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John Byrne

Four years ago there was one, two years ago two, this year – three! Enigmatic? Let me explain. In 2005 your scribe returned to Blacklion and Belcoo on a journey of memories. Based on the warmth of the welcome I was given, in 2007 I accompanied Joe McIntyre on a visit. In May 2009 Joe McIntyre and Mike O’Callaghan were my companions. The three of us had studied together in Blacklion in 1965 – 1967. The two earlier visits have been accounted for on The Pelicans website, so to complete the ‘set’ – here’s my version of the story. I leave it to Joe and Mike to write theirs.

Together in Blacklion / Belcoo for the first time in nigh on 42 years.
Former ‘Blacklions’  Mike O’Callaghan, Joe McIntyre and John Byrne

The plan was ‘hatched’ some time ago. Mike, who lives with his family in Canada, has long wished to return, not having been back in decades. Mike is remembered with particular affection in the local community. In her ‘Blacklion days’ piece, written in December 2004 (to be found in the ‘Reminiscences’ section of the website) Olivia O’Dolan wrote of Mike and his vocal prowess during his student days. “Mairead who was in Legion of Mary in our parish would have some of the students from St Augustine's help to entertain at the old peoples homes in Enniskillen in mid 1960s. I remember the three boys who called themselves '' The Sloop John B Trio'' They sung lots of Clancy Brothers songs. One was named Michael O'Callaghan from Co Cork. Mairead who helped organise these small concerts recalls that she had to have the boys back in St Augustine's before 9 pm as Fr Maguire, the Rector, was very strict on their being back on time. She always adhered to this.”

Mike was the ‘front man’ of the ‘Blacklion’s’ folk group which was permitted to entertain some of the local community on numerous occasions in 1966 and 1967. We almost always sang the song “Sloop John B” – hence Olivia’s recall. The other members of the line up were Joe McIntyre, Tony Ryan and myself, aided and abetted in 1966 by Damien Duggan and in 1967 by Pat McDermott. It was therefore, appropriate that three members of that group should return together in May 2009.

Joe’s flight from Hamburg touched down at Dublin Airport on the 29th April. Mike was in Ireland on a visit to family in Cork, and flew up to Dublin on the 30th. We spent the day of sightseeing around Dublin, reminiscing and catching up on the story of our individual lives over the past four decades. We made a pensive visit to Bohernabreena Cemetery, to pause and remember the priests we had known as well as Brother Paddy, who now lie at rest in the White Fathers’ burial plot there. On the following morning the three of us headed for Blacklion, following what would have been our ‘traditional’ route from Templeogue in the 1960’s.

Our route took us through the south west suburbs of Dublin, across the Liffey and to Phibsborough, then heading the 50 km to Navan. Routing via Kells and Virginia we by-passed Cavan Town, then on through Belturbet and Ballyconnell to Bawnboy. The road began to climb as we headed for Glangevlin via Maguire’s Chair, and then we descended towards the ‘old road’ on the outskirts of Blacklion. A left turn took us past Killinagh Church, and to the junction with the N16 primary route. Stopping before making a right turn facing our ‘alma mater’ we commented on the sign “White Fathers Caves” – it is fixed facing the wrong way!!!!! The weather wasn’t terribly kind, so we looked from the car upon what was our ‘home’ for two years until we pulled into Lough MacNean Park, with its appropriate sculpture “IMAGINE an island where all could in peace – Make it real.” on the shores of the lake.

Mike O’Callaghan and Joe McIntyre, at MacNean   

Looking through the sculpture out onto the Lough

The “Imagine” Sculpture at Lough MacNean Park

Barely glimpsing our alma mater
from Lough MacNean

We had the place to ourselves, save for a ‘lonesome’ swan. We could barely glimpse the former St Augustine’s. It used to be possible, but Mother Nature has contrived to ‘block’ most of what we once could see. You can’t stop trees from growing!!

From the lake shore we drove towards Blacklion and a ‘date’ with Bud Greene. The obligatory photographs were taken en route.

Whatever happened to Learga?

