LEO THE LION OF LETTERFRACK

Re­cently re­tired school prin­ci­pal Leo Hal­lis­sey played a cen­tral role in con­nect­ing a Con­nemara vil­lage with its nat­u­ral sur­round­ings

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - OUTDOORS - Lorna Siggins West­ern Cor­re­spon­dent

‘He sits at the back of the room. He lurks around the edge of the gath­er­ing. He’s down the cor­ri­dors some­where, do­ing some­thing. He’s a nice coun­try fel­low, you’d say. Very quiet.”

“Very wrong. He’s the ‘Lion of Letterfrack’. Ob­ser­vant. Alert. Un­ruf­fled. Mighty. Bristling with good ideas, nur­tur­ing and lis­ten­ing.”

“Not a stranger to anger at our care­less­ness to­wards the world we live in. Not tak­ing re­sis­tance for granted. Work­ing for it, seek­ing ways out of the co­nun­drum . . .”

With a sharp film-maker’s eye, Lelia Doolan cap­tures the im­pres­sions of many on meet­ing Leo Hal­lis­sey. The men­tor, teacher and com­mu­nity ac­tivist has spent the past 34 years host­ing over 100 fes­ti­vals, and more, to cel­e­brate a long love af­fair with his adopted north Con­nemara. These achieve­ments, how­ever, would not have been pos­si­ble with­out his wife Clare O’Toole, his col­leagues and his neigh­bours.

Many a mu­sic ses­sion, sports event, book fair, ban­quet, pa­rade and talk took place in “class­rooms, in tea­rooms, in bar­rooms and fre­quently in no rooms at all, but in the great out­doors of bog and beach, shore and swamp, wood­land and wet­land”, ac­cord­ing to Ar­ti­san House pub­lish­ers Mary Ruddy and Vin­cent Mur­phy of Letterfrack.

“And much of the most cher­ished me­mories were cre­ated in your wel­com­ing and hos­pitable home amongst your fam­ily, Oisín, Fíachra and Clíodna – ta­bles laden with food, an end­less sup­ply of fresh bak­ing, con­vivial com­pany, best mu­sic, a dash of mad­ness, all of­fered with style and nat­u­ral grace,” they write in the in­tro­duc­tion to a “magic book”, 150 con­tri­bu­tions col­lated for a ban­quet to mark the re­tire­ment of Hal­lis­sey and O’Toole.

Hal­lis­sey has been much moved, and not a lit­tle mor­ti­fied, by the ex­tent of the trib­utes. He says he still has all the en­ergy of the “bit of a looper with a mes­sianic zeal” – zeal that fu­elled the foun­da­tion of the Con­nemara En­vi­ron­men­tal Ed­u­ca­tion and Cul­tural Cen­tre.

Hal­lis­sey stresses this body has al­ways been, and will con­tinue to be, a com­mu­nity ef­fort, and re­mem­bers the con­tri­bu­tion of the late Aingeal Ní Chong­haile who died ear­lier this year.

Letterfrack vil­lage, 13 km north of Clif­den, was founded af­ter the Famine by Quak­ers James and Mary El­lis. It was still syn­ony­mous with grief and suf­fer­ing when Hal­lis­sey, orig­i­nally from Co Clare, moved from Dublin to take up a pri­mary teach­ing post.

More than 2,800 boys had passed through St Joseph’s In­dus­trial School in Letterfrack from 1888 to 1974, and 126 com­plaints against 68 in­di­vid­u­als as­so­ci­ated with it were re­ceived by the Com­mis­sion to In­quire into Child Abuse in 2000.

Shortly af­ter the in­dus­trial school’s clo­sure, a group of com­mu­nity ac­tivists pur­chased the school build­ings and con­vinced the State to trans­form the farm and lands around Di­a­mond Moun­tain into what is now Con­nemara Na­tional Park.

‘Vi­sion­ary’ founders

“The founders of Con­nemara West plc were vi­sion­ar­ies and it is they who laid the foun­da­tions for what we do now,” Hal­lis­sey says, ex­tolling the work of two sur­viv­ing mem­bers, Joe O’Toole and Michael O’Neill.

The for­mer in­dus­trial school’s main build­ing now houses the Gal­way-Mayo In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy’s fur­ni­ture de­sign and wood tech­nol­ogy depart­ment, while the Con­ser­va­tion Letterfrack com­pany, run by Sven Haber­mann, un­der­takes work for State in­sti­tu­tions and oth­ers, with clients rang­ing from Marsh’s Li­brary and Adare Manor in Co Lim­er­ick, to the Na­tional Gallery of Ire­land.

“Just think of it,” says Hal­lis­sey, “in this small vil­lage we have over 500 peo­ple in­volved in ed­u­ca­tion at all lev­els, from the creche and pri­mary school to an adult ed­u­ca­tion cen­tre, Youth Reach, and GMIT, while Con­nemara West has fur­ther plans for a com­plex for over­seas stu­dents . . . It means that ac­com­mo­da­tion for vis­i­tors is oc­cu­pied for 90 per cent of the year. When the stu­dents leave, the sum­mer tourists ar­rive.”

“We have cre­ated a place as­so­ci­ated with kind­ness and cre­ative, and beauty and wel­come,”he adds.

