Castlebar and Sligo – Three Notable Differences

Last Sunday, I was asked to speak as part of John Healy's very popular 'Sunday Morning Coming Down' event which traditionally closes the Wild Atlantic Words Festival. The following is the little talk I gave, just for the record. Thanks, John, for allowing me to share the stage with such esteemed company. I had a lovely time. 

                                            Photo by John Mee

Good morning. I am delighted to be welcomed into such lovely company this Sunday morning. John and I thought it might be nice if I talked about some of the differences I see between my current home place, which is very much here in Castlebar, and my original home place.

Because I come from a distant and an exotic land. A place far far away where, if you ever intend to journey to it, you had better pack your ‘samages’. Yes, folks, as John said in his introduction. I come from Sligo Town.

And I’m going to undermine myself from the start. There aren’t really very many differences between the two towns. We are all proud West of Ireland, Connaught folk, hardy and true, and you’d best not mess with us, if you value your trousers.

There aren’t many differences. But there are a few.

I’ve decided to restrict myself to three differences. Two reasons. Firstly it gives me a little frame to hang my contribution on, a little form, a little template. Secondly, it gives you an idea of when, ‘In ainm Dé’ is he ever going to be finished?

I should also qualify these observations by saying that I left Sligo as a young man, and I haven’t been back much, and I came here as an older man, and I haven’t left much. So just bear that in mind.

Difference Number One, The Mall.

We have The Mall in Castlebar and we have The Mall in Sligo. The Mall in Sligo is pretty good. It’s really just a street but it has the beautiful Carly Parish, Church of Ireland Church, it has the Model Arts Centre and it has the Hospital, which is always very handy at a pinch.

The Sligo Mall is pretty good. But, lads, it cannot hold a candle to the Castlebar Mall.

Castlebar Mall played a crucial part in convincing me to come to Castlebar to live. I’ll tell you why. Back in 1996, Patricia and I decided to come back after fifteen good years in London. There were two reasons. The first was that we had our first son, John. At the time, we didn’t know he was our first son, he was just our son. But setting that aside, we decided us that it was time to come home. Trish is from Galway and I’m_ well you know where I’m from - so Castlebar seemed like a good median point, even though neither of us had ever been here. Then when Tom Carr Architects took out an advert in the British Architect’s Journal, looking for people like me. It seemed like an even better idea.

I drove to Castlebar from Sligo on one of those non-days that fall between Christmas and New Year. I parked up by the old Post Office and I walked down to Burleigh House, just at the traffic lights. You know it. You do. I met with Tom in his little office on the top floor and he was charming and kind, as he always was, and it all seemed to go pretty well.

Except for one thing.

The whole top floor, every room, was full of people. People who were, if you will pardon the expression, working their arses off.

Remember this was the time between Christmas and New Year and I had never in my life worked between Christmas and New Year. The thought of coming home to some Brave New Ireland that didn’t even allow the poor buggers a day or two off for the Christmas. Well, it struck fear in my mortal soul.

Now, as it turned out, that the was the only year that Tom and his team ever worked over the Christmas. That year was just a wild busy year. An aberration. But aberration or not, it threw me off. I came out of Burleigh House, pretty darned sure I didn’t want to give up my happy existence in England to come and live in a town that didn’t even celebrate Christmas.

My mind was made up.

And I came out of Burleigh House, and I crossed the road up at Moran’s Auctioneers and I walked round the corner and onto the Mall… and I changed my mind.

At the time, we had a little house in Twickenham, just off Twickenham Green. And I loved that village green. And I’d never seen an Irish town with its own village green and yet here it was, in all its winter glory. It was almost as if the town was telling me, ‘Come on home, Son. Anything you have in Twickenham; you can have here.’

And we came, Valentine’s Day 1997 and we didn’t know anyone. And we were welcomed, in various places, in various ways. But the Mall – the Castlebar Mall – has always remained very dear to me. I cross it four times every working day, walking from home to work and back up and down again at lunch time. On Summer’s evenings, I’ll often circle round it a few times close to midnight, maybe listening out for a fox. And every Christmas Night, while the Strictly Come Dancing special is on, you’ll find me down there, soaking up the silence and the cold.

