schtick de feckin’ ball over de feckin bar!” was a more midwestern / Connaught one.
It goes without saying that when I hear these phrases now, I take no notice, but you have to remember that this was a time when – outside of my parents and relatives – I’d never really heard any accents that came from areas much further past Bundoran.
Team buses weren’t a regular feature on our matchdays either. Generally, it was assumed the parents would all chip in and help out with the driving.
Sometimes it wasn’t uncommon to see about seven or eight youngsters piled into a modestly-sized Ford Mondeo or, for the kid who was running late, to be pulling his socks and boots on while still in the backseat of a moving car.
In my first year, and pretty much only proper full year at the Gaels, we reached a County Final.
We got beat but my abiding memory from that day was looking around after the final whistle and just being in awe of how mesmerising it was to have togged out at MacCumhaill Park in Ballybofey; even if I was only thrown on to play for the last few minutes.
After all, this was the county team’s ground where my heroes had played. The County ground!
In those days, the main stand was more of a terrace and just one big slab of gray steps and concrete. I very much doubt that floodlights were even a thing at the time.
Nowadays, of course, that stand is much more impressive-looking with its green and gold seating which the lights reflect and bounce off perfectly.
Still though, at the time, it was just wonderful to have played there for the first time.
In some capacity or another, I’ve been pretty much with St Eunan’s ever since – bar my tenure with the Dunedin Connollys club when I lived in Edinburgh – but no matter what team or club you’re with, there’s so many things that remain common across the board.
Anyone who’s ever played gaelic games at underage level will likely tell you about the pungent whiff of Deep Heat pain-relief cream when you enter the dressing room.
They might even tell you about the time they mouthed off at the team manager before being quickly reminded that the manager is also their father.
As you get a little bit older and into your teens, there’s a possibility that the innocence of your under-12 days has faded and you developed a bit more of a ‘win at all cost’ mentality.
Like, for example, the lad you’re marking might kindly enquire “so have ye been training long?” and you’d just completely blank the question without uttering a single word back. ‘That sure showed him!’
When you scored a point or a goal as a child, it was hard to contain the excitement of it all. You’d leap about in a circle embracing the hugs and cheers from all your friends and team-mates but now that you’re older, a simple punch-of-the-air and a nonchalant jog back to your position does the job.
I suppose you have to remember that, at this stage, we were in our teens and sometimes we’d girls to impress on the rare occasion they’d have come along to watch one of our Saturday evening games.
Usually, because they’d taken a shine to the cool dude who scored points for fun, but that didn’t mean that a half-back like me wasn’t looking to get myself known to them.
Gaelic football has changed a lot, even since the days when I was growing up and I’m still only in my thirties.
Aerodynamic-nylon jerseys have replaced the heavy-when-wet cotton ones which, thankfully, means the club badge doesn’t cut into your nipples anymore. Under-Armor fitted gear has taken the place of the old reliable white thermal vest that your mother demanded you wore.
Mouthguards are pretty much mandatory. A huge part of the players’ training incorporates prescribed Strength-and-Conditioning and nutritional advice and fair play to them, but I’m still glad to have gathered the memories that I did from back in the not-too-distant past.
Seeing as the last few nostalgia blogs about growing up in Letterkenny during the 1990s / early 2000s went down so well – one on teenage disco days at the Grill and another on weekend cinema trips – I thought I’d stay local again this week. I won’t lie though, I was struggling for an idea to write about until I recently took an early morning walk past what used to be The Music Centre.
Those of a certain age will recall there used to be two of these shops in town. One on the second floor of the Courtyard and the other on the Main Street, nestled just on the corner of the Market Square. While I do marginally recall the Letterkenny Tapes store down at, what’s still sometimes called the ‘Old Quinnsworth’, it was the old building by the Square that sparked my inspiration.
One morning last week, just before the mayhem of school-run traffic congestion took over the town, I was dandering down past the redbricks of Mount Southwell Place. I’d gotten a bit tired of the same songs on repeat funneling through my earphones and thought it might be time to hit a random playlist and see what comes up.
