The release of the State papers for 1976, under the 30-year rule, provided welcome column inches of space for newspaper editors through the barren Yuletide season. They have too thrown into perspective the events which, at the time, seemed of huge national importance.
It was the year when the intemperate comments of a Minister for Defence led eventually to the resignation of President Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh. Paddy Donegan, the Minister in question, had made a robust speech at an army ceremony in Mullingar, where he referred to the President as a ‘thundering disgrace’. To refer to the President at all in disparaging terms would be a serious breach of etiquette; to use the Minister’s choice of words about the Commander-in-Chief of the Army was a hand grenade with the pin removed.
The Fine Gael-led Government of Liam Cosgrave did what it could, as quickly as it could, to try to pour oil on troubled waters. But when Donegan’s attempts to apologise were rebuffed by the President, a stand-off was inevitable. Ó Dálaigh wanted Donegan’s resignation; Cosgrave would have none of it, and the President resigned from office.
The archives yield a more light-hearted view of the ceremonies to mark the inauguration of Paddy Hillery, successor to Ó Dálaigh, some months later. This was a time of financial crisis in the country where cost-cutting was the order of the day, a situation which saw Cosgrave and his cabinet lampooned for their austerity and earning the accolade of ‘Minister for Hardship’ from the humorous Frank Hall.
The details of the inaugural banquet were approved personally by the Taoiseach who, true to form, insisted on deleting caviar and foie gras from the menu chosen for the VIP attendees. The Civil Service Dining Club, which had won the catering contract for the inauguration, were to be put on notice that expenses would be carefully monitored. In particular, they were told, they were to avoid the tendency to be too liberal in dispensing spirits as ‘if trying to encourage greater consumption and greater profits for themselves’.
But Cosgrave and his Fine Gael-Labour coalition had much to worry about 30 years ago, having arguably more challenges to meet than any government before or since. The British Ambassador had been murdered in South Dublin; the Ó Dálaigh resignation had convulsed the nation; the North was in turmoil; the world oil crisis was threatening to sink the economy.
Coupled with all of that was a British government at odds with how to handle the intransigence of Ulster loyalism, and hesitant to know how far it could find common cause with its counterparts in Dublin. Harold Wilson, the British premier, had actually gone so far as to raise the possibility of a complete pull-out from the North, leaving Northern Ireland to find its own solution to its own crisis, no matter what violence or social breakdown that might envisage.
It was a scenario which struck terror into the hearts of senior mainstream political leaders in Dublin, of all party persuasions. The then Foreign Minister, Garret FitzGerald, and the then leader of Fianna Fáil, Jack Lynch, were to the forefront in mounting a diplomatic offensive to bring the Wilson idea to a full stop. Both men travelled to Cork where they had dinner with Jim Callaghan, the British Foreign Secretary, at the home of the latter’s daughter and son-in-law. It proved to be a successful visit. By the time they left, Callaghan had been persuaded that a British withdrawal from the North would lead to the worst of all possible worlds for London, Dublin and for Ulster’s divided communities. And he pledged to follow that line back in Downing Street.
The consensus reached that day was to provide the starting point for a new maturity in relations between London and Dublin. In retrospect, it was an achievement for which neither FitzGerald or Lynch seem to have been adequately thanked.
How Mallow came to Belclare
The story of how a charming residence in Belclare, outside Westport, came to be called after a Co Cork town is yet another of the many gems included in the current issue of Cathair na Mart, journal of the Westport Historical Society.
The MP, William O’Brien, imprisoned for his support of tenants’ rights, had been released from Galway jail in 1891. In poor health, he decided to move to the west to finish his novel about Granuaile, ‘A Queen of Men’. He and his wife Sophie Baffalovitch, the Russian-born daughter of a banker then living in Paris, were welcomed to Westport with bonfires and an address from the Town Council.
Initially, the O’Briens rented Old Head Lodge, but when the landlady refused to renew the lease, they bought Altamont Lodge. This house they renamed Mallow Cottage in honour of William’s home town, and a beautiful set of wrought iron gates was presented to them by the people of Mallow. The gates remain there to this day, adorning the residence of the present owners, Jack and Marese McAleer and their family.
The central story concerning the O’Briens, written by local historian Aidan Clarke, is the Croagh Patrick Pilgrimage of 1904 in which both William and Sophie participated. This was the first official Church pilgrimage and was initiated by Most Rev Dr Healy, newly-consecrated Archbishop of Tuam. In her account of the climb, Sophie writes that over 3,000 people were in attendance on the summit for the concelebrated Mass, with hundreds more making the ascent later.
But politically, 1904 had been a difficult year for William O’Brien. He had quarrelled with his old colleagues, John Dillon and Michael Davitt, and had resigned in disappointment both from Parliament and the United Irish League.
