My early years were spent during an era when the world seemed to revolve much slower, at least in Kincasslagh where I grew up. Ireland was a poor country at the time, things were being slowly modernized. But it is a testament to my parents’ love and dedication to their children that our childhood memories are all happy ones. The only dark cloud in our lives was the sudden death of my father Francie when I was just a wee lad of six, the youngest in the family.My father was born in Acres near Burtonport in County Donegal. My mother, Julia, came from the little Island of Owey, just off the coast, near Kincasslagh where she now lives with my sister Kathleen, her husband John and their children. They wed in 1948 and went on to bring five little O Donnell’s into the world. I was born on 12th December 1961. I have two brothers and two sisters. John is the eldest followed by Margaret (Margo) then Kathleen and James.My first home was a lovely old house across the road from where my mother now lives in Kincasslagh. I used to sleep in a wee room off the kitchen. There were pots hanging from a crook over the open fire in the sitting room. There was no water and no toilet, which is quite incredible considering it’s not that long ago. In fact, there was only one house in our area that I recall having a flush toilet when I was growing up. Our toilet was across the road – a tin hut! We moved into a new council house in 1967, a year before my father died. It was a bungalow on the site of my mothers’ current dormer home.
Although I was six years old when my father died from a heart attack at forty-nine, the only memories I seem to have are of him going away and returning home. Like many family men in our area, he was forced to emigrate in order to provide for the family, because there wasn’t enough work in Kincasslagh. He worked on farms in Scotland. It was hard, manual labour and a far cry from my own lifestyle today. When he died, my mother lost her partner in life and was left alone to shoulder the responsibility of rearing us. The love and admiration I hold for my mother knows no bounds because she ensured we never wanted for anything.
Thinking back, my first day at school in 1967 doesn’t stand out as being a traumatic experience for me. The school was a mile-and-a half from my home, so it was a long walk. We had tillies (lamps) in the early morning during the winter months to light up the rooms. We had the old inkwells on the desks and it was a frightening affair when we had to progress from writing with pencils to negotiating with ink and nibs. You weren’t allowed biros. I never disliked school. It was never a case of not wanting to go and I didn’t find learning difficult. I wouldn’t have been a genius, but I had the ability to learn. I suppose I was average as people go, intelligence-wise. School took nothing out of me really. As far as a career was concerned, I was good at maths in secondary school and consequently I thought about the bank as a career. I was interested in teaching, but singing was always a possibility.
I suspect people have the impression that my mother kept me hanging on to her apron strings when I was a kid, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. She wasn’t at all overprotective. I had great freedom, a terrific childhood the same as everyone else in our area. I was always in and out of neighbours’ houses when I was a child and I was full of news. I was like a newspaper on feet. I’d sit listening to people talking and I’d carry all the gossip of the neighbourhood. And you know, now, I have no time for gossip or for people who spread gossip.
From about the age of nine I went to work in the Cope, which is a general store in our area, and I earned a weekly wage of 2 pounds. I got to know everyone around the district through the Cope. I loved working there but if there’s one chore I hated as a child, it was cutting turf in the bog (peatland), to be used as fuel for the fire. A day in the bog was a nightmare to me as I never got to grips with the skills required. It meant a team effort, and I have to work at my own pace. I wasn’t into manual jobs. I worked in the Cope every summer till I was fourteen years old and I saved my weekly wage for my holidays at the end of August. Then I’d head off on the boat alone to Scotland, where I stayed with relatives in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Perth and Callendar.
Christmas, for me, centred around the church as I always sang in the choir, even as a child. I always feel a real closeness to people in church and Christmas Eve in the chapel was something special. Religious occasions like First Communion and Confirmation were among the highlights of our childhood years. They were special occasions, not just in the religious sense but also as events to be celebrated. When I received my First Communion, there was no family outing to a posh restaurant. We went home after church and had the normal family meal. We didn’t have a car in those days, but really, we didn’t need one. There was no place to go!
I used to spend my summers with my granny on the little island of Owey which is now uninhabited. I’d wake up in the morning on the island and I’d hear the sound of fishermen going away to haul lobster pots or nets. The island was lovely. The views were just fantastic. You could sit for hours just marveling at the world around you. There were a few houses you’d go to at night to pass the time and have the craic (a Gaelic term meaning fun). The acting that used to go on in those houses was something else! They would be telling ghost stories and you’d be rattling with fear on your way home. Granny eventually came to live with us in Kincasslagh until she died in 1971.