In essence, the song could choose me rather than vice-versa.
Anything, and I mean anything, could’ve come on but, low and behold, I was more than content with what did. It was an old 1979 rock (and some might say, ‘oddly romantic’) song by Kiss. You might remember them as the old metal guitar band who dressed up in black and white face-paint, with wild untamed jet black hair and often performed with their tongues poking out.
While it’s a look that’s more suited to dodgy Halloween attire these days, it doesn’t take away from the great toe-tapping and air-guitar inducing riffs that they played. So there I was, humming along to “I was made for loooving you baaaybay. You were made for loving meee! And I can’t get enough of yooou, baby! Can you get enough of meee?”
Guilty pleasure, yes, but sure why not!
That’s when I spotted the old sign on the side of the wall where the music shop once stood. The fact that it was an advert letting customers know that they had PlayStation 2 and MP3 players in stock is a time capsule in itself to how quickly technology (and time) has moved on since they ceased trading; presumably well over a decade by now, but open to correction on that one.
Inevitably, this led to flashbacks of school lunchtimes or Saturday afternoons when we’d occasionally loiter about the steps of the Square on days when the weather was half-decent. And maybe because we’d been told to not hang about the Four Lights or Abrakebra unless all of us were eating.
Every now and again, the question might occasionally arise: “Will we go to the Music Center and have a look at the posters?”
More often than not, you might take a wander in and flick through the big slider they had of wall posters. Obviously, being a music shop, you’d have bands, singers and pop-groups that catered for all tastes. It could range from one of Kurt Cobain wrecking the stage after a set to one of the Spice Girls posing for ‘Girl Power.’ Popular movies and album covers were also a prime feature.
On the other hand, you might unearth one of some random male models showing off their six-packs while splashing around in the ocean; pictures that looked like an advert for an after-shave product. Then, maybe, a close-up one of a rather alluring Jennifer Aniston – aka “yer doll Rachel from Friends” – giving you a reassuring, subtle and somewhat flirty hint of a smile.
“That’d look well on my wall, but sure what would me Aul Pair say, hiy?” That was the dilemma.
Invariably, the question over equal rights between male and female sometimes cropped up. Usually from the perspective of moany boys, by the way.
“See my wee sister, hiy? She has loads of pictures up on her wall of boy-bands that she gets from her Smash Hits magazine. My Ma says nothing about it, but then if I stick up one of some foxy looking chick standing underneath a waterfall with her head tilted back and her eyes closed, I have to hear about it! I mean jeeeez, like!”
The mysteries of life.
Obviously the shop sold much more enchanting products than just posters. Traditional Irish instruments like bodhráns, tin-whistles and accordions were found up on the higher shelves behind the counter. Us being teenage boys though meant that getting a nosey at Cindy Crawford’s or Pamela Anderson’s legs was just a bit more important at the time.
Having said that, it wasn’t all poster-gazing and ogling. Occasionally, we did actually buy something.
This was back in the days when you’d count down the days to when your favourite artists were releasing their latest singles. With no internet access to hand, knowing when a song was going to hit the shelves usually relied on what you heard from the chart shows on the radio or if the Top of the Pops presenter mentioned it in the Thursday evening broadcast.
Being something of an indie rock fan in those days, I still vividly recall putting a bit of pocket-money aside so that I could get my hands on CDs (remember them?) that the likes of Oasis had released. When I’m asked the question about the first record I ever bought, I’m still pretty sure it was a song called ‘Perseverance’ by an alt-rock group called Terrorvision. Don’t ask why.
Then again, as Den TV was mandatory viewing for all children who were growing up in Ireland, it could just have easily been one of those dodgy tracks that Dustin the Turkey released.
In research for this article though, friends of mine have since told me that they did the same with their limited funds for groups like Eternal, All Saints, 5ive and Robbie Williams amongst others. Artists that are probably now considered ‘ancient’ by kids today. The cheek!
