By Dionne Meehan
FROM playing marbles to dancing the night away in The Devlin Hall, local woman Philomena McBride remembers growing up in Letterkenny differently to what it is today.
Born and reared in the Oldtown, she recalls Letterkenny being a tight knit community with “great” neighbours.
Growing up in a family of ten, Mena – as most people know her – remembers her mother’s home as being an open house for everyone.
“We didn’t have much, but we had everything that we needed,” she said.
“If you were out playing, they never worried if you didn’t come in for your dinner.
“They knew you got a bite somewhere,” she joked.
Growing up, Mena’s best friends were Molly McTaggart and Ann Griffin.
With all three ladies recently turning 80, Mena said although they may not live in each-others pockets, they’re always there for each other.
Before technology took over, she remembered days playing in the park with her friends.
“We played mini golf, marbles and skipping.
“You’d love to see some of that coming back again to the town,” she said.
At the tender age of 14 years old, she began her first job washing dishes in Gallagher’s Hotel.
“Your job back then was every job you could mention in a hotel and you did it for very little money,” she said.
She later went on to work in McKendrick’s private house at the bottom of Main Street.
“I looked after Annie, her father and her brother Hughie who was deaf and dumb.
“I looked after them for three years.
“I cooked, cleaned, baked, washed and ironed,” she said.
In her spare time she also learned sign language from Hughie.
A big hobby of Mena’s was dancing.
“The first dance hall was the Devlin Hall.
“Clare Ponsonby and I taught nearly the whole town how to jive, especially all the Burma boys,” she said.
Philomena’s father was a lovely old time dancer and after a few lessons, so was she.
“I could have danced from morning to night.
“When you went to the dance hall, all the good jivers would have been running for you across the floor,” she said.
Mena’s favourite show band was called ‘The Cadets’.
“They used to stay in Gallagher’s Hotel.
“When I used to work there I used to stay in the room with Eileen Reid and watch her putting her hair up. She used to always put her hair up in a big beehive,” she said.
Meeting her husband Seamus in 1966, Mena didn’t expect to be packing her bags one year later to move to Glasgow.
Arriving on Sunday, May 7, 1967, she recalls Celtic winning the European Cup the following Thursday night.
This was the first big celebration she had whilst living in Glasgow. Little did she know the life that was ahead of her.
The next celebration was her marriage to Seamus in 1969 in St. Anthony’s Church by Fr Joseph McElholm.
Welcoming their children Joseph, Seamus, Charles, Eileen and Bernadette into the world during their time in Glasgow, Fr McElholm became a very close friend of the family. Be it Baptisms, Communions or Confirmations, he was by their side through it all.
While in Glasgow, Mena spent her time working in different pubs.
“It was wonderful.
“We used to have both Celtic and Rangers fans come into the pub at the same time and the two busses would sit outside waiting for them to go to the football.
“There was never any trouble, I loved it,” she said.
Despite loving her life in Glasgow, before Fr McElholm passed away he had a special message for Seamus.
“He told Seamus to take our family back to Donegal,” Mena said.
Following the strict instructions, the pair made the move two years after Fr McElholm’s death.
When Mena moved home she worked in Gleneany House before going on to be part of the first staff in The Quiet Moment Tearooms.
Now back in Letterkenny 35 years, Philomena has seen drastic changes.
“My father used to play in Ponsonby’s band and he used to play ‘There is nothing now but strangers in Letterkenny town’.
“If he was alive today to see it, his words would be true.
“I could walk down the street every day and not meet one that I know.
“But I don’t walk down the street now on my own, I’m not allowed,” she said.
With very little shops from the Market Square down, Philomena said that’s where the “best” shops used to be.
“You had Comiskey’s Grocery Shop, Masie Hamilton’s Grocery Shop, McCauley’s Sweetie Shop and Roulston’s Shop and Coal Yard where Dunnes Stores is now.
“You could go in and do your shopping and pay for it at the weekend.
“Nurse Harkin’s house was also at the bottom of the Main Street, she was a midwife and she delivered all my mother’s babies,” she said.
With 11 grandchildren and her first great grandchild due in October, Mena hopes something will be done to revitalise Letterkenny for the generations to come.
From going to Mass to attending adoration chapel , Philomena lives a very holy life.
Up until the pandemic, she had helped organise the Raphoe Diocesan Pilgrimage to Fatima for 21 years.
But like everything, it got too expensive to continue.
However, that didn’t stop Mena from jet-setting this year.
Treated to a holiday for Christmas, she set off for Rome in March.
“It was beautiful,” she said.
With plans to return again next year, Mena has her fingers crossed in the hope of an audience with the Pope.
With a never ending archive of stories about her home town, Mena said there are “great memories” in Letterkenny.