HOMETOWN MUSINGS

LETTERKENNY MEMORIES: SOME HAVE GONE AND SOME REMAIN.

Originally penned by Jonathan Foley in June 2022

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. 

Neighbourhood kids

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. 

Caged off

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. 

Discarded goalposts

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!

MIDNIGHT IN LETTERKENNY (Aug 2018)

“NOW THAT I RETURN AGAIN, MANY CHANGES I HAVE KNOWN”

Originally published in August 2018

After a busy few days at work recently, I opted to take up the opportunity for some ‘me-time’ with a relaxing wander through the Town Park.

Usually it’s just a place I pass through as a shortcut between Sentry-Hill and Gortlee and one I’ve done countless times before.

During a moment’s pause and with a sit-down on the steps, the observations I took in were intriguing and much to my surprise .

By Jonathan Foley

Amid the cooling air of a warm day and with an aura of pleasence in the atmosphere, I looked outward upon the other people in the park. People conversing, laughing and having fun.

Children playing happily and others out doing laps of the rounding paths with their tunes playing through their earphones. Nothing out of the ordinary at first, I thought. At first anyway.

I became surprisingly captivated by how multicultural and socially-diverse those in and around the park were. With the echoing noise of the evening traffic in the distance, everyone – through a multitude of languages and fashion styles – seemed uninterrupted by this as they continued to enjoy their free-time with their partners, their children, friends or even persons just in their own company.

It triggered the question within me about how and, maybe more importantly, why did my hometown evolve so much in its identity over the last few decades and was it possible to consider that maybe it happened so fast – that myself and maybe others – didn’t even really notice. 

I’m very proud to say that I was born and raised here in the town of Letterkenny but I’m the first to admit that, going by family connections, I’m not what you might call a typical ‘townie’ compared to so many others who have lived here. I am, in fact, the son of a ‘blow-in’ family with just one other member of our entire family tree – my brother Alan – being of actual Donegal birth. 

With a surname like ‘Foley’, that shouldn’t raise too many eyebrows.

It’s a name that is much more commonly heard in parts of Connaught and Munster as opposed to up here in the northwest.

My mum and dad moved here around the time they got married after leaving Sligo to start a life for themselves when they bought their first house in Ashlawn before moving a few hundred yards up the road to Carnamuggagh Lower in the mid-1980s shortly before I was born.

Dad has since passed away however but during his lifetime, he had never lost his Cliffoney-accent and even now, it’s the same for mum who speaks in a way that would make you question if indeed she had ever even left her native village of Mullaghmore. 

Although I may take after both of them in terms of some physical features and mannerisms, the same can’t be said for my accent as I adapted the dulcet tones of a fully-fledged Donegalian with my ‘Ayes’ and my ‘Wee’s’ and my ‘We’ans!’

So much so that at family gatherings in Sligo, my poor wee granny – originally from County Down – was sometimes the only one able to decipher my oral diction.

Having said that, my parents may not have been born here, but they certainly did become immersed and a part of the community upon their arrival.

Dad worked for years with the Gardaí and was always involved in things like local pantomimes and the ongoings out at the golf club in Barnhill while mum worked in the banks. Suffice to say, she has essentially become an honorary local here at this stage.

That’s just a minor glimpse into my background and the reason for my being here, but after attending a meeting held by the Letterkenny Memories group a few months back, questions of a wider nature began to flourish.

On that night, they were hosting a reunion of the 1967 St Eunan’s county championship winning team. The speaker told that in ‘67, the town’s population was a mere 5,000!

I nearly fell of the stool, I was that shocked.

I just couldn’t envisage a town – to which I call home and am proud to be a part of – being so small in population less than two decades before I was born.

The speaker enlightened me that my native Gortlee was basically just a field that didn’t even have Ashlawn, Oaklands or Knocknamona as part of its make-up for a further ten years.

I suppose I had to remind myself though – or maybe it was more so a case that I was made to be reminded – that my family didn’t come from here.

So maybe that’s why so many of the black and white photos I see of people or places from Letterkenny’s past don’t always strike a chord of resonance with me,

Understandably so too, I hope, because I can never spot family members or distant relatives in them.

On a more comforting note, however, I then remember that Letterkenny’s population is now around 20,000 and that ultimately means that those descendant of a ‘blow-in’ ancestry are in huge numbers here.

And that’s why I like to think there are so many people here nowadays that are perhaps not a part of the town’s historic past, but certainly part of its present and its future.

In my (almost) 34 years in this life, even I have seen how much the town is changed. Back in the eighties, I would go to my childminders, Nan Curran’s, on Eunan’s Terrace and my first ever trip to a cinema was when I was taken to see ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ on the Port Road. Moving on, I played soccer at Ballyraine and gaelic football at O’Donnell Park on into the nineties.

I had my first ‘shift’ by a wall in the newly-built Beinn Aobhinn estate in the mid-to-late nineties and faced the realities of dole-queues and emigration through the 2008 recession era.

I’ve seen the Oatfields factory and the old swimming pool disappear while I’ve also had to see many friends move away, but even with that, I’ve seen newer faces, newer buildings and newer opportunities come to the surface on the town.

And just like my parents, so many others have come here and made lives for themselves and the rich variety of cultural integration from that was there to be witnessed on that simple evening walk through the park.

My descendancy may belong elsewhere and that’s to a quieter and more suburban environment in Sligo, but this is will always be my place-of-birth and my this will always be where I call home.

I was educated and made my friends and neighbours here and I always like to feel that it’s good to be – not just something – to be a real part of something: a team of teachers so as to help the next generation, a team of coaches to help generate an interest in sports or, in this case, a team of writers and newspaper people who gave you something to (hopefully) enjoyed reading this week. 

In a nutshell, not all of us were a part of the town’s historical past but hopefully we can be a part of what Letterkenny is now and for what it will become.