The Castlebar Mall is my first difference between Sligo and Here... and it’s one I really love.

Difference Number Two

Honestly, I’m not looking to rub any salt in any wounds here. But there is no getting away from it. If you want to talk about differences between Sligo Town and Castlebar, then at some point, you have to talk about the GAA.

There is a long tradition of GAA football in the County of Sligo. There are wonderful clubs and wonderful players. Their fans would follow the Sligo Team to the ends of the earth, or the county border at least.


In the part of Sligo Town where I grew up. We did not know what the GAA was. Markievicz Park was just a big place up beside the Old Cemetery where a mysterious traffic jam happened once or twice every year. For us townies, or at least us Riversideys, Gaelic Football simply did not exist. How did we fill our days? You might ask. Who did we weep for?

The answer, as you probably know, was Sligo Rovers. Every second Sunday, as a boy, I would walk out to the Showgrounds with my dad and I would alternately freeze and shout at great men like Fagan and Stenson. When Dad was old and I was a bit older too, we would reconvene there on some Friday nights and they were some of the best nights. After he died, Rovers held a minute’s silence for him before the match. He was that kind of supporter.

But although, I don’t come from GAA stock, I have come to have a huge respect for it. And particularly the Castlebar variety.

Here, it is everything. And as a person who often tends to come second in things, I tend to think of it all as a huge win. And the huge win I see, as a bit of an outsider, is the joy it brings to people here. And yes, of course, there is pain as well.

In the film ‘Shadowlands’, Joy Davidman says: “The Pain now is part of the Happiness then. That's the deal.”

I was lucky enough to get an unusual view of that happiness just last year.

September 11th, 2021, I happened to be driving back from Dublin to Castlebar after an overnight stay. What I saw on that trip stays with me. I wrote about it, the day after, and I called the piece ‘Driving the Wrong Way Down the Road to the All-Ireland final’, which is fairly self-explanatory. Here’s a little bit.

“When you’re in Castlebar in the weeks before the big match, you may see little flags attached to a car. You may see a licence plate illicitly changed out for a red and green ‘Mayo4Sam’ sentiment.

But when practically every car going the other way is decked out in the Red and Green, when every car is packed with families and friends, it’s an entirely different effect. Every petrol station along the way was replete with fans and flag-ridden cars. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh they went past me. I couldn’t help but wave and occasionally toot my horn at people I really didn’t know. I glanced in my rear-view mirror and decided that the person behind me thought I was a feckin’ lunatic.

Mayo fans never give up. Never will. It is a key part of what defines them. Every year that they can, they will ride in that parade, filled with pride and hope and expectation. All the arid years that have gone before only adding further to the love and the respect that the place has for its mighty team.

Castlebar is different to Sligo when it comes to GAA and, to my mind, it is a really brilliant difference.

Difference Number Three

The third and final difference, well it hardly qualifies as a difference at all. It’s something that anyone who has ever moved from their childhood place to another place will probably know quite well.

And it is simply… the faces.

Whenever I venture back to Sligo and, sadly, that’s often for a funeral, I see faces of people I have known. If I walk around the town, the faces of the people who pass me by are imprinted on me like a tiny bird might have its mother’s face imprinted on its brain. And it goes further than that. I see teenagers and children and young men and women and I just know who their parents are from their faces, from the imprints that the faces of the people of my hometown have made on me.

And I said this was hardly a difference at all and the reason is this: It’s happening all over again.

After twenty five years of being here with you in Castlebar. I am becoming imprinted anew. I see your faces and I feel them embed themselves into my tiny brain.

I’m nearly at the end. Just one final thing.

Back near the start, I said that Trish and I came home for two reasons, but I only told you one of them. The second reason relates to a film I saw on the King’s Road in 1987. It was called Roxanne. Steve Martin played a modern day Cyrano De Bergerac character, with a big, long nose. In the film Steve Martin lived in a small town, and he knew everybody and everybody knew him. I came out of that film and I said to Trish. Someday, not now, but someday, I would like for us to live in a town like that. A place where people know who we are and where we know who they are. And Patricia agreed.

And it’s happened, right here in Castlebar. These days, I am always late for work after lunch because on my way home and back I meet so many people who I know and we smile and chat. Perhaps it’ll never be quite as embedded as the childhood imprints of a Sligo upbringing. But bonds have been forged here in Castlebar and firm friendships have been made.