As the nineties wore on, and into the new millennium, there was something of a change in trends. Seemingly out of nowhere, purchasing vinyl records – the ones that you used to see under the gramophone at your gran’s house – became all the rage. Dance music was thriving thanks to Fatboy Slim, Binary Finary and Judge Jules etc so a new era was getting underway.
Older students in school, the senior lads who had scruffy facial hair and who always seemed way taller than they actually were, played guitars and drums. The slightly younger generation were investing in decks and the notion of bringing turn-tables to a “free gaf” when someone’s parents were away became the new popular music fashion.
Mind you, parties like those, probably deserve an article of their own one day.
Music, as we know, is invested in very differently nowadays. A monthly subscription to Spotify grants you instant access to any song you want any time. There’s nothing wrong with that in my book. The more headphones you see on walkers and joggers means that the popularity of music has grown rather than decreased.
Still though, one wee final trip to the record store would be nice all the same.
During the lunchtime break at secondary school, the question would usually crop up. “Here lads! So what are we at on Friday night?”
In the absence of a disco or someone’s parents being away for the weekend, the cinema was a common suggestion.
“Anything good on?” someone would ask. “Sure what does that matter?”
Growing up as a teenager in Letterkenny, around about the turn of the Millennium, meant that the cinema on the Port Road was a frequent hangout spot for local lads and girls. Sometimes they’d even cross paths together … of course this was usually in the back row of seats.
Long before the days of Netflix and all the other streaming services we use today, the cinema was a fairly sociable hub for youngsters. Especially when one of the more long awaited movies was staging its opening night.
One that always springs to mind for me was October 1999 when The Blair Witch Project came to our screens. I was a few weeks short of turning 15 at the time, but the fact that the joys of adolescence had done its bit, my voice was well-broken so getting in wasn’t going to be a problem.
Mind you, gaining entry would be more difficult there on later occasions but let’s come back to that later.
Now maybe it’s because the Blair Witch opened on the same night that we all got our Halloween holidays from school, but it seemed that there were loads of us there that night.
What’s more is that the movie’s obscure ending – which I won’t spoil for anyone – had many of us in hot debate outside on the front steps afterwards. You have to remember that this particular movie had tricked much of the world into creating the illusion that the shaky handheld camcorder footage was real.
“Naw! I’m telling ya! A lad down the road from me has the Internet in his house, right? And he was saying he looked up a – whatyamacallit – a website and it says it’s definitely real, so it is! They’re all dead so they are!” That was just one of the cases put forward. A case built on solid and undisputed evidence, as you can see.
On the flip side, you were always going to have that one guy who would go over the top, especially in front of thf ladies, in a zealous attempt to prove that he was in no way frightened by the movie. “Ohhhh my God, that was just soooo stupid! I mean, it’s meant to be scary but I just laughed at it the whole time.”
What I recall most about this particular trip to the flicks wasn’t the movie itself. In actual fact, it wasn’t even the arguments over whether it was real or not either. What stands out for me is that, without knowing it, we were truly in the infant ages of easy-access technology.
Googling something on our phones wasn’t a thing. Come to think of it, most of us didn’t even have mobiles by this stage! And yet maybe the Blair Witch showed us there was still a bit of time left to believe in mythology and imagination even if it was of the darker and more occult variety.
I can tell you now that walking past the dark Gortlee forest and graveyard, on my home that night, gave me a touch of the heebie-jeebies.
This was the year of ‘99. A time when people, even in this town, were dreading the Y2K bug. The world feared that when midnight struck on New Year’s Eve, that all the computer systems on the planet would collapse and that planes would “start falling from the sky!”
Now there was a case of much ado about nothing but maybe it’s another example of how there was a touch of gullibility in the air that particular winter.
As alluded to earlier, getting to see any film I wanted at the cinema was not always an easy task. At the age of (almost) 15, one tends to think of themselves as a grown up. A big man!
