The recent TV programme on Dr Oliver Whyte’s video archive gave us a taste of what the Westport GP has accumulated by way of personal conversations with local people. Over ten years, Ollie Whyte has built an archive of 5,000 video clips – a snapshot of the social and cultural landscape of the Clew Bay area.
It has been for him a vocation, as hundreds of people have been persuaded to tell their stories to his camera. And, of course, as writers have always known, each one of us has a unique story. There are no ‘ordinary’ people when it comes to a life story; and we fail to realise that the everyday characters we see as one dimensional have, in fact, the most wonderful of stories to tell once they start talking.
Several of those who agreed to sit in the interview seat for Ollie Whyte have since gone from us, which makes their recollections and reminisces all the more precious. Dr Bert Farrell’s retrospect of his early days in Westport; the inimitable Mickie Berry’s recall of growing up in a different era; Tony Moore, Jack McAleer, Seán Staunton, and their memories of a time and place swiftly becoming a faded picture.
Perhaps it is because of Ollie Whyte’s medical training that his interviewees speak with such candour and plain frankness. It may be Michael Downes recalling an early career on land and sea; Frank and Phil Chambers explaining the provenance of de Bille house in Newport; Pat O’Grady, multi-talented sportsman of the sixties; Padraic Kelly, a Westport United stalwart long before it was fashionable; Stephen Walsh, Lenny Grimes, Marine Ryan; Michael Heraty, living on the Reek; John Mayock or Paddy Muldoon or Jackie Bolster or Cecil Horkan; or Sonia Kelly’s colourful life and times, the Whyte archives are a treasure trove.
For those of a commercial bent, the interviews which focus on business people and their success make fascinating material. Mai Corcoran’s articulate telling of the expansion of the family hotel business from those early days of a small guest house on Castlebar Street is top quality; Vera Rosenkrantz’s memoirs of the days running the Railway Hotel, sprinkled with personal anecdotes, is another gem; Noel Kavanagh’s story of how his Super Valu chain expanded from Mayo to Northern Ireland to England is a story worth hearing twice; Peter Shanley evokes warm memories of a time when his family business was the Brown Thomas of provincial Ireland. And Chris O’Grady’s account of life as a hotelier on Clare Island, and the diverse and imaginative development projects over the years, is nothing less than inspiring.
But it is the small, intimate, incidental details in the various conversations that give the clips their human impact. Among them is Mary MacBride Walsh’s warm, personal recollection of her grandfather, Joseph MacBride and his brother, Major John MacBride. They were two of the five sons of Captain Patrick MacBride, who had sailed a schooner into Westport, and met and married Honoria Gill of the Quay.
And then, almost as an aside, she tells of how Patrick MacBride was one day passing the then CBS Monastery on the Mall, with one of his children, when he was asked by a Christian Brother if he would help lay out a member of the order who had died some days earlier from typhoid. MacBride left his child at home, and then returned to help as he had promised.
It was a kindness that cost him his life. Within a week, Patrick McBride was dead from the typhoid which he contracted that evening, leaving his wife to raise five sons, the youngest of whom – Major John MacBride – had been born only a few months earlier.