Shane Toolan is an adopted son of Ballyshannon who is particularly well known in both sporting and business circles throughout Donegal. Since his retirement from AIB, though, he’s devoting his considerable energies to setting up a museum in Ballyshannon, to celebrate the town’s exceptionally rich heritage. Now, he’s delighted to announce that premises have been secured and it is hoped that the museum will open in April. A public meeting will be held tonight at 8.30 in Dicey Reilly’s for anyone interested in the project.
Although Shane, who is now 55, was born and raised in Salthill, Galway, he has always had very strong ties to Donegal. His mother Kathleen is an O’Boyce from Letterkenny. The family had a very popular shop at the bottom of the Port Road. His father Jack hails from Roscommon but worked for Esso in Letterkenny and played football with St Eunan’s.
Shane’s the only one of the family to have ended up back in Donegal. His brothers - marketing guru Noel and IT Lecturer Brian - are based in Dublin and Athlone respectively. At St Joseph’s secondary school in Galway, Shane says he focused his energies on sport “GAA, soccer, rugby, athletics - I loved them all.”
He studied business at Galway IT, “for a few months” but soon landed a job in AIB. That was in January 1977. Shane started out in Ballinasloe, then spent some time in Castlebar. In 1982, he got his first appointment in Donegal, in Bundoran to be exact, and he’s remained in the county since.
After Bundoran, Shane spent three years working in Raphoe but living in Letterkenny, where he followed in his father’s footsteps and played for St Eunan’s. Next, it was off to Buncrana, “a sports mad town” which he loved. “I played GAA and soccer in Buncrana as well as rugby in Carndonagh. I always thought the people there were great - very nice, friendly and welcoming.
“One of the things I always loved best about being in the bank was that it gave me the chance to be so closely involved in what was going on in the community. The bank really encouraged that.”
In 1991, Shane married Sharon, a bank colleague from Carrick on Shannon and the couple moved to Ballyshannon, with Shane working in the local branch and Sharon at the branch in Donegal Town. They went on to have two daughters, Claire in 1995 and Niamh in 1997.
“It was lovely being able to settle down in Ballyshannon. The girls have lived all their lives here and that’s something that’s always been important to us, especially as we were both working.”
The pressures of a hectic job and a busy family life didn’t stop Shane from keeping up his sporting interests. He’s still a referee for both gaelic football and rugby, as well as Chair of Aodh Rua Bord na nÓg.
After 21 years in Ballyshannon, what are the biggest changes he’s noticed? “The employment being decimated and emigration. Ballyshannon went from being a big and vibrant town to being quite lethargic. The people who continue to do well have tended to stop taking risks. Of course there are some welcome exceptions - Paul Slevin, Declan Doherty, Barry O’Neill, Brendan O’Reilly and Barry Sweeny all come to mind. They’re all very forward thinking, positive and determined. Erne Enterprise and the Backing Ballyshannon initiative are also big positives for the town.”
He’s also a big believer in the power of business oriented organisations like the Chamber of Commerce and is former Chair of the Ballyshannon Chamber. “That organisation has been affected by the fall off in business but those in it still do a lot.”
Shane is convinced that Ballyshannon can boost its tourism business by highlighting its extraordinary rich heritage.
“I’ve always been interested in history and there is no better town to come to for a sense of history than Ballyshannon, especially with people like Anthony Begley here and John Cunningham in nearby Belleek. I did a course a number of years ago at the Lakeside Centre on the history of Ballyshannon and that really brought home to me just how historical Ballyshannon is, how there’s proof that settlements here go back to the earliest times.
“Also, we’ve so much around us - Rossnowlagh, Belleek, Donegal Town - but so little here in the town for visitors to see and do.
“Every day working in the bank I would see hundreds, literally hundreds of people, stopping and taking a picture of the Rory Gallagher statue then getting back in their cars and driving off.
“Kevin Gallagher (of Erne Wanderers) loves history as much as I do and one day we agreed that it would be great to have a museum in the town.
This was in July 2011, so we acted quickly. Rossa McCosker gave us the use of a premises, local people donated loads of photos and artefacts and we got an exhibition up and running within a fortnight. It was open for six weeks and we were staggered at the response. There were about 500 visitors - people from all over the world as well as local people, many of whom came back again and again. People even gave us donations of cash - enough to cover the costs of putting the exhibition on and the two display cabinets we bought.
“We had to turn away people who were offering us artefacts because we hadn’t the room or couldn’t ensure they’d be secure enough. There is so much more material to hand, it’s amazing. Then, last year, Declan Doherty and Gerry Kelly offered us the use of a premises on The Mall but we had no money to convert it or to run it. Kevin and I were both working in Dublin too, so we couldn’t do a lot.
“We were both determined, though, to get something up and running again to coincide with Ballyshannon’s 400th anniversary this year. I was chatting with Paul Slevin and he very kindly came to our rescue, offering us space on the top floor of the Department Store. It’s ideal - with a lift, café, heat, light, security, shelving and even secure display cabinets.
“We’re hoping to have everything ready to open, at least at the weekends or for schools and groups by arrangement, in April. That will give us time to get everything really up and running before the summer. John McIntyre has come on board and is working with us, and we’re inviting anyone who is interested to come along to a meeting next Tuesday night at 8.30pm in Dicey Reilly’s.
“TY students from Bundoran and Ballyshannon are going to do projects for us, probably to do with the railway and engineers from Sligo IT are also looking at ways to help. “Fred Ormston from Mace told us about the Local Heroes programme and we’ve applied to that. We’ve made it through, from hundreds of projects, to the final 25 and we’re waiting to hear whether we’ve been selected. If we are, it will mean access to loads of expertise as well as fantastic publicity for the project and Ballyshannon in general.
“We hope that, by getting the museum up and running, it will show people that, if you have a good idea and the drive, but no money, you can still make things happen.”