Sure, you might be at an age where you can hold hands across the tables in the Four Lanterns with a girl in public for the first time. You might even be something of a legend to some because your fake ID got you served in the offie one night.
Getting refused admission to see a film on the grounds of being too young, however. That brought you right back to earth. It was a subtle reminder, about as subtle as a brick to the face mind you, that you’re still only a pup.
The one movie in the autumn of 1999 that proved difficult to gain entry to was American Pie: a high school comedy with plenty of risky and raunchy humour. As you might expect, you had to be over 18 to see it and the cinema staff were on high alert to avoid letting any young ones in.
On the night myself and my pal queued up for it, we noticed a few schoolmates getting turned away at the kiosk. My mate Ultan was part-Scottish – well he still is , I suppose – and he uttered “Dinnae worry Johnny! Ah huv a wee idea mate! Follow me!”
His cunning plan was bloody ridiculous, but I have to give credit to the man. It worked! Ultan ordered us two tickets for some chick-flick film. Some borefest about a young girl trying to make it big in the city. Yawn! It even brought a bemused look on the guy selling the tickets.
“What are you at, ya muppet?” I whispered with a snarl. Ultan shushed me and carried on as normal. Picking up a couple of popcorn combos before making our way down the corridor to where the screens were, I was still quietly raging.
As we embarked down the hallway, all I could think was what a waste of £6 this was. ‘We’d have been better off buying six cans of Dutch Gold,’ I thought to myself.
Then, with one swift point of his index finger, Ultan pointed to the doorway where American Pie was being shown. Better yet, there was nobody guarding the door.
“After you,” was his simple command. “Well played,” was all I could say.
It didn’t go unnoticed either. A girl, probably in her twenties at the time, was walking behind us. She chuckled and gave an approving “I see what ye did there lads. Nicely done!”
Of course, long before that and when I was much younger, Saturday matineé trips to the cinema were a part of growing up in the town. Sometimes they were tied in with birthday parties and on other times, they were just for the spectacle of what was being shown.
Between the ages of eight and eleven, it was here where many of us saw such (what are now considered) nineties cult-classics like Wayne’s World, Jurassic Park, Batman Forever, Dumb and Dumber and Toy Story.
They don’t look like much to younger audiences now but seeing these magnificently created CGI-dinosaurs on a full-size silver screen back in those days was truly mesmerising. A piece of cinematic art within itself. Likewise, Toy Story was iconic because it became the first ever full-length computer generated movie. History.
I should point out here that the aforementioned Dumb and Dumber also involved something of a sneak in on my part. It must’ve taken me a solid four attempts to get past old Mrs Collins in the ticket booth for that one.
Thankfully though, some lad in my class tipped us off that “she doesn’t work on Thursday evenings, so go see it then!”
At that age though, the excitement would usually build from the day before. Our bus to school used to make its way along the Port Road and as it slowed down in the traffic, we used to gaze out on Friday mornings to see a man on a ladder slotting in the tiles of letters on the boards to advertise that weekend’s showings.
On the day itself, we used to buy bag loads of penny sweets from the shop a few doors down. Drastically undercutting the income of the popcorn kiosk within the cinema, right enough, but sure these things happen.
The one thing you had to be prepared for back then was, because it was still the afternoon when the film was over, the daylight always seemed that bit more blinding after being cooked up inside for the last two hours.
Of course, that old building is gone now. It’s been taken over by offices and a youth centre and, we can’t complain, because the town has a new and much more modern cinema house over by Leckview. One with comfy seats and beverage holders.
Even though some lads used to give out that the new state-of-the-art armrests were a preventive barrier to some ‘high-quality shifting.’ Well sure, you can’t have everything, now can ya?
Still though, the old cinema house on the Port Road may be long gone now, but it certainly had its charm back in the day.
Two editions ago, I took a wander down memory lane and discussed with you what it was like growing up in the Gortlee area of the town back in the days of the heady 1990s.