The model is “a shared space, of love and care, above all for the stranger”, Hal­lis­sey says, quot­ing from The Prophets are Weep­ing , a poem Pres­i­dent Michael D Higgins wrote in 2014 af­ter the Yazidi peo­ple were driven from their moun­tains in north­ern Iraq.

The poem is one of 10 which form the Letterfrack po­etry trail, lo­cated on plaques in the Con­nemara Na­tional Park, the Con­nemara West cen­tre and Letterfrack vil­lage. Con­trib­u­tors Eva Bourke, Moya Can­non, Louis de Paor, Theo Dor­gan, Michael Gor­man, Rita Ann Higgins, Joan McBreen, Paula Mee­han, Mary O’Mal­ley, Rita Ann Higgins, Theo Dor­gan and Paula Mee­han re­flect the won­der of the land­scape bor­dered by moun­tains, is­lands and At­lantic.

The col­lec­tion has been pub­lished by Ar­ti­san House, with an ac­com­pa­ny­ing CD of the po­ets read­ing their work. Mu­sic by Conor Keane is per­formed by 40 young play­ers and their teach­ers Marie Walsh, Mary Ber­gin, Yvonne and Liz Kane and Micheál Ó Cuaig, while teenager Séa­mus Ó Flatharta sings Johnny Seoighe, a ten­der ren­di­tion of famine hard­ship.

Mu­sic and mu­si­cians have been in­te­gral to Hal­lis­sey’s com­mu­nity ac­tivism and en­vi­ron­men­tal work, with Sharon Shan­non barely out of teenage years when she first played at one of his fes­ti­vals, and Seán Tyrrell per­form­ing his in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Brian Mer­ri­man’s Mid­night Court.

Open house

Hal­lis­sey and O’Toole stretched their “open house” to its lim­its in those early days. “I re­mem­ber wak­ing up one morn­ing and step­ping over var­i­ous bod­ies on the floor, in­clud­ing Seán Tyrrell fast asleep, swad­dled in a cur­tain,” Hal­lis­sey says, laugh­ing.

Hal­lis­sey has no in­ten­tion of pulling back from much of his com­mu­nity work, as he is still di­rec­tor of three com­pa­nies. The fes­ti­vals will con­tinue, he hopes, and the an­nual Inish­bofin sum­mer school will run un­der the tute­lage of Dr Noirín Burke of Gal­way At­lantaquaria.

“That sum­mer school works so well for the is­land and for us,” says Hal­lis­sey. “One of the hall­marks of its suc­cess is that re­tired teach­ers will ac­tu­ally re­turn to at­tend it.”

Letterfrack bucks the “ru­ral Ire­land is dy­ing” trend, he knows, but it re­quires con­stant vig­i­lance. Cen­tral to Hal­lis­sey’s ethos is a re­fusal to ac­cept a “one size fits all” pol­icy adopted by the State, whether it is an ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem that re­wards “per­for­mance rather than ex­pres­sion”, or so­cial hous­ing that doesn’t al­low for in­di­vid­ual de­sign, or eco­nomic mod­els that do not treat the com­mu­nity as stake­hold­ers and ex­ploit, rather than sus­tain and nur­ture, ex­ist­ing re­sources.

“We have Clúid hous­ing as­so­ci­a­tion work­ing with us, and we have set up Con­nemara Care to pro­vide home­care pack­ages to the el­derly and vul­ner­a­ble, but we need more imag­i­na­tion from the Gov­ern­ment – ex­tend­ing from lo­cal au­thor­ity ar­chi­tects who al­low for some in­di­vid­u­al­ism, to ini­tia­tives which can make the most of our lo­cal fresh food and al­low the thou­sands of tourists com­ing through here to ex­pe­ri­ence that,”he says.

Fo­rum Con­nemara also has plans to work on sus­tain­able farm­ing and walk­ing tourism mod­els in the Twelve Bens and Maum­turks. It re­cently se­cured a grant un­der the Euro­pean In­no­va­tion Part­ner­ship fund ad­min­is­tered by the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture.

“We aim to mirror what Dr Bren­dan Dun­ford and col­leagues have done with the Bur­ren farm­ers through Bur­ren Beo,” he says. “We aim to pro­vide a tem­plate for how a coastal com­mu­nity can thrive.”

In the mean­time, Hal­lis­sey has grand­chil­dren to spend more time with and more peo­ple to meet.

In the “magic book” pre­pared for the re­tire­ment ban­quet, Tyrrell re­calls over­hear­ing a con­ver­sa­tion in a book­shop, where a woman de­scribed how her chil­dren’s teacher “brings them out into the bog and the sea shore fill­ing their minds with the won­ders of na­ture.”

“I said to my­self that has to be the one and only Leo Hal­lis­sey she is talk­ing about. Hon­oured to call him friend.”

Letterfrack Po­etry Trail book and CD (¤12.50) is pub­lished by the Con­nemara En­vi­ron­men­tal Ed­u­ca­tional and Cul­ture Cen­tre and Ar­ti­san House. See ar­ti­san­house.ie

PHO­TO­GRAPH: AOIFE HER­RIOTT

Leo Hal­lis­sey and Clare O’Toole: “We have cre­ated a place as­so­ci­ated with kind­ness and cre­ative, and beauty and wel­come.”

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