He may be a lifetime gone from Carrick-on-Shannon but having been born and raised in the county town Paddy Brennan still felt very much at home when chatting in The Landmark Hotel last week of his childhood memories and the fascinating life that he has led since leaving Ireland in 1947.
By Philip Rooney
During his time living in Carrick-on-Shannon Paddy won a county championship medal with St Mary’s in ‘47, represented Leitrim at minor level and was part of the first Leitrim inter-county hurling team when they faced Roscommon in Boyle.
In the intervening years Paddy studied in England to become a male nurse; became a successful business man, became heavily involved with the Irish community in Brisbane; invited President McAleese to her first overseas visit; became the first Irishman to be presented with the Order of Australia award and was instrumental in ensuring a tablecloth made for Daniel O’Connell in 1843 was returned to Ireland.
Born in 1929 in what is now the Poitin Still pub Carrick-on-Shannon was a very different place noting, “I was 17 when I left Carrick-on-Shannon and nearly everybody I knew is dead.” Talking about the changes in the town Paddy insists, “Not all the changes are for the good. The big shops that I knew are all gone, the whole culture of the town is gone. I’m not criticising, just making an observation. Everybody is saying there is no work but it is all foreigners who are working here.”
With no television or internet to distract youngsters back in the 1940’s, it is hardly surprising to learn that Paddy was a keen sportsman and represented Leitrim at minor level as did his brother Jack who had the honour of representing Leitrim in the 1945 All-Ireland final against Dublin. Paddy also appeared alongside the late George O’Toole on the St Mary’s County Championship winning team of 1947.
Another of Paddy’s brothers, Tommy, spent 12 months working as a postman in Dromahair before he joined the British army. Paddy recalled, “Joining the British army was a way out. He wanted to join the post office but he wasn’t happy as a postman so it was a way out.” Tragically Tommy was killed in north Africa on his 21st birthday.
Overlooking the Shannon, Paddy, who tries to get back to visit Carrick-on-Shannon every three years to visit the area fondly recalled swimming and rowing in the Shannon and jumping from the bridge. Another memory recalled by the image of the Shannon was of the infamous blizzard of 1947 which afforded Paddy and his friends the opportunity to skate on the frozen river.
After he moved to England in 1947 to study as a male nurse Paddy kept in close contact with his hometown. Although he came back as often as he could to visit his good friends John Costello and Tommy Flynn, Australia was to be his next port of call after he qualified and he spent 12 months in Brisbane.
The time in Australia meant contact was lost with many people back home due to the length it took for letters to reach the southern hemisphere with Paddy recalling, “It was six months for a letter to go over and back. When you went to Australia you stopped corresponding as the news would be out of date or irrelevant by the time it reached its destination.”
Back in 1947 emigration was a very different proposition to what it is now as Paddy explained. “In the day when I went over, there was no talk of coming back. The average person was earning £2 a week.
However, it would not be long before Paddy was on the move again as he relocated to Papua New Guinea where he spent 14 years stationed as an assistant medical officer. Those years proved to be a real learning experience for Paddy as there were no doctors in the region. During his time in Papua New Guinea Paddy helped deliver hundreds of babies and oversaw numerous operations and reflecting on his time in the South Pacific Paddy recalled, “You learned very quickly. We did things doctors wouldn’t do now but there were plenty of medical books to read and you didn’t make the same mistake twice!”
After his spell in Papua New Guinea Paddy and his wife Judith Mary Ffrench, whose parents hailed from Strokestown, returned to Brisbane and they went in to business developing and renting out shops before moving into real estate, a venture that Paddy modestly says was “quite successful.”
Always eager to maintain his Irish links Paddy became heavily involved with the Queensland Irish Association and spent a total of 40 years as a board member and seven years as President. During his presidency he extended an invitation to President Mary McAleese to visit Brisbane and when she accepted the offer, the Australian Government came on board and it became an official state visit. Paddy recalled escorting President McAleese in to the function which included dinner for 1,000 people and as she entered the function room and Amhrain na bhFiann was sung she said to Paddy, “This is bigger than my inauguration in Dublin.”
Paddy’s connection with President McAleese didn’t end there and he has met with the President on several occasions in the intervening years whenever he has been in Ireland. In fact such was the impression Paddy made on President McAleese the visitors room in Aras an Uachtarain features pictures of the President with the Pope, Bill Clinton and Paddy Brennan!
As a result of his work for the Irish community in Brisbane and his work with various charities Paddy was awarded the Order of Australia award, the first Irish man to be honoured in such a way.
Paddy’s work with the Queensland Irish Association brought him in to contact with a beautifuilly embroidered tablecloth that was made in 1843 for a fundraising dinner for Daniel O’Connell’s Loyal National Repeal Association. Paddy recalled the tablecloth was offered to him for the Irish club but Paddy was eager the tabelcloth be returned to Ireland.
Having written several letters Paddy received no interest from Dublin in relation to the heirloom so he decided to write to President McAleese. That letter set the wheels in motion and it was arranged that then Minister for State Tom Parlon would collect the tablecloth which was brought back to Ireland and is now on permanent display at O’Connell’s former home, Derrynane House in Co Kerry.
Although he now spends the vast majority of his time in Brisbane, with such strong connections to Leitrim and Carrick-on-Shannon in particular it is hardly surprising that he is very keen to see his hometown prosper and when asked what he would like to do see done to improve the area, he was not found lacking in ideas.
“Overall the place looks ideal but if I was living here and trying to improve the area as a tourist destination I would be looking at bringing in tourists during the colder months. You have good pubs, all the facilities and there is a huge population in Australia looking for somewhere to go. You could put on special deals to bring people in for three weeks.
“They want good food, good entertainment and good drink. Some people would love the alternative of a cold winter but that market is not being tapped. Australians are going to America, Canada and New Zealand for skiing holidays. If I was 30 or 40 years younger I would be tapping that market. There is huge potential, the Australian dollar is cheap, Australians can travel. Australians will be the Americans of tomorrow.”
He may be 82 but one suspects that if Paddy were to come out of retirement and offer his assistance in improving the area as a tourist destination he would make a complete success of it.