Joe and Mike - “The boys are back in town"

Having called on Bud, and given the warmest of welcomes (as always has been the case), we drove with her in the car over to Belcoo. Arriving at the former station house, Mairéad, Olivia and Charlie O’Dolan opened their door and their hearts to extend to us a mighty “Céad Míle Fáilte” (a hundred thousand welcomes). A very generous glass of what Joe called “Belcoo Water” was offered to us. The same “Belcoo Water” is 40% proof, goes under the alias of ‘Powers,’ and comes from Midleton in County Cork – Mike’s home county, and he’s a tee-totaller!! Soon a delicious lunch was laid before us, and we settled down to talk of good times past, and present days to be savoured. It was wonderful be back in Belcoo, and in such good company.

Bud Greene, Mairéad and Olivia O’Dolan, Joe McIntyre and Mike O’Callaghan

Mairéad and Olivia, remember well ‘The Blacklions’ and their antics. They obviously enjoyed what we got up to 40+ years ago, so they arranged for a friend, Joe McGowan accompanied by his lady, Nicola, to call. Joe McGowan sings in local hostelries, and was prevailed upon to bring his guitar. What followed was both spontaneous and natural. We had not practiced at all, despite the intervening four decades since the last effort. The former ‘Blacklions’ started to sing, to Joe McGowan’s accompaniment. Joe McIntyre then ‘took command’ of the guitar, and the old repertoire, including Olivia’s favourite “Sloop John B” was re-enacted for a good hour or so. Maybe we needed a little reminder of the words of some songs, but we gelled as they say. The ‘concert’ was concluded with Joe McGowan singing his own composition “Take Me Back to the Black,” a very appropriate song to end with.

Singing in Belcoo again - Mike, John and Joe, back on song

As the impromptu session ended, another surprise which had been laid on specially for us came to light. Our great friend Ludge McGovern from Glangevlin who had driven us here, there and everywhere in his trusty minibus called, having been invited to by our hosts. This was a fantastic reunion. We were able to tell Ludge how much we individually had appreciated all he did for us, and let him know that we were sure that others from St Augustine’s would have felt exactly the same. I can truthfully say that he had never reflected on such a possibility – he did what he was asked to do, and thought of it as just his job.

He recalled one particular trip to the Giant’s Causeway in 1967, which has featured in Brendan Gormley’s contribution to the Gallery. He was asked to take a group from Blacklion on a day trip, there and back. Fr. Eugene Lewis suggested that a 100 mile detour via the Antrim coast on the way home would be appreciated. Ludge did it, hiding the fact that he had some concerns about his bus (which he confessed to me was a converted van). All returned safely – as usual. It was truly emotional to see his reaction when Olivia showed him a photo from The Pelicans’ website, taken of him and two of us in June 1967, as well as photos taken at the Giants Causeway and near Errigal.

We had to check into a Bed & Breakfast about a mile away, at 6 o’clock, and I wanted to leave my car there. It is not difficult to guess who followed in his car and drove us back to Belcoo – that’s right – Ludge McGovern, happy to help as always.  Now in his 80’s Ludge is still working driving minibuses and buses with his son. Before he left Belcoo, he went to collect his wife Susan, and introduced us to her. As they say “behind every good man there is a good woman” and we saw that to be true in Ludge’s case.

'Ludge' McGovern, Paul Fletcher, Joe McIntyre, John Madden, John Byrne and and Ian Buckmaster
June 1967

Joe, John, Ludge and Mike
- “The boys are back in town"

Having bade farewell to Ludge and Susan, Joe McGowan and Nicola had also to leave. The time had come for a group photograph, taken by Nicola.

Olivia, Mairéad and Charlie O’Dolan, Mike O’Callaghan, Bud Greene, Joe McIntyre, John Byrne and Joe McGowan

After a lovely evening meal, it was time to do something we had never done before.
In the company of Mairéad and Olivia, we crossed into Blacklion and into the Main Street.


We were introduced there to several local people who remember the White Fathers with affection. It was good to meet them, albeit for a very short while. As midnight came, we returned to Belcoo and to our Bed & Breakfast.

