The Cooke on the Hill
He may not have a political party in a few weeks, but Tommy Cooke won’t stop battling to better his native town
TOMMY Cooke likes the notion of a bird’s eye view. He imagines how the world looks from afar. A series of little countries, little towns and little communities. When he thinks of those communities, he considers the closely-connected ‘committee’ –often lauded as the heartbeat of rural Ireland. And then, almost like the mechanism digital media boast, he has the ability to zoom in to those committees and move the lens left or right to really see, and acknowledge, in intricate detail, how important their role is in society.
It is a perceptive skill honed on the ground, on the streets and estates of Ballina, where the community man became best-placed to observe exactly how the day-to-day work of small societies makes big things happen.
The Progressive Democrat town councillor was known for his community involvement long before the Council chamber came a-knocking.
With an impressive record of local projects under his belt, it was one such undertaking that opened the door to his political career in the first place. “I suppose I got into local politics because I thought it would assist in furthering on a project I had been trying to get off the ground for a long time. That project was the Ballina Town Clubhouse and I’m happy to say that in the years that have passed, it is now up and running and we are probably one of the largest clubs in the county.”
The provision of the state-of-the-art complex has paved the way for a total of five ladies’ teams, among them All-Ireland champions. The adage ‘nothing succeeds like success’ certainly could be applied to the Belleek facility.
“The huge number of people that are involved there have really made that club a reality. It’s not just me or another person, it’s the whole energy and camaraderie of the people who come on board week after week.”
Before Ballina Town Club took over his thoughts, Tommy was hosting meetings of a different kind on a week by week basis. That time, up until three years ago, it was behind a counter in a bar known as Cookes on the Hill. He was known for the ‘Give us a clue’ quiz; the good pints and the relaxed atmosphere that is lost in the ‘Cathedral-type’ pubs of 2008.
“The industry has changed a lot. When we got involved in Cookes, and prior to that in The Peacock, where we spent about three years, the customers became the publican’s friends. Not just because they were handing over money, but because they were loyal, and if a person went to one pub at that time, that was their local. There wasn’t the trend of having a drink here and a drink there; it was more of a regular night out in one pub which meant the publican and the people really got to know one another. I got to know my customers’ likes and dislikes, their views and opinions. It was a very sociable type of thing; much more so than it is now.”
Tommy is back in the pub, now run by Clive Gilmartin, in a management capacity, but still credits his initial stint behind the counter as the one where the ‘real committee meetings’ were held.
“I suppose I met some great characters. The customers followed us from The Peacock to Cookes and we had some great times. Fun days when we would take off to matches and come home, or not come home, as the case may be!”
If pub walls could talk, no doubt they would tell some interesting tales, but one that is not under censorship of the Hill Street bar is the night the Ballina Salmon Festival was revived.
“People had long been giving out about the town and it was time something was done. My own mother had been involved in the original Salmon Festival herself and a group of us got to discussing it in the pub and one thing led to another, and the festival got back on track. The festival is uniquely about Ballina and it is something everyone is proud of. I really enjoyed my time with that.”
The former Chairperson of the revived Salmon Festival committee followed in his mother’s footsteps in getting involved; but that wasn’t the first time he was influenced by his elders.
“My parents owned the Moy Hotel on Pearse Street and I spent many happy hours helping out there. I suppose, I was heavily involved in later years, when I returned home after living in Switzerland and England, and I enjoyed the hospitality side of it, meeting people and getting to know them.”
His stint away from home, after completing his education at the Shannon College of Hotel Management, only intensified his own personal pride of place.
“There is nothing like your own home town. I was born and bred in Ballina. I was reared here and know every inch of the town and that is why I am proud to be involved with the Town Council, but also with the sporting sectors and the drama circles.”
As anyone who has attended a meeting in the Council chamber at Arran Place will testify, Tommy is nothing if not determined when it comes to improving and developing his home place.
The new-fangled term of ‘networking’ could have been invented by the councillor. As a player with the Ballina Rugby Club, the soccer club, and the Stephenites, where he has three All-Ireland campaigns with the Mayo Masters to his credit, it is no exaggeration to say he probably knows every person in the north Mayo capital to say hello to. “I suppose I do know a lot of people and feel it is in the hands of the Council – both elected members and officials – to make Ballina better for every one of them. As a coach for the under-18 rugby team, I would hate to think that those lads will head off in a few years and feel there is nothing to come home to.”
While the father-of-three is passionate about sport in a very obvious way, he is not blinkered by the fervent nature of the all-consuming rugby, football and soccer.
“Sport is certainly not the only thing in the world. I see it first hand with the lads I coach. I would hate to think someone is just getting involved in rugby or soccer because their parents want them to, because it is what ‘everyone’ else seems to do. Today in Ballina, it is not difficult to see how that does happen. It is not until kids leave Ballina and travel to third level that they might, if they are lucky enough to stumble across it, find that they have a passion for drama. That is something I hope to change.”
He is talking of his long-awaited theatre for the biggest town in Mayo. “It’s unbelievable to think that as the largest centre of population, we do not have a place for drama here. The theatre is something you have to experience to know if you like it or not. It’s like work experience, sport – anything – you have to be on that stage to really feel the buzz. That is an experience and an opportunity we are hoping to have in Ballina soon.”
The Newman Institute’s move to the Cathedral grounds will make way for a state-of-the-art purpose-built theatre, with an entire floor dedicated to rehearsal space. Funding has been granted and the community are pulling together to make up a weighty deficit of €500,000. It is just one in a list of plans that are in the pipeline for the town, including a pedestrian bridge across the famed Ridgepool, a revived retail sector, a Salmon-Life centre and a new marina.
“We need to stop talking about these things and get them done but I’m confident that can happen. Last year when RTÉ broadcast the Easter ceremonies live from St Muredach’s Cathedral the spotlight was on Ballina and people were proud of what was achieved. It could be said that those same cameras would find an altogether more fascinating and interesting story if they zoomed in on all the happenings in little rooms every week throughout the town. That is where ordinary people get things done for their neighbourhood, their hamlet and their people.”
The national broadcaster may not have done it yet, but the pub still referred to as Cookes on the Hill seems like the perfect vantage point to gain a real sense of people and place for the quintessential Ballina man with a smile and a nod for all.