A lot Dunne, more to do

Story by Paul Hughes

Thursday, 24th June, 2010 9:00am

DANNY Dunne is a man of many talents. Men are not known for their ability to multi-task - this scribe included - but this jovial native of Rochfortbridge parish has it down to a tee.

"I'm going to take a short break," laughed Danny, who has been writing and editing history books furiously since 2003, and intends to produce another in 2010/11 to mark the centenary of Clonard National School in Co. Meath, where he has served as principal since 1993.

A native of Morrow, Gaybrook, Mullingar, it all started for Danny - a son of Kathleen (née McGrath) and the late Kit Dunne - as a pupil of Dalystown NS, where his early lust for life and learning was fostered by his teachers, Annie Gunning and Frank McEnteggart.

As an asthmatic - a problem which has come back to affect him in recent years - Danny was never a sporty child, although he did take up swimming later in life. "I remember we all used to go out playing on the summer evenings, and because I had a bad chest I was called in early because of the night air," Danny said. "I used to hate that. It's a dreadful, debilitating thing."

After primary school, Danny then studied at St. Joseph's Secondary School, Rochfortbridge, where he was taken through the next phase of his education by the Sisters of Mercy.

"I spent five happy years in St. Joseph's. The Mercy nuns were extraordinary," recalled Danny. "My father died in 1973, when I was just 17, and my mother was left with six or seven young children.

"They were fantastic to my family, as well as being terrific educators."

During this time, Danny - who now plays the church organ at Gainstown every Sunday - cultivated his love of music, with the aid of the Mercy Sisters.

As a teenager on summer holidays, he remembers working at a house in nearby Kilbride, where he used to listen to the lady of the house, Mrs. Madeleine King O'Farrelly, play tunes on the piano within the living room.

"I remember thinking, I'd love to do that," Danny continued. "So while I was in St. Joseph's, the Sisters got me playing the piano, and gave me the privilege of going to the Convent and learning to play it."

He carried this passion for music to his third level education, and studied Music, Irish and Education at St. Patrick's Teacher Training College, Drumcondra, between 1975 and 1978. He describes himself as "fairly fluent" in our native tongue.

Now a qualified teacher, he landed his first post at O'Growney NS, Athboy, where he stayed until 1980.

"The home bells started to beckon, as they do, and I returned as a teacher to Dalystown, where I spent thirteen happy years," Danny said. "I even taught two of my brothers during my first two years there, which was an experience!"

Danny met his wife, Betty (née Mimnagh) - a qualified music teacher from Lynn Avenue, Mullingar - in 1985, and they were married in 1988. They lived in Mullingar for five years, before finally settling down on a six acre site at Catherinestown, in Danny's native Gaybrook.

Danny and Betty have three children: one teenage daughter Rita; Greg, who has