Road Names in Letterkenny
As part of Culture Night, Kieran Kelly, Chairman of the Letterkenny Historical Society, was invited by the local Community Heritage Group to take part in a lively discussion and debate in Gallagher’s Hotel centred around the naming of streets and areas in the town. Should they be named after prominent local people or national figures, and should certain streets be renamed accordingly? Also taking part were Cllr. Jimmy Kavanagh and Brendan Delap while MC for the evening was Brian Walsh. Below is a transcript of the speech delivered last night by Kieran. Feel free to comment with your own suggestions and if you agree/disagree with the opinions expressed.
“Welcome everyone this evening to Gallagher’s Hotel and I’d like to begin by asking where we are tonight? Are we at the bottom of the High Road? Or are we at the top of the Main Street? Are we between Speer’s Lane and McClure’s Terrace – two roads named after prominent Letterkenny families? Or are we opposite Justice Walsh Road? Of course if you’re a Townie, you might simply reply with “we’re at the traffic lights!” The answer though all depends on your own point of view. There’s not necessarily one correct answer. While the official name of the road opposite us here is the Ramelton Road, you try and tell the locals around here that it’s not the Port Road. The High Road was once known as the Kilmacrennan Road but again at one time it was also commonly referred to as the Asylum Road. In fact this area in front of us was once known as “The Diamond”, owing to the convergence of the four roads. So it is all a matter of opinion about where we are.
Of course, roads have to have names so that we can distinguish them from each other and for us to know where we are but is it right that they should be named after people? The Main Street, the Convent Road, the Port Road, the Ramelton Road, New Line Road, the High Road – all prominent roads in Letterkenny and all NOT named after anyone. Should those in fact be given names after a prominent person in recognition of their achievements? And should that person be a local personality or one of national importance? Justice Walsh Road opposite us here, named after District Judge Louis J. Walsh, the grandfather of our host here tonight, runs past the Courthouse where he served tirelessly for so many years. But should that road have been called something else – the Link Road perhaps – especially now that the Courthouse is moving away to new premises? Well, the rights and wrongs of examples such as these are what we are here tonight to discuss and debate. We’ll all be giving our own views but for now, I’d like to just give my own tuppence worth!
The Justice Walsh Road perhaps quite fittingly connects to the Pearse Road – fitting as Louis J. Walsh was once a student of Patrick Pearse in Dublin and so the real people, like the roads, were connected. (By the way, for those Townies present here tonight and wondering where the Pearse Road is, I am of course referring to the Railway Road!) The common reply whenever anyone questions why we should have a road named after Patrick Pearse in Letterkenny is that he worked on the Pulpit in the Cathedral before he became a barrister. However, while it’s true he may have signed a few documents relating to that job, it is the well-respected opinion that it is actually his brother Willie who gets the credit for the work on the Pulpit. So if in fact the road was named due to a local connection to the Cathedral, shouldn’t it be called the Willie Pearse Road? No, as is evident to many, following its construction in an area once occupied with railway lines, the road was named the Pearse Road to garner an association for the town with the Republican history of our country.
But why, some may ask, would we want to associate ourselves so much with Irish Republican history? Well the obvious reason was, subconsciously or not, to distance ourselves from our Ulster Plantation origins as a Market Town. Being associated with the Plantation in the Republic of Ireland was obviously not palatable to the powers that be in the various local governments of the new Irish State. Another example of this locally was that despite the primary evidence of newspapers and letters stating that it was Buncrana, many still cling to the misguided belief that the so called father of Irish Republicanism, Theobald Wolfe Tone, was captured in Letterkenny in 1798 – so much so that the Council even named a housing estate after him at the top of the New Line Road.
Now I won’t get into the whole Wolfe Tone issue again after last year’s debates (!) but suffice to say that no matter what the primary evidence proves, people will not be dissuaded from this connection of the town to Republican history. Why? Because we constantly hear that Wolfe Tone’s own son stated it was Letterkenny that he was captured in. Now his son was 3 years old at the time of his capture and only wrote about it years later, having no memory of the event and relying on second or third hand statements. But if his son said it, it must be true right? Well, tonight I want to state clearly and categorically that in 1981, when I was 3 years old, my father, Hughie Kelly from Glenswilly scored a hat-trick for Finn Harps in the Cup Final. It doesn’t matter what the papers from the time say, his son said it here tonight and in 50 or 100 years time, it becomes fact, because I, his son, said it, so it must be true!
This desire amongst many people to be associated with a Republican history and move away from our Plantation origins by naming places after people with absolutely no connection to the town of Letterkenny isn’t just limited to Patrick Pearse and Theobald Wolfe Tone. Charlie Daly was a Kerry man, shot at Drumboe near Stranorlar as part of the Civil War owing to his actions as part of the Anti-Treaty IRA. Yet he has a terrace of houses named after him in Letterkenny. Neil O’Boyle (nicknamed Plunkett after his love of Joseph Plunkett) was born in Burtonport and was killed in Wicklow in the Civil War – again an Anti-Treaty IRA man with zero connections to the town and yet on the Back Road we have…Plunkett O’Boyle Terrace. Why?
