It doesn’t require a Letterkenny Reunion to attract Donna Kilcawley back to her home town. For someone who has the town and its people - particularly those she grew up with - engraved in heart and mind, no excuses are needed to book a flight in Rome and return to a Letterkenny that may have changed beyond recognition but is still, to her, like nowhere else on earth. Even Italy. And recently, two days before the 2012 Reunion lifted off, she eagerly explained her passion for the town she has spent sizeable chunks of her life in and the friends she had made there.
Though born in England, her time there was short. Around two weeks short to be precise as the family came to reside in Letterkenny. She attended school at Scoil Mhuire gan Smal and the Loreto Convent.
“I didn’t really mind going to school even if I did scheme the odd day, going to places like Rodgers Burn where so many others ended up!.”
She completed her education in Italy, undertaking an Italian course in the University of Perugia. “I went to Rome for a year to see what it was like and have been there ever since.” Or not quite ever since.
Married to Tonino, a native of Rome, they have three children, Brian, Sean and Liam, all of them born in Letterkenny. “Every time I delivered I would come over here to have them and stay on.”
Donna returns twice a year to her home town and Liam has accompanied her for her trip to the Reunion. But even in Rome, Donegal, or indeed Letterkenny, is never far from the equation. Since she and Tonino opened two pubs, Druid’s Den in 1982, and Druid’s Rock in 1997, they come into frequent contact with local visitors to the Italian capital.
“We get a lot of callers from home, many of them from Letterkenny. They call in and some of them say, we don’t want to bother you but, honestly, it’s great to see them at any time.”
Ireland rugby internationals in Rome help attract many local customers to the pubs while a group came over on one occasion for a fund-raising initiative at the Irish Club which generated money for the Donegal Hospice.
On her 40th birthday - she’s not saying when exactly that was! - she was surprised when a group of girl friends from Letterkenny arrived to help her celebrate. “I couldn’t believe it - they just dropped in and made the whole day.
“I’ve been thirty-three years in Rome and I can never say that I have friends like those I have at home,” Donna insists.
Her own trips back to Letterkenny help, she says, to recharge the batteries but do so much more. “Just meeting up with all those people that I grew up with gives me a lift.”
Consequently, an event like the Letterkenny Reunion enables her to do just that. “You run into people you haven’t seen and what makes it extra special is that many of them have also emigrated and are home just like me. So not only do you get a chance to meet those still living in the town but also those who are here from other countries.
“The whole idea of a Reunion is great and long may it continue.”
But, as stated, it doesn’t take the Reunion to draw her home. And there were many summers spent working in the former Dolphin cafe on Upper Main Street. The eating house was taken over by Donna’s grandmother, Gabrielle Bianconi, in the late 1930’s and subsequently closed in 1992 following the passing of Nino Bianconi. In between it served a generation and became a focal point of old Letterkenny, a social setting where many of Donna’s peers would gather and the talk was free and easy with many a laugh in between.
“A regular order was a plate of chips, six forks, and one Coke,” Donna smiles at the memory.
Another era was recalled at yesterday’s re-enactment of the old fair day at Lower Main Street, an event she was keenly anticipating.
“The town is obviously different from when I left it but I have a lot of happy memories associated with my time there.”
And in the Druid’s Den pub in the heart of Rome, pride of place goes to two model thatched cottages, that a younger Donna purchased in Rosha’s former shop located almost opposite the old Dolphin.
Home from home and Rome. She may be fluent in Italian but the accent still proudly speaks Letterkenny.