Joe Kelly’s heart undoubtedly lies in Glenswilly but much of the rest of him has ventured further afield. Not too far for the past thirty-five years where he has operated a dry cleaning business in Letterkenny but before that there was London in the sixties and the emigration trail followed by so many from the area.
“There would have been a lot of people from Letterkenny and Glenswilly there at that time,” Joe recalls.
But the draw of home turf was always going to lure him back and here he has remained unlike countless others who have never been able to return - at least not on any permanent basis.
In the recessionary times of today, emigration takes its toll though Joe believes they travel with more advantages than the era of old. “My father, Joe, went to work in Scotland - in those days all they had was brown suitcases. Now they head off with degrees and are well educated.”
The road from Glenswilly to Letterkenny is a well travelled one. And as a young boy, Joe Kelly remembers accompanying his uncle, Richard, and grand-uncle, Jimmy, as they walked the cattle to the fair day in the town. “The drovers would come out and meet the men and the bartering would begin.”
The Churchill bus also used to transport the locals on the Saturday of the fair day. “The first stop for many would be Pattersons butchers on the Main Street and McGlynns butchers above the Market Square.
“The men sold turf at the fair day - there were families reared on turf back then. And on the Saturday night the town would be buzzing with throngs of people walking up and down the street.
“There’d be men hoping to sell cattle for a meat tea in Houston’s at the bottom of the Church Lane. They’d also get tea at Mrs. McDermott’s place on Lower Main Street or Mary B.’s establishment. And the pubs would be very busy too.”
Joe remembers men transporting wet batteries to Ken Corry’s electrical store to get them recharged. “They’d take away the dry batteries - it was like collecting gas cylinders and giving in your used ones. Mind you, the wet batteries ruined many a good suit!.”
The traditional Show Day, held in July, is another abiding memory for Joe. “Tommy Nee or T.P. as he was called, would do M.C. and Sam Roulston and the Bishop would also be involved in organising it.”
Joe recalls a character from Glencaw who would smuggle in poitin amongst a load of turf. This particular gentleman was friendly with a Garda Sergeant who, on one occasion, tipped him off that members of the force would be undertaking a raid. “How much do you want for the turf?,” the man was asked by a Garda. “I want five pounds for it,” said our hero. The Gardai proceeded to pay him and then took the turf load into the barracks where it was tipped over with the expectation of finding the poitin. No poitin, of course, but the Glencaw man was a fiver better off.
Those were the days when the likes of Billy McCollum, Mick Duffy and Danny Cullen would be regular sights on the streets of Letterkenny with their horses and carts. “There was very little transport at the time - it was the only way to travel for many back then.”
Mickey Blake’s lorry doubled as a people carrier, transporting around thirty members of the St. Eunan’s G.A.A. team, players, officials and supporters, to the far environs of Dungloe for a match.
Joe reflects with some measure of regret, not just at the passing of old Letterkenny as he and so many once knew it but at the loss of notable employment providers over the years such as the Bacon Factory, Lymax, the Hosiery factory, Gaeltex, Sub-4, the I.A.W.S., Unifi, and the latest industry to close its doors, Oatfield. “A lot of jobs have gone from the town as a result and that’s a sad state of affairs,” he maintains.
Characters, too, have come and gone and he remembers with affection John McLaughlin, Billy Doherty, Peadar McGeehan, and Denis ‘Curly’ Doherty among others. And another loss - the former Letterkenny International Folk Festival when Barney Doherty and his committee managed to attract huge numbers to the town, both foreign nationals and natives returning from the far corners for the five day event.
They’ll be returning again next week for the Letterkenny Reunion and Joe is looking forward to catching up with some familiar faces. “I’ve always thought the town needs a festival like the one we had but at least the Reunion gives an opportunity for people to come back and engage with the townspeople who are still here. It’s good there’s a connection like this,” Joe declares.