Age gradually corrupts our sense of time and environment. Asked to recall my memories of Craobh Sheáin Uí Dhubhlain, I have struggled to re-assemble the people and the place, some sixty years or so later. In mentioning names here, I risk omitting some and unintentionally causing offence to their memory and/or the extant family circle. Apologies in advance.
I was introduced to the Craobh by Eamonn McCann whose near neighbours, the Meenan Family , were active members. At the time , I think I was about 15/16 in S4 at St Columb’s and had been on at least one course in Rann Na Feirste. Among other things , the Craobh gave us an opportunity to practise what little Gaelic we had. At first sighting, it was a forlorn enough place , down an alley off Bishop st. I understand that at one time, the Craobh owned a couple of substantial buildings on Bishop st but now they were reduced to the good will of a pharmacist who made this store room available to them for a token rent. I seem to recall that there were frequent rumours that the landlord required its return.
Neither St Columb’s nor Thornhill College ever encouraged membership of Conradh no Gaeilge (the Gaelic League) as an aid to language learning; indeed, I know that there was an attitude towards the Irish Language, verging on the hostile, from some staff members in St Columb’s. In the 70s, a team from St Columb’s reached the All Ireland Final, to be held in Dublin, of Gael Linn’s Díospóireacht Comortas. When approached for support with travel, food and accommodation, the President offered the princely sum of £5! The teachers had funded, from their own pockets, the costs of the earlier rounds. They won the Competition and the Headteacher was prominently pictured with the team in the Journal.
“plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose”
There was commonly an openly expressed, and often subliminal view among some citizens that the Craobh had links to militant Republcanism. I can state categorically that in all my time there, that I never witnessed any evidence of that. There were members who , rightly or wrongly, were imprisoned , with scant evidence , under the Offences Against the State Act. Those were in a small minority. Discussion of politics was not encouraged and knowing a lot of the members, I doubt if there was a consensus on which party to support and, of course , that is democracy. Among my young friends, James Connolly may have been the only figure in the Easter Rising to attract our respect; the others were dismissed as mystic bunglers. In one Stormont Election, I actively supported the campaign of the Independent Labour Candidate. Sinn Fein candidates ,such as Neil Gillespie , would announce their campaign to contest the Westminster seat on an abstentionist platform which I thought was negative and futile politics. I often wondered too just how the selection process worked since there did not seem to be any SF organisation in the constituency.
In other words, there was a plurality of political views among members and certainly there was no ‘Craobh’ support of any individual.
I had two periods of attendance in the Craobh – while I was at school in the late fifties and in the mid sixties when I returned as a newly minted teacher from Belfast. As young people, we found the Craobh to be fairly unpredictable and exciting in that respect. There was a mixture of conversation, music, occasionally dancing and frequent debate. Those around at that time whom I recall were :- Prionsias ó Mianáin, with his siblings – Paddy, Betty and Dolores; Noel Hamlton, a Queen’s student, recovering from a stroke and with whom some years later , I would share a student house in Belfast; Mickey Harley, an engineer in DuPont; an older group – Johnny Gallagher, occasionally Sean Canning, Sean Keenan and Pat Leo Doherty, The youngsters were mê fein, Eamonn, Maisie Bradley, Nell McCafferty, Marie McCormick and Eddie McLaughlin. A young Kevin Mitchell was there to learn Irish, principally so that he could add to his song repertoire. Johnny Gallagher was his mentor and the late Kevin frequently acknowledged Johnny’s guidance publicly. Kevin would marry a Scot and move to Glasgow; a few years later, I followed suit, moving to Edinburgh. We met as often as busy family and work lives would permit or when Kevin’s concert tour brought him nearby. It is deeply poignant that one of Ireland’s most melodic, traditional voices was silenced forever nearly a year ago.
The primary source of funding was an annual door-to-door , envelope collection in Nationalist areas of the City; the young Turks tackled this with enthusiasm
In my second spell in the Craobh as an adult, things had changed. I found Peadar Gallagher, Dick MacGabhainn, Peter Mullin and Paddy Joe Doherty there. They were new graduates who had returned to teach in Derry and to function coherently ,they required planning and structure. In addition , there was Aodh MacEoin, a St Columb’s teacher who had a long association with the Gaelic League, both in his native Belfast and in Derry . There was a recognisable and democratically elected management committee which met regularly and published minutes of meetings. Its primary function was to provide a cultural resource centre for the City’s Gaels and opportunities for young people to learn and practise the Irish language. Classes were advertised, differentiated and happened at appointed times. There was a new determination to make things happen.
Drama had long been a staple of the Craobh. In his fine book on Aisteóirí Gaoth Dobhair, Noel Ó GallchÓir records that Craobh Cholm Cille as Doire were victorious in a drama festival in 1938. During my second period of membership, we produced, to some success and with great enjoyment, three full length plays which we performed locally and at various festivals around the country, reaching the finals in Dublin on each occasion. We always attracted a sizeable audience to St Columb’s Hall and the proceeds helped with general funding. Fr Frank Flaherty from St Columb’s produced ‘Spórt na Ríthe’; I took responsibility for the Walter Macken comedy , ‘An Fear ó’n Spideál’ while Dick MacGabhainn presented a memorable ‘An Strainsear Dubh’ for which he also won an acting award in Dublin. Gerry Downey was cast in all three shows.
Through time , I found that my workload in Derry Credit Union greatly reduced the space that I had available for outside interests and , while I remained in touch, my contribution to the work of the Craobh diminished and eventually had petered out by 1968 when the City took a a whole new direction after October 5th.