The morning of Saturday 2nd May dawned bright and clear. As we walked to the car, in the distance, across Lough MacNean, we could clearly see the former St Augustine’s. We had often seen the Fermanagh hills, and Holywell Church, looking across the lake from the college, so this was a very different view. A photograph was a must – needless to say.

The former St Augustine’s College as seen from the Fermanagh side of Lough MacNean

The time had come for us to take our leave of our dear friends in Belcoo and Blacklion. We called to visit St Patrick’s Holy Well on the western fringes of Belcoo, before saying our ‘goodbyes’ first to Mairéad, Olivia and Charlie, and then to Bud Greene. As we headed for Sligo, and eventually Dublin, we paused for a few minutes at Killinagh Cemetery remembering in prayer Peter McKenzie our fellow student of years gone by. Joe would have particular memories of Peter.

Water rising at St. Patrick’s Holy Well, Belcoo.

The grave of Peter McKenzie, Blacklion.

Lough MacNean with Thor Mountain beyond.

Glencar Lough and Ben Bulben

As we followed the road towards the Atlantic coast, a brief stop was made beside Lough MacNean and looking towards Thor Mountain.  We passed through Glenfarne with its Rainbow Ballroom (where we had sung as members of the ‘Blacklions’) and then Manorhamilton before stopping at a lay-by overlooking Glencar Lough. The weather was perfect, as we reminisced on days out spent in the area. A brief detour took us on to Drumcliffe and a welcome cup of coffee in the craft shop and restaurant which adjoins the church and cemetery where W.B. Yeats is buried. A short drive south took us to Dooney Rock and the shore of Lough Gill in which is to be seen the Lake Isle of Innisfree famed in Yeats’ poem of the same name.

We chatted away for all of the 200 km of road which would bring us back into Dublin, but specifically to Cypress Grove in Templeogue, and a pre-arranged with Fr. Ian Buckmaster M.Afr with whom we had studied in Blacklion and in Broome Hall, and also our fellow Pelican, Robbie Dempsey. With Fr. Ian we spoke about former confrères, where they are, what news he had of them. We also learned a great deal about the activities of the society in general and his work in particular. It was good that 25% of our year in Blacklion and almost half of those who progressed onto Broome Hall should be together again. It had been almost 42 years since we had left Blacklion. As Robbie joined us the reminiscing naturally continued.

Mike O’Callaghan, John Byrne, Joe McIntyre   and Fr. Ian Buckmaster M.Afr.

Mike O’Callaghan, Robbie Dempsey, Joe McIntyre and Fr. Ian Buckmaster M.Afr.

We had hoped to go to a local restaurant and have a meal with Fr. Ian and Robbie. Unfortunately Ian could not join us, but happily Robbie did. We exchanged memories of days past, and things more current, before heading off to our respective places to lay down our heads, but think of the events we had lived and relived.

On Sunday 3rd May, Mike, Joe and I were back at Dublin Airport. Joe was heading home to Hamburg, Mike to his family in Cork, and in due course back to his home in Canada. For me, there was a short run around Dublin’s infamous M50 to where I live. The long planned reunion had taken place, passed as if in the twinkling of an eye, and gone off without a hitch. We each take away our individual, and I’m sure very personal memories, but we plan, deo volante, to return and do it again in 2011. Perhaps other former students of St Augustine’s College, Blacklion might like to join us…………………

To have shared in this reunion was a privilege to say the least. A very sincere and heartfelt word of thanks to Mairéad, Olivia and Charlie for their kindness, thoughtfulness and generosity is a must. It is a fact that without them, a journey of memories such as we have made would have been very empty. It is also worth repeating what I have said before. As people who had parachuted into the communities of Blacklion and Belcoo, stayed two short years and then flew out again, it would be reasonable to think that we would have no reason to be remembered. We are remembered, and not just us, everyone who ever sojourned in St Augustine’s, is thought of with affection even today, almost 30 years after the lights of the college were turned off for the last time. It says a great deal about the people of these lakeside Ulster villages. God bless them all!