A true Letterkenny legend
By paddy Walsh
She's as well known on the Letterkenny landscape as the Cathedral spire or at any rate that part and people of the Letterkenny of days gone by.
And in some of the homes of the rich and famous, far beyond these waters, you could mention the name, Sally Blake, and be sure of a nod of familiarisation.
Last April, the ever lively Ard O'Donnell woman turned seventy. And mounted, on the wall of her comfortable sitting-room there's a special present she received to mark the occasion - a framed edition of the Golden Disc achieved by her good friend, Daniel O'Donnell, in recognition of the sales of his album ‘The Last Waltz'.
"Yeah, the Last Waltz, would you believe? He goes and gives me that for my 70th birthday," she laughs. Tour manager, Joe Collum, drove the length of the country to present it to Sally on the big day and as he did so, the phone rang. A call from Daniel at his Tenerife home to wish her all the best.
Born to Michael and Molly Blake, she names her birthplace as the Back Road, proving her credentials as a true townie. The family moved to Lower Main Street before uplifting again to the Lower Burmah where Sally still resides.
She attended national school in Letterkenny and initiated her secondary education in Dublin at the Loreto College before returning to take up the books in the Tech in her native town.
After completing her schooling, she worked for a year in Kelly's hardware store and went on to take up employment as a clerical officer with the E.S.B. She was to spend a total of thirty-three years working with the semi-state organisation before retiring in 1996. That was a somewhat dark period in her life when ill health in the form of cancer took hold. Thankfully, she recovered, and has hardly rested since.
"No, I never sit," she admits. Last year she spent 192 days away from home on the touring circuit with Daniel O'Donnell, visiting Australia, New Zealand and the United States. She has been in America three times this year,
In a totally voluntary capacity, Sally looks after the administration end of Daniel's Romanian Challenge Appeal,
Her travels over the years - indeed she didn't even have to travel - have brought her into contact with those the rest of us only read about or see on television.
She has met the likes of actors, Tony Curtis, Elizabeth Taylor, and Steven Segal among others. Michael and Brid Blake's grand-aunt, Mary, was a housekeeper for the great composer Irving Berlin whom Sally met in New York,
The Australian born actor, Rod Taylor, was a visitor to her Ard O'Donnell home and there have been many others including violin legend, Yehudi Menuhin, who visited along with his, and Sally's close friend, the late internationally acclaimed artist Derek Hill.
A former Miss World has even tasted the Blake hospitality - the then Miss India, Rita Faria (now Powell) calling to see her when she opened the former Letterkenny International Folk Festival back in 1975.
Indeed, it was Sally who contacted the Dunfanaghy born surgeon, Peter McLean, (he sadly passed away this year) to see if he could persuade Miss World to open the festival that year as he worked with her in Jervis Street hospital. And every year since, Sally has received a Christmas card from Rita and her husband, Dick Powell.
The Back Road native was involved in the Letterkenny Festival since its beginnings. As she and Patrick Bradley outline in the current Letterkenny Christmas annual (she estimates she has around 100,000 photographs taken over the years and eighty of them appear in the 2010 annual), the festival came about after Bernard McGlinchey secured the Municipal Authorities conference to Letterkenny in 1968. Along with Tom Brodrick, Promotions and Development Officer with the North Western Regional Tourism Organisation, they had discussed the possibility of having a festival and eventually the latter wrote to the Council suggesting they hold one.
"The first meeting was badly attended but at the second one, James Larkin proposed Barney Doherty as chairman and the rest is history," Sally recalls.
A personal and political history of sorts arrived for Sally when she was elected onto the then Letterkenny Urban Council in 1967 on a Fine Gael ticket.
"Bernard McGlinchey topped the poll for Fianna Fail that time and Billy Kelly, who was also standing for Fine Gael, came second. I was third and James Larkin finished fourth but James got in on Bernard's surplus votes."
She served two terms on the Council over twelve years and remembers it as a time when then there was little money around to achieve any objectives. "I suppose the most satisfaction I got from being involved in the Council and in the Folk Festival was the friends I made at the time."
She reflects back on the Letterkenny she grew up in with fondness, frequent visitors to her home where they would be greeted warmly by her parents, Michael and Molly.
"There were some great characters around then. I was actually born in Toal and Mary McGrath's house. Toal worked as a water bailiff and one of the great stories about him was the time he raffled the town clock. He sold tickets and when the winner was announced, he took them up to the Market Square and said ‘there's your prize, take it with you'.!".