For those that know their Irish history, I mention that they were both Anti-Treaty as that was the side led by Eamonn DeValera and as such were revered in the Fianna Fáil party. Now DeValera did visit the town here on several occasions, there are photos going back to 1918 showing him campaigning in the town or visiting for the funeral of Bishop McNeely in 1963 and the ordination of Bishop McFeely in 1965 for example but actual connections to the town? None. No family connections. No evidence of actively furthering the progress of the town. And yet in 1973, two years before his death, the local Council decided to name the new relief road to the hospital after him.
There’s an old joke that there aren’t many streets or roads around Ireland named after DeValera compared to other Irish leaders because, well, they couldn’t find a road that was either long enough or crooked enough. They certainly managed to find one in Letterkenny.
But as this road ran through an area once known as the Oat Fields to connect to the Hospital, and especially now that the landmark Letterkenny business is gone, wouldn’t it be better to rename it Oatfields Road to preserve the memory of the factory? Or if you really need to have it named after a politician, why not name it after the Uncrowned King of Ireland himself, Charles Stewart Parnell, whose ancestors it has been proven held lands exactly where the road passes. President Michael D. Higgins himself even mentioned that connection when he visited the town recently – a surprise to many people on the day. If the President of Ireland is aware of that connection, shouldn’t the people that live here not also be aware? And it shouldn’t be that big a problem to rename it. What businesses on the road would have to change their address?
I am not of course picking on Fianna Fáil here tonight, I am merely pointing out the realities of the dominance of the party at the time certain roads or terraces were being named and the desire of many, subconsciously or not, to associate us with a history that is National and not local. In the interest of fairness, we also have the Dr. McGinley Road, a prominent Fine Gaeler, although it’s fair to state that the road is named more for his role as a doctor rather than as a politician and anyway, he does hold an actual connection to the town. Of course, Neil T. Blaney, of Independent Fianna Fáil, also has a road named after him in the town; as does Paddy Harte of Fine Gael.
It must be said though that in recent years we have seen a move away from naming new roads and areas after National personalities and more towards local people. In Oldtown, for example, we have Charlie Collins Terrace and James Larkin Court. We have the Joe Bonner Road and John McLaughlin’s Way and of course the Bernard McGlinchey Town Park – a Fianna Fáil man he may be, but he does have a huge connection to the town. Most recently we have seen the opening of the Jim McCormick Memorial Garden next to the cinema owing to his tireless years on the Tidy Towns Committee.
But as ever with these things, are we perhaps overlooking other prominent people who deserve the accolade of being remembered in a street name. For example, Rev. John Kinnear, from Dungannon originally, but a man who made his home in Letterkenny for many years as Minister in the Presbyterian Church. In 1880, he won his seat as an MP in Westminster and was an ardent fighter for Tenant Rights for over 50 years – a hugely respected man during his lifetime amongst the people of the town and further afield. And yet today, his grave is hidden away in the Church of Ireland graveyard while his former manse has been tumbled and rebuilt as offices. Could that building not be named Kinnear House for example or even better, the small artery that runs between the AIB and the Presbyterian Church could be named “Kinnear Lane”.
Or what about the Boyds of Ballymacool? Of course, they have been painted regularly as the “evil landlords”. It is often reported that at a large Tenant Rights meeting in 1870 at the Market Square, John Robert Boyd was booed and hissed at by the crowd in attendance. But what is not as widely reported was a newspaper article from April 12th 1880 showing that the very same man, John Robert Boyd, assited the poor and destitute of the area by serving on a Poor Relief Committee along with the Bishop of Raphoe Michael Logue and Rev. Kinnear and many other prominent local businessmen and clergy. The Town Clock so beloved as a part of the town’s history was paid for and erected by the Boyds and through their development of the Corn Market and various other local industries, greatly enhanced the standing of Letterkenny between the 17th and 19th centuries. If we were to name a road or street after the Boyds, we could even invite their descendant, Patti Boyd – ex wife of both George Harrison and Eric Clapton – to officially open the road, which would serve as a great tourist boom for the area. And anyone who thinks it would be wrong to preserve the name of a landlord locally, I would be delighted to discuss the idea with you. Maybe we could meet up at Mount Southwell Terrace?
But what about others? Who else could we choose from? If we ever get the new bridge over the Swilly, the obvious name that it deserves should of course be the “Patsy O’Donnell Bridge” owing to his constant campaigning for such a bridge to be constructed. And what about James Duffy, the Victoria Cross recipient for bravery? Or Nurse Peg Harkin who delivered perhaps over 2,000 children to Letterkenny families? The list goes on. These people, and so many others, have more of a connection to Letterkenny than St. Oliver Plunkett ever had. And yet, where are their roads?
There are so many prominent local people that we could choose from who would deserve the accolade of having a road named after them and, crucially, it should not based on any party political persuasion but rather on what they did for progress and development of the town. Presently, we have a road that connects the roundabout above the hospital to Zeus at the bottom of Lisnennan. Can anyone tell me the name of that road? The Business Park Road. Surely we can do better than that. We have plenty to choose from if we take the time to think about it.
But in the end, we come back to our original question – should roads be named after people? And should we focus on national or local personalities? I think I have made my own feelings clear this evening. But as with everything, like where we are having this talk tonight, it’s all a matter of opinion. Go raibh maith agaibh go léir.”