And the first thing I said, when I stood up, was how delighted I am to be welcomed into such lovely company. It turns out that wasn’t just a simple platitude. That was the truth. The differences between my Sligo home and my Castlebar home, day by day, year by year become fewer and fewer.

Such that, here today, with you, at Sunday Morning Coming Down, I feel very much… at home. So, thank you.

Wild Atlantic Words - Story Cube Sessions 2022

(This story was devised in a Story Cubes Workshop with the Third Class of the Educate Together National School, Castlebar, for the 2022 Wild Atlantic Words Festival in Castlebar. The writers were Alanna, Caitlin, Lilly, Aoife, Arya, Ryan, Kaz, Alex, Joseph, Noah, Dawid, Orin and Ken.

 Special Thanks to the Teachers Liam and Linda who were great.

The nine Story Cubes that were thrown were: a Sleepy Donkey, a Sheep, a Book, a Pyramid, a Parachute, Planet Earth, a Directional Arrow, a Beatle, and a Tent. The elements we ended up using in the story have been underlined above.)

 The Enlightenment of Beetroot and Cherry

Beetroot was a sleepy donkey who lived in a hilly field all by himself. To the south he could see the far away mountains and to the north he could see the small lake shining in the sun. Every day, at noon, Farmer Loftus brought him his hay and his beets, and he ate them all in one go then usually went to sleep again. Life was a bit slow and, although he wasn’t always sure, Beetroot reckoned he was at least a little bit unhappy.

His only companion lived in the next field, separated from him by a post-and-barbed-wire fence. Cherry was a sheep and she too lived all on her own. She had got her name from the Farmer’s youngest daughter who had been eating cherry ice-cream at the time she arrived.

Because there wasn’t much else to do, Beetroot hated Cherry and Cherry hated Beetroot right back. Every day they spent at least an hour swapping insults with each other over the fence.

“You are fat and woolly.”

“You are ugly, and you smell.”

The level of insult was never remarkably high because neither Cherry not Beetroot had ever been anywhere except in their field. It often got a bit boring but still they kept at it, day in and day out.

“You are woolly and fat.”

“You smell and you are ugly.”

The days passed slowly.

One day, Farmer Loftus cleared out his attic and drove half the stuff to the recycling centre in his jeep and his trailer. It was a very windy day and a particularly strong gust caught something in the trailer and sent it fluttering out over the fence between Cherry’s field and Beetroot’s field. It landed right on the fence and stuck there. Beetroot and Cherry rushed over to investigate. The thing was half on one side and half on the other and they each nosed their own side and wondered what it was.”

“What is it, Smelly?”

“I don’t know, Woolly, but I know that I’m going to eat it.”

Beetroot started to eat his side of the thing on the fence and Cherry, not to be outdone, started to eat her side of the thing with equal speed. Soon it was all gone.

Beetroot gave a little burp.

“That was most edifying,” he said.

Cherry burped too.

“Quite palatable,” she agreed.

They looked at each other. Neither had any clue what the other just said.

The fact of the matter was that the thing on the fence had been a Dictionary and Beetroot had eaten the A to M section and Cherry had polished off the N to Z part.

“Are you indisposed?” Beetroot asked.

“I am unwitting of your phraseology,” replied Cherry.

And neither had a clue.

The next day the farmer drove the second half of his stuff to the recycling centre and an Atlas flew off and landed on the fence. Beetroot and Cherry quickly ate their respective halves.

“Oh, “ said Cherry, ”how I would love to parachute into Egypt, which is over in that direction, and view the ancient Pyramids.”

“I know nothing of that, “ replied Beetroot, “but the Giant’s Causeway certainly seems nice.”

Beetroot looked at Cherry and Cherry looked back.

“You know things,” he said, “you know things that I don’t know.”

Cherry nodded.

“I could tell you about the things that I know,” she said.”

“And I could you tell you about mine.”

And so, from that day onward, Cherry and Beetroot sat by the fence and told each other of strange words and strange places they had known. And from then on, the mountains did not seem quite so far away, and the lake did not seem quite so small.

And the world was an altogether nicer place.