For three years he retired from public life, devoting himself to the improvement of conditions for the local people. In 1906 he was persuaded by his constituents in Cork to return to national politics, and he was re-elected MP for Cork.
Shortly afterwards, and a little reluctantly, they decided to return to live in Mallow. Giving up their home at the foot of Croagh Patrick was a wrench, said Sophie, and part of her heart remained in the west.
And so too did that piece of their home town which remains today on the coast road from Westport.
The heroes of Mons
With the publication of ‘Mayo Comrades of the Great War’, and the steady advance of plans for the Mayo Peace Park, it is timely to recall an early gesture of recognition extended 80 years ago to the surviving servicemen of World War One.
It was in September 1929 that an eight-house scheme at Breaffy Road in Castlebar was named Mons Terrace after one of the bloodiest battles of the Great War, fought at the Belgian city of Mons.
The houses were provided thanks to the efforts of Rev M Jackson who, since his arrival in Castlebar had taken a great interest in the welfare of ex-servicemen by becoming the local organiser of the British Legion. The houses were constructed under the auspices of the Soldiers and Sailors’ Land Trust, a body whose objective was to provide decent housing for veterans of the conflict. Castlebar, it was said, had a strong affinity with the Connaught Rangers and there were many references at the opening ceremony to local families who had lost loved ones on the battlefields of Europe.
The Mons Terrace houses were actually built by the then newly-established firm of JP McCormack, a family of particularly strong republican links, and whose first substantial contract was the ex-servicemens’ scheme. No doubt the political ecumenism evident on that day was not not lost on the contractors or the commission body.
Bob Kilkelly remembered
A long established Castlebar event was duly honoured on St Stephen’s Day when, in ideal weather conditions, the annual Bob Kilkelly Memorial Walk took place.
Over 65 people - the highest number ever - took part in the bracing walk from Castlebar, through the Windy Gap and down into Pontoon for the traditional complimentary refreshments at Healy’s Hotel. Proprietor John Dever had left instructions that, as always, the walkers be fortified for the remainder of the 40k trek, nor would those who opted to terminate the walk at the lakeside be allowed go hungry!
Ernie Sweeney, organiser and founder of the Kilkelly walk, reminded all that only once in 38 years had bad weather forced the cancellation of the walk, and even then it merely involved a postponement of one day. He spoke fondly of his friend who died 23 years ago, and of his own pride in having Bob Kilkelly remembered in such a fitting way each St Stephen’s Day.
The warmth, conviviality and good food at Healy’s tended to blunt the appetite for further walking, and it was only the hardiest who took to the road again for the final 15kms, and a further, final pit-stop at Johnny McHale’s pub.
Ernie reminds us that this coming June will see the holding of the 40th Castlebar International Four Days Walks, a milestone which is due to be celebrated in spectacular fashion by walkers from every part of the world. What started from small beginnings has grown into a huge success, an integral part of which was the Castlebar Ramblers Club, established by Bob Kilkelly all those years ago. It is fitting that his name should be remembered each Christmas when local walkers take to the hills and valleys of the Windy Gap in their own tribute to a man who so loved the great outdoors.
The one we love to hate
According to Travel magazine, Ryanair has been voted the world’s least favourite airline. A survey of passengers found that 4,000 users deemed the low cost carrier to have the most cramped seating, unfriendly staff, and the most delays.
However, the magazine went on, in spite of the criticism, Ryanair was estimated to have carried 42 million people in 2006, and remained popular with customers because of its low fares.
None of which, we can be sure, will cause Michael O’Leary to lose an hour’s sleep.
No welcome on the mat
For the two newest members of the EU, the welcome mat which once graced our doorstep has been firmly pulled away. Bulgarian and Romanian workers will not be able to enjoy the free access to jobs which marked the accession of recent member states.
Just over two years ago, this country joined with Sweden and Britain in waiving the right to impose restrictions and, instead, offered an open door to migrant workers. The inward rush however caught us on the hop - last year alone, 200,000 foreign nationals registered to work here - so that this time round, the door has been shut on the newcomers.
The Bulgarian and Romanian governments are offended by the new controls, which require their citizens to seek work permits and prospective employers to demonstrate that they cannot get staff from other EU states.
Whether the controls will work in practice is another matter, with some observers pointing to the apparent loophole which will allow the self-employed to travel and work here without restrictions. In Britain, where the same rules apply, trade unions are fearful that incoming workers will swiftly declare themselves self-employed and that plenty of unscrupulous employers will be only too happy to go along with the deception.
But the worries may prove to be without foundation. The Institute of Public Policy, in a report, says that the Bulgarians and Romanians would much prefer to work in Mediterranean countries, where many of their compatriots are already employed.
Not to mention the weather!