Castlebar, have the lights really gone out?

County View

County View
John Healy

IT would be hard to disagree with the sentiments expressed by Niall McGarry in these pages last week when the Castlebar born media entrepreneur bemoaned that his native town has become a social backwater. He hasn’t been the first to complain of how Castlebar, once a hub of regional social activity with its nightlife and theatres and stage shows and international performances, has fallen into a deep sleep. And to his credit, he put forward a range of constructive  suggestions as to how things might be changed.
But it was not always so. Castlebar was, not all that long ago, a town of drive and imagination and endless possibility. It was known to punch above its weight - it was ambitious, self confident and progressive. Its business leaders were masters of a can-do philosophy which brooked no negativity, which swept others along, which was as infectious as it was expansive, and where nothing seemed impossible.
Looking back now on the year 1966, half a century ago, it is difficult to compare Castlebar then and now. That was the year the Castlebar Song Contest was launched, a festival which won international acclaim and which, in promotional terms, was matched only by the Rose of Tralee. It was the year when the Castlebar Walking Festival was founded at the behest of a new Ramblers’ Club, and which flourishes to this day. It was the year the Credit Union was established, the year when Castlebar got its own airport on the Breaffy Road, the year in which the town still basked in the plaudits for the spectacular, all embracing Patrician Pageant staged in MacHale Park. And it was the year that three Castlebar men - MJ Egan, Johnnie Mee and Tom Fallon - came together to form what is now Western Care and to do something to alleviate the burdens imposed by what was up to that point the taboo subject of mental handicap.
And 1966 was also the year when the local Emigrant Apostolate, headed by the late Fr Stephen Ludden, sent its first four-page Christmas letter to some four hundred Castlebar people living in England. That ‘Letter from Home’ was the forerunner of what is now the Castlebar Parish Magazine, but it was that first modest effort, and the response it evoked, which led to an upsurge in renewing the ties of home for so many who had emigrated. It was from that letter that Castlebar and District Associations came to be formed in London, Birmingham and Manchester.
Today, the Castlebar Parish Magazine remains a most eagerly awaited publication, its readership scattered across the globe, a tangible link with home for many who would hardly recognise the town now as the place where they grew up. It is the gift from home which surpasses all others, a chunk of nostalgia to be read and reread and passed along to fellow Castlebarites in far flung places.
For Joe Redmond, its editor, it is a labour of love, just as it is for all who give voluntarily of their time in diverse ways to ensure that, a fortnight before Christmas, the magazine is winging its way to the recipients on a mailing list which, even after 50 years, never seems to be getting any shorter. And all those everyday time mellowed photos, retrieved from dusty attics and faded family albums and personal archives, will warm the hearts and bring a smile to the face of someone to whom Castlebar will be forever home.
And who knows, perhaps, in the Castlebar Parish Magazine there is a sign that the community spirit has not quite fully gone out, that the wheel will come full circle again, with the town restored to the vibrant, energetic community it used to be.