(This story was devised in a Story Cubes Workshop with 3rd Class, Castlebar Primary School, for the 2022 Wild Atlantic Words Festival in Castlebar. The writers were Andrea, Casey, Charlie, Darragh, Dmytro, Emma, Eric, Fatiha, Godsent, Isobel, John, Kyrylo, Lilianna, Linden, Lucy , Maja, Matej, Nathan, Nevil, Patryk, Santiago, Shahed, Sofia and Ken. 

Special Thanks to Teachers Siobhan and Helen, who were great.

The nine Story Cubes that were thrown were: a Radio, a Letter, a Beatle, a Sleeping Person, a Book, the Planet Earth, a Key, A Keyhole, and a Lock. The elements used in the story are underlined above.)

Love Me Do Plus Two 

“Ssshhh! It’s coming on.”

Every day, brother and sister Aoife and Kaz tuned in the kitchen radio at exactly five minutes past five. They shushed everybody else in the house, the Dog, the Cat, and Mum, and they listened intently.

“It’s time once again for the Greatest Beatles Competition of All Time.”

Aoife and Kaz held their breath tightly. All they wanted in the world was to win the mystery prize in Greatest Beatles Competition of All Time. They had entered one gazillion and forty times and some day their name would be called out and they would have their chance.

“And today’s lucky callers are…”

Aoife listened, Kaz listened, Mum listened, the Dog listened. The Cat didn’t listen. It just licked its belly.

“Today’s lucky callers are… Aoife and Kaz.”


“Mum, where’s the phone, where’s the phone, where’s the phone, they’re going to call in a minute, where’s the phone?”

Nobody knew where the phone was. Everybody used their mobiles, and the phone handset was never in demand. A frantic search began, cushions were overturned, mats were shaken, cupboards were peered-into. The cat got up in disgust and the phone was on the chair where she had been sitting. Aoife dived on it, just as it started to ring. She pressed the button to answer the call.

“We love the Beatles, and we love Radio Nine Point Two FM.”

That was the phrase that pays. If you didn’t say it before you said hello, you didn’t get to play in The Greatest Beatles Competition of All Time. You were toast.

Aoife and Kaz had to answer one tough Beatles question to win the prize. The competition had been running for weeks because the people who got to play only knew about Beyonce and Dermot Kennedy. The Beatles were ancient history.

Not to Kaz and Aoife though. When their Dad got ill, he left them all of his Beatles records and they played them every day after school. While the records were spinning it was often like Dad was in the next room and about to shout through about how the next track was a great one. It was nice.

So Aoife and Kaz had high hopes for the question. As did their Mum and the Dog and the Cat… well, no, the Cat didn’t care.

“What was John Lennon’s original middle name?”

It wasn’t fair. Any question about any song on any album and they would have been just fine. But who could know the singer’s middle name? Not Mum, not Aoife, not Kaz.

The Cat looked up from its licking.

“Winston,” it said.

Aoife and Kaz shouted it down the phone, both at the same time. “WINSTONNNNNN.” And that was it. They had won the mystery prize in the Greatest Beatles Competition of All Time. Almost immediately, there was a noise in the front hall. A Golden Envelope had been slipped under the door. Inside was a key and a note. ‘GO TO THE TREE THAT LOOKS LIKE A GUITAR.’

Kaz and Aoife knew the tree that looked like a guitar. It was in the woods up the back and they often ran there-and-back when it rained. There was a brown door in the tree that they had never noticed before. On the brown door was a green apple, just like the one in the middle of the Beatles records.

They opened the door and went inside.

It was smoky and dark and there were lots of people. Kaz and Aoife were at the back. Down the front, there was a small stage with four young men up on it. The one with the absolute nicest smile waved to Aoife and Kaz.

“They’re here now,” he told the crowd, “let’s have a big hand for Aoife and Kaz.”

Aoife and Kaz sang backing vocals for Love Me Do with The Beatles in the Cavern Club in 1962. When they finished, they fell asleep on the stage and woke up back in their own beds in 2022. Fearing it had all been a dream, they ran to the sitting room and put the old record on the turntable.

And there they were. Right there inside the vinyl.

John, Paul, George, Ringo, Aoife and Kaz.

Dad would have been really proud.