It rekindled memories of neighbourhood games, playing on rope-swings and underground dens and being out until your Mum called you in for your dinner from the back porch.
This time though, we’re moving onward with a look at a Letterkenny upbringing during the more teen angst-filled years.
Almost everybody goes through something of a teenage-rebel phase in their lives and I was no exception to the rule.
Compared to when I was maybe ten or eleven years old, I found myself answering back a lot more to my parents. Making demands to stay out later than I needed to and probably always giving them something to be rightfully annoyed about.
That’s not to say I was a ‘bad kid’ as such. I grew out of rebelling almost as quickly as I had gotten into it and maybe the reason why I occasionally found myself glugging cheap cider down an alleyway on a Friday night was because, in hindsight, perhaps I was hiding myself from something. Like any other adolescent, I had insecurities and maybe acting up was my mask.
During my first three years in secondary school, I often found myself zoning out during lessons. It wasn’t necessarily always that I was causing disruption or winding the teachers up. It was more a case that I was disinterested in the way most classroom tasks followed the same routine of ‘read-the textbook-and-answer-the-questions’ over and over again.
It became mundane.
Maybe things like these nights out provided some sort of much-needed entertainment.
Girls become a bigger part of your life at this stage and while I – without sounding like a brag – did okay in the old ‘shifting department,’ it always seemed to be the case that the girl I fancied was busy fancying someone else; usually a friend or a classmate of mine.
These things wouldn’t bother me now, but you gotta remember, I was just a kid back then and absolutely everything was a big deal.
Of course, it wasn’t all drama and thankfully there was plenty of time for fun too. It also goes without saying that no kid from Letterkenny grows up without some sort of story to tell from the dancefloors of the Golden Grill nightclub. It was the late 1990s / early 2000s. Dance tracks, of which included genrés like House, Garage and Trance (and teeny-bop), filled up the charts.
Planning a night out at the end of term teenage disco took more effort than a CIA covert operation: “What time should we meet up? Who is sorting the pre-disco booze? Do we know anyone with a fake ID who can get served? Should we get some curry chips to take the smell of our breath? Whose house did we tell the Aul Pair we were staying in?”
And of course, the irrepressible matchmaking line: “Here! Will you shift my mate?”
At this point, you’re probably all thinking that this was all very boyish and laddish behaviour. Rest assured though, and in the name of balance, plenty of girls have come forward on an online post I put up about the teenage disco days and through some giddy nostalgia, they too recalled the divilment they got up to.
One female friend of mine recalled how she would get her mum to drop her off at a friend’s house under the pretense that they were having a slumber party.
She’d be on the way to the house wearing a hoodie and pajama bottoms carrying sweets and a DVD, but once she’d been dropped off, she’d discard her attire and unveil that she had the miniskirt and top on underneath the whole time. She also let slip that competitions over who got the most ‘shifts’ was not purely a boys’ thing.
Other ladies were good enough to share with me the makeup routine beforehand. As one recounted: “The planning of the outfit and getting ready with your mates, the pang of Davidoff Cool Water or Exclamation off the girls with the Lynx Africa from the boys and the digital camera hanging off your wrist for the photos and I still remember my first slow set.”
At which point, her friend interjected with “the makeup, the panstick and basically, the more orange and tanned you looked, the better! In fact, looking back, I’m pretty sure I used to be using silver lipstick,” she laughed with just a touch of a cringe.
Once inside the venue, the traditional laps of the dance-floor ‘just to see who’s about’ had to be done and while most of the tunes were poppy and dancey, this was an era when the three song slowsets were still a thing. Essentially the banging tracks by the Vengaboys and tunes like Sandstorm by Darude were momentarily replaced by the likes of Mariah Carey, Boys II Men, and an up-and-coming group called Westlife.
If you didn’t get your shift by that stage of the night, you may as well forget about it. Mind you, getting the shift didn’t make you untouchable because it wasn’t uncommon for some members of the staff stewarding at the event to give you an embarrassing tap on the shoulder for you to quit what you were at, otherwise a phone call to home would be made.
On the flip side, if this was by no means your first shift with the same person, maybe something was in the air and this was a time to pop the question: “how’s about you and me start going steady?” And they say romance is dead!
Those were just some of the guarantees on nights like these and the only other one was probably the certainty of a good old-fashioned scrap in the car park afterwards.
Usually between lads from different schools or different townlands; doing their bit to represent their parish with just a sprinkling of peer-pressure to join the fight thrown in, I suppose.
You’d think after all that craic, it’d be plain sailing and you’d just go home. Usually it did, but not often without the interrogation from your folks.
“Who was out with you? Who is he? What do his parents do? It’d be more in your line to do a bit of study than going at that galavanting! Such and-such a one was telling me there was fighting at it? What a bunch of galloots ye really are!”
Those days though, good as they were are – just like the venue itself – alas, no more. Mind you! They certainly wasn’t the end of our disco days. Far from it. Now it was time to move on the to next step … Yup, you’ve guessed it!
“Does anyone know where we could get some fake IDs to get into the over-18s, lads?”
LETTERKENNY MEMORIES: SOME HAVE GONE AND SOME REMAIN.
Originally penned by Jonathan Foley inJune 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!
One country who had been a notable absentee from the 1938 World Cup were Spain.
As the country was preoccupied by the Civil War – fought between Republicans and Royalists – the nation was crumbling, but in the aftermath of the Second World War, their Fascist dictator, Francisco Franco, also realised the manipulative power of football.
What had made his tyrannical victory on the domestic front successful was the fact that he was aided by Benito Mussolini’s troops and the German Luftwaffe.
This was decisive intervention against the rebel cause in 1939, but with Spain opting for neutrality during the war and with the fall of both Hitler and Mussolini, Franco had become somewhat isolated.
“Spain has no foolish dreams!”
In the post-war era, Spain had become secluded territory and the animosity of the Catalan people – predominantly based in Barcelona – was preparing itself to resurface.
Like his (now-deceased) fellow Fascist leaders, Franco had no particular interest in football. Knowing how much it could gather support for his regime however, he adapted the Real Madrid club as a symbol for his autonomous and oppressive rule.
The people of Barcelona still lived under mass persecution. They were banned from using their own language, from waving Catalan flags and with the sights of bullet-holes still adorning the walls of their churches and cathedrals, reminders of Facist massacres were still all too visible for them.
In 1936, Barca’s club president – Josep Sunyol – had been dragged from his car and murdered by Franco’s troops and, perhaps naturally, the citizens of Catalonia gravitated to the Camp Nou stadium in support of their team.
Thus, their ‘Mes Que En Club’ (‘More Than A Club’) mentality was given its rise.
Despite the fierce opposition to his power, Franco still believed that football could be utilised as a means of useful diversion and distraction.
He began to arrange club fixtures that he could broadcast through the advent of television and anytime a degree of social unrest was afoot, a match would come on the screens to tempt peoples’ focus away.
Even though Franco kept a firm hold on the goings-on at Real Madrid, it’s fair to suggest that this didn’t bring any form of immediate success to the club.
Between 1939 and 1954, they didn’t win a single league championship and perhaps more disparagingly, they had to watch Barcelona lift five titles during that time.
It was time to redress the balance and the opportunity came along when both Real Madrid and Barcelona joined in a race to sign Argentinian star, Alfredo DiStefano.
“The Blonde Arrow”, as he was known, had a superb goal-scoring record with his club in Colombia at the time; scoring 267 in 292 games.
Initially, it was Barca who approached him and it looked as though a deal was about to be brokered. The move was, some might say, commandeered by Real Madrid who swooped in and stole his signature away at the eleventh hour.
It was to be revealed years later that Franco’s troops had abducted the new Barcelona president, Marti Carreto, from a hotel and threatened his textile industry – where he had amassed his fortune – with very heavy tax inspections.
If he left DiStefano to move to Madrid, then he was in the clear.
It’s also believed that Real Madrid, possibly in a bid to quell any further unrest, offered Barcelona an olive branch. They stated that DiStefano could play alternate seasons for each side, but as an act of defiance against the regime, Barcelona refused the offer; irregardless of how talented the player actually was.
Alfredo DiStefano joined Real Madrid and in his first game against Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium, he scored four goals against the club he came so close to signing for.
To his credit, DiStefano spoke about the bureaucracy that went on behind his signing in a 2003 interview with the BBC. Speaking then as Honorary President of Real Madrid and having only recently signed David Beckham, he told:
“I never played for Franco. I never played for a political system. I only played for the people. I thought I was joining Barcelona and then I wasn’t.”
Real Madrid’s recruitment of his profound talents was to transform the club. Between 1956 and 1960, they won no less than five European Cups in a row. Their success, on the field, had promoted a glamorous and endearing image of Spain to the world. Something which Franco would have been most pleased with.
“Masonry and Communism … the two evils which must be dispelled from this land.”
Despite being accepted into NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), Spain was still very much a secluded nation in western Europe. It was holding firm to the ideologies of fascism, long after the Allies had ended the reigns of Mussolini and Hitler.
Franco though, was very aware of how football could shape perspective.
He set about making Real Madrid an international brand. By bringing in players such as Ferenc Puskas, it gave the club a reputation for giving a new lease of life to players who had previously suffered under Communist rule in the east.
This courted him a degree of favour with the United States and for as much as Franco disliked Catalonians, he despised the communist leanings of the Soviet Union even more. This would come to a head – not once but twice – on the international stage during the 1960s.
The Soviets had sympathised with and supported the Catalan rebellion during the Civil War years and when the two nations met at the 1960 European Championships – perhaps anxious about the possibility of a defeat to an enemy nation – Franco withdrew Spain from the match.
Four years later, Spain and the Soviets would cross paths again. This time in the Euro ‘64 Final. With Spain being the host nation, Franco was advised that withdrawing the team again would cause national embarrassment; particularly as this was the Final.
Spain won the game 2-1 and, as it later emerged, the players had been told in no uncertain circumstances that it wasn’t just a team they were playing against. They were told that they were fighting as soldiers against the evils of communism.
“Tot el camp. És un clam.’
In 1975, following 36 years of power, Franco died. His body is buried in the outskirts of Madrid – the Cementerio Municipal El Pardo (‘The Valley of the Fallen’).
A man-made reserve built by the very people he oppressed and killed. It’s believed that his final words were “I am accountable now only to God and to History.”
Those who congregated at the Camp Nou just four weeks later had other ideas.
On 28th December, Barcelona took on Real Madrid in a stadium that was still reverberating amid the celebrations of Franco’s death.
Barcelona, equipped with Dutch superstar Johan Cryuff, enjoyed the raptors of a 2-1 win over their great rivals and it is estimated that, in defiance of Spanish law, somewhere in the region of 700 Catalan flags were smuggled into the ground and waved proudly that night.
An emotion which still resonates heavily with the supporters to this day. Although, it must be said, that it’s certainly not the case that Real Madrid fans should ever be tagged or generalised as fascist sympathisers.
For even Barcelona club historian, Joan Barau wrote, when discussing Real’s record 11-1 win over Barca in 1943:
“The memory of the Civil War was still fresh in everyone’s memory. It was not their fault that they fell under a military dictatorship, so it’s never a result that they tend to boast about.”
After all, the Real Madrid club had been thriving for almost four decades before Franco suddenly took an convenient interest in them.
The era of fascism controlling football may have been over, but that’s not to say that politics in general had ever stopped in its bid to manipulate the game.
For, as we will see in our next article, the role of communism and its difficulties with democracy would forge an important reality for a highly-skilled and evolutionary Hungarian side during the Cold War.
A side, who many still believe to this day, helped change the face of how club football was to be played in Britain forever more.