Last of the St Conal’s workers retires

Seamus McGinty

THE 110-year-old link with the hospital farm in St Conal’s was finally broken on Monday, September 25, when Seamus McGinty clocked out for the last time.
Seamus has been employed as a farm hand in Letterkenny for more than forty years, during a period when St Conal’s was a largely self-sufficient institution.
It was a time when patients were required to do a lot of the farmwork as the hospital farm provided milk as well as potatoes and vegetables, which were grown in the hospital grounds, for staff and patients.
“The computer got me in the end,” he smiled.
“ I was sixty-five the following day and it told me that I had no option but to go on Monday, September 25.
“I would have stayed on for another forty years had I been allowed. I really enjoyed my work,” he explained.
A native of Manorcunningham, Seamus and his family moved into Letterkenny, and Glencar, in 1972. By that stage he was working as a storeman in Dillon’s supermarket having spent six months in Doherty’s butchers when he first left school.
Seamus was twenty-four years of age when he got the call from St Conal’s.
“Pat Sheridan needed help for a few weeks with the hay and stuff like that and sure the rest is history. He was a great man to work for,” he recalled.
At that time St Conal’s farmed more than two hundred acres of land at Carnamuggagh, Port Bridge and Long Lane as well as within the hospital site at Kilmacrennan Road.
“We did a bit of everything – general farm work and looking after the grounds. We grew all sorts of vegetables which were all taken down to the kitchens and prepared as meals for the staff and patients.
“A lot of the patients would have still be working on the land at that point,” he said.
Seamus was joined on the staff by Bobby Orr, Gerry Crerand, Ed Young, John Orr, Paddy McMenamin, Albert Kilpatrick, Patrick Friel and Billy Alexander.
“Gerry (Crerand) was the gardener in those days and he showed me the ropes,” he recalled.
“One by one they all retired until there was just myself and Billy (Alexander) left. We were the last men left standing when St Conal’s closed down as a working farm in 1995. Since then we’ve been employed in general ground maintenance, cutting the grass and setting flowers,” he said.
“I hear that they’re going to contract out all that work now. They say it’s cheaper to do that. Times have changed,” he sighed.
Indeed, there’s not too many places of work where roast beef or cooked chicken would be on the menu for 10 clock tea!
“We were well looked after alright but we worked hard too. We had to look after the herd of cows and the dry-stock who all had to be wintered inside and fed all year round. You had crops which had to be harvested in autumn and then there was the silage and hay,” he recalled.
“We had some great men working alongside us – men who shouldn’t have been patients at all in my opinion. Some were unlucky to fall on hard times while others were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Either way they were great workers, great men and many became good friends,” he said.
When Seamus first started work in St Conal’s, the building and its patients were housed behind big gates that were often locked at night.
“It was an intimidating place at first but once you got to know them you quickly realised that many of the patients shouldn’t have been in there at all. Half of Letterkenny would be in now if they opened it up again,” he said.
Pat Sheridan and Billy Alexander were the two charge hands.
“They were great men. They looked after their staff and treated us all well. We got paid weekly at the start and used to get some time off on a Friday to change your cheque.
“When I started we used to get paid £31 a week but that went to £59 in one week after they changed our status. We had been classed as farm labourers up to that point but we were then called general operatives. We thought we were millionaires and thought we would never get to spend it. We were living in different times then,” he said.
It was a time when potatoes were sold to the Centre Spot Restaurant in Letterkenny, fruit and veg was sold on to a “fruit man” in Donegal Town while any surplus straw or hay was sold to neighbouring farmers.
“I really enjoyed working outside and met the best of people. You were given your orders and you did your work. It wasn’t nine to five, Monday to Friday and some weeks you had to work long hours but sure you got paid for the hours you worked.
“As Ken Sharpe (Hospital Administrator) once said: I wish the cows would work nine to five as I would save on a lot of overtime and weekend work,” he quipped.
“Summer-time was very busy with the hay and barley but then the whole thing was sold in 1995. The North Western Health Board said that they weren’t into the business of farming and that was that. They sold some land to the IDA and the RTC (Letterkenny Institute of Technology) for future development but they retained thirty odd acres around St Conal’s,” he said.
“We used to graze the cattle in the Showfield (Bernard McGlinchey Town Park) and we used to have to milk the cows early in the morning before they moved everything up to Carnamuggagh and machinery took over a lot of the manual jobs.
“The Regional (LYIT) had just started up as had Courtaulds (Unifi) but there were no factories up the High Road and not too many houses up there either. There were no mobile phones or computers and if someone wanted you for work they came up to the house and knocked you up.
“Billy (Alexander) would often come up for me. He was very particular in everything that he did. There were no short cuts with Billy. He always said that you should be fit to look back at your work with pride. He was a great man to work to.”
A keen supporter of Finn Harps, Letterkenny Rovers and Donegal GAA, Seamus hopes to get to a few more games now that he is retired. He also hopes to do more travelling although he thinks he’ll confine himself to Ireland.
“I’ve been away twice before but sure you can’t just sit on the beach or drink beer all day. In Ireland you can meet people who understand the language and can relate to all the things that’s happening around the place. I enjoyed my holidays abroad but it’s not home and it’s not for me. I love Galway, Mayo and Kerry as well as Donegal. I’m more than happy here,” he smiled.
He’s also a keen cyclist.
“It helps keep the weight down and the mind occupied,” he added

Receive quality journalism wherever you are, on any device. Keep up to date from the comfort of your own home with a digital subscription.
Any time | Any place | Anywhere

and get access to our archive editions dating back to 2007
Every Thursday
Every Monday

Donegal News is published by North West of Ireland Printing & Publishing Company Limited, trading as North-West News Group.
Registered in Northern Ireland, No. R0000576. St. Anne's Court, Letterkenny, County Donegal, Ireland