Remembering the first librarian in Castletownbere

A family’s close ties to Castletownbere have been remembered, with a special presentation to the local library, in memory of the first librarian, writes COLETTE SHERIDAN
Remembering the first librarian in Castletownbere

Declan O’Donoghue donating a book to the Castletownbere library written by Ken Ó Donnchú, who was the grandson of the first Castletownbere Librarian, Mary O’Neill.

CASTLETOWNBERE Library has much resonance for Declan O’Donoghue, who recently donated a book to it written by a grandson of the first librarian there, Mary O’Neill, who was Declan’s mother.

Mary’s grandson is Dr Ken Ó Donnchú who lectures in the modern Irish department of UCC. His book is entitled Tintúd Austriú: Pages on Translation in Irish Tradition.

Photographed making the donation, Declan is also holding a poem written by his mother (who died in 1999). It includes a photograph of her and it has just been put on display with all the previous librarians.

Mary, who served in the library from 1930-1945, was an only child. A fluent Irish speaker, she did the Leaving Certificate and qualified for the civil service.

“My father (John O’Donoghue), a soldier, was stationed on Bere Island during the war. He met my mother, they married and had five children while living in Castletownbere. She had never been out of Castletownbere apart from going to Killarney to do the matriculation exam.”

Mary missed her birthplace all her adult life and wrote about it.

The family moved to Cork where another nine children were born. Declan, who is 64 and self-employed in the property business, was brought up with his siblings on St Brigid Street, off Barrack Street.

“The family home was very small. There were seven boys and seven girls. There was a toilet out the back and no bathroom. We all went on to do well in life and most of the family is still alive.”

Declan’s father was from Brigid Street.

“He lived in one of the houses built by John Sisk for its workers at the turn of the 20th century. There are three rows of them; on Brigid Street, St Finbar’s Street and Nessan Street. Some of the houses were sold and landlords bought them.

“My father’s father was a tenant in the house on Brigid Street. When he died, the rent was passed on to my father.

“When the war was over in 1945, my father was unemployed as there was no need for soldiers. In the early 1940s, the State had to borrow money from the Guinness brewing family to pay the wages of soldiers. When my father was in the army, they were sent to defend Bere Island. Churchill said he wanted the ports back but de Valera said ‘no’.

“Bere Island was the very last port handed back to the Irish, in 1938. There’s a picture somewhere of my father and the union jack being taken down in Bere Island and the tri-colour being raised.

“The following year, when war broke out, the British realised they shouldn’t have given us back the ports.”

Declan says that Bere Island had electricity before most of Ireland had it.

“It was the premier port for the British. They had defences on the western coast. In between Bere Island and Castletownbere is a very sheltered harbour.”

After the war, Declan’s father worked for a while as a porter in a bank. He then went back into the army, serving with the UN in Cyprus in 1965. When he returned from Cyprus, he got a lump sum of €300 and built a prefabricated house on the site where his wife was from. The original house, with just one window (as windows were taxed) was knocked.

“We used to go there on our summer holidays from 1967 on. I remember the wooden pier in Castletownbere.

“I met my wife down there. She was with An Óige. She’s from Fairhill originally.”

The couple have four children and nine grandchildren.

Declan says that like many women of her era, his mother’s life was tough, rearing a family on limited means. But she believed in education and tried to encourage Declan to stay on at school. But he left at the age of 15.

“Schools weren’t great at the time and the educators weren’t great. It was a different era. Now I see schools today that are marvellous the way they encourage the kids.

“We went to school every day to the Christian Brothers. We were afraid of our lives because we knew we were going to get beaten for no reason whatsoever.”

Declan’s mother always reminisced about Castletownbere. Her poem, Beara, is a tribute to her West Cork origins.

She wrote: “ O Beara lovely Beara/Dear home of my childhood/land of sheer beauty, mountain and sea/in my thoughts I oft wander/Through Hungry and Eagle/Over Mishkish and Maulin/Cnoc Úr and Finaha/on whose brown mountain the sheep freely graze/I’m back in these moorlands and boglands/where turf was cut and dried long ago/There the scent of the heather/The gorse and fionnáin/Was carried on the breeze as the canabhán swayed/Then the song of the larks was like music from heaven/As they soared upwards in the sweet mountain air.”

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