Eileen Burgess never started out to be a librarian. Growing up in Carrickmacross, Co. Monaghan, she always loved to read but her real ambition was to work in hotel management abroad.“It wasn’t for me,” she laughs. So, the hotel world’s loss has been Donegal’s gain, as Eileen has been at the helm of exciting developments here, not just in libraries, but right across the arts and heritage, since 2005. She got here via the rather unusual route of the Sudan and Nepal…
“I grew up right across the street from the library in Carrickmacross,” Eileen recalls.
“I spent a lot of time there, because I always loved to read. The Branch Librarian was a lady called Mrs Lynch and her daughter Marianne works with us now. I often tell her that her mother had quite an influence on me without knowing it at the time!”
Eileen’s family moved to Donegal Town when she was twelve. “My mother, Marion Coburn, was from the town. Her father was a pharmacist, where Britton’s Pharmacy is now.”
Eileen, like many young people of the time, was sent away to secondary school, as a weekly boarder at the Royal and Prior in Raphoe. “It was quite an adjustment, moving to Donegal and then going away to school but I suppose it was all just part of growing up.”
She enjoyed being on the hockey team at school and also had a keen interest in art. “I wasn’t good at formal art but I like being creative and making things.”
Over the years, she also discovered a love of cooking and, more recently, has been taking dancing classes. “I’m not much good at it but I thoroughly enjoy it! Dancing is a great way to get some exercise, de-stress and meet new people.”
When Eileen finished school, she went to what was then Galway Regional Technical College to pursue a degree in hotel management. “It wasn’t for me, I so I left in the second year.”
She worked in childcare for a while and loved it, especially working with children with disabilities but then, in 1983, she got a job in the library service in Galway.
In order to develop her skills, Eileen took a career break to complete a degree in Librarianship Studies and Classical Studies in Aberstwyth. “At the time, I wanted to work in a museum library, I thought that would be great.”
On finishing the three year course, Eileen enrolled with the VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) and travelled to the Sudan, to help compile a bibliography of medical and agriculture research in Khartoum. “That was a brilliant experience. The people were unbelievably fantastic - so, so friendly. You’d be walking down the street and complete strangers would come up to you and invite you to their homes for tea. Or you’d be on a bus and find out that a stranger had already paid your fare. And these were people who had very, very little themselves.”
Unfortunately, because of the political instability in the country, the VSO had to pull out. “They were concerned about the implications, so we basically were evacuated quietly in the middle of the night. That was a bit scary and unsettling.”
Then it was off to Nepal. The VSO placed her with the Ministry of Education, compiling a medical bibliography for a teaching hospital in Kathmandu. After a year, she worked supporting trainee primary school teachers. In all, she spent over two years in the country.
“I met my husband Steven Meyen, who is from Belgium, there. He was also a volunteer, and worked in community forestry. We decided we would move to wherever one of us got a job and that’s when I got the job of Library Asssistant with Donegal County Council. This was in 1995. We were very fortunate because Steven found work with Farm Relief. He now works with Teagasc, based in Ballybofey.”
In the library service, Eileen worked under Liam Ronayne. “He had done a huge amount of ground work in developing a major capital programme for the library service. I joined just before the Central Library & Arts Centre in Letterkenny opened and this, of course, was the first of many new libraries for Donegal, as Buncrana, Bundoran, Carndonagh, Dungloe and Milford later came on stream.
When he left, Eileen became County Librarian and she has overseen the opening of the Regional Cultural Centre as well as the new library in Gaoth Dobhair.
She’s very proud of Donegal’s track record, especially in relation to Gaoth Dobhair, where the old library had to be closed because of flooding. “That was a case of a disaster turning into a miracle “The government granted us exceptional funding and there’s a really fine library there now, which is very popular.”
Eileen’s well aware that other towns are still in need of new facilities, including her home town, Donegal. “We’d hoped to have a new library by now that’s not been possible. There’s still the need and the demand but our means to deliver has been reduced.”
On top of managing the library service, Eileen is in charge of the local authority arts and heritage, including museum and archives, a job she clearly loves. “The arts are very important in Donegal and there’s a great arts scene here, contemporary as well as traditional. It’s something that’s very much recognised elsewhere as being an integral part of the Donegal identity. It’s something that, like our wonderful scenery, brings people here, tourists and companies.
“The challenge is to ensure that the arts continue to thrive, and that they aren’t considered to be just another commodity, measured only in a strictly economic way
“Despite the cutbacks, we still have a talented and committed staff and a very substantial, ambitious programme planned for the year ahead.
“The Gathering will feature prominently, of course, as well as Seachtain na Gaeilge, the Earagail Arts Festival, Heritage Week, Wainfest, Culture Night, and the Donegal Bay and Bluestacks Festival, alongside the day-to-day regular services.We’re also continuing our great partnership with cultural authorities East Iceland and Northern Norway. In addition, there will be special events, like Awakening the Horsemen at An Grianan Ailigh in June, a wonderful spectacle in association with Luxe Carnival group, Feile Grianan Ailigh, Derry City of Culture and groups in Norway and Iceland.
“It’s going to be a busy year!”