It was leafing through a copy of Irish Community News, the monthly publication of the very active Tyneside Irish Centre, that the eye was drawn to a short piece in a childrens’ writing competition.
The piece was about the burning of St Patrick’s National School in Castlebar in 1957; the subsequent two-month holiday for the young pupils; and the temporary rehousing of classes in the quickly repurposed old Military Barracks.
Curiosity called for a closer look as to how the nine-year-old author, Martha Heneghan, came across the story and the accompanying picture of the old school. And then the pieces began to fall into place.
It’s fifty years ago this year since Kevin McAleese from Ballynew settled down in Newcastle, there to raise a family of three girls with his wife, Marilyn. Kevin went to work for BT and settled into the Geordie way of life, but he never quite forgot his Castlebar roots. And one of the many stories he passed on to his grandchildren was that of the exciting February day in 1957 when the enforced school holidays became part of Castlebar history.
Nor was it all that surprising that the writing apple did not fall far from the family tree. Kevin’s own father, Donagh, had been a distinguished journalist back in the day, while Kevin himself began his working life as a Connaught Telegraph apprentice, operating the hot metal linotype machines, hand picking type faces for a myriad of adverts, and then pitching in through the Wednesday nights to turn out the weekly paper.
Half a lifetime in Newcastle has not blunted Kevin’s enthusiasm for promoting the attractions of his native place. A one man promotional agency, the annual family visit to Murrisk always provides material for a first hand account in Irish Community News – the Murrisk link coming by way of his sister, Margo Cummins, resident in Thornhill for many years. Kevin’s most recent travelogue gives Murrisk favourable comparison with the delights of even Italy’s Lake Garda, opining that there is nothing to compare with the hospitality of the Tavern, Campbell’s, or Staunton’s of Lecanvey.
The one missing piece is a regular air service between Knock Airport and Newcastle, a facility which, according to the McAleese gang, would be a sure fire winner.
The Tyneside Irish Centre itself is the focal point for all things Irish in the north east of England. A meeting place which seeks to promote Irish values and culture, especially through music, language and sport, its Welfare Committee additionally provides support to senior citizens of Irish lineage. With an impressive membership of some 3,000, it is a valuable source of help and advice for the Irish community. Its wide range of cultural, literary and musical events are among the best attended functions in Newcastle.
One of its proudest moments came last year when the Irish Naval Patrol Ship, the LE William Butler Yeats, sailed up the Tyne to a huge civic reception in Newcastle. The visit was the highlight of the 35th Tyneside Irish Festival, the longest established such event in Britain, and was the first time the Irish tricolour flew proudly over a naval vessel in that port which had been home to so many Irish emigrants.
One of the major projects undertaken by the Tyneside Irish Centre was the special Memories Project commemorating those Irishmen who fought and died with the Northumberland Fusiliers in the Great War. Five thousand men enlisted in the Tyneside Irish Brigades, reflecting the huge response to the call to arms from the men of the north east of England. Almost half of the Irish volunteers never came home, but their stories have now been archived in a short film, a 32 page booklet and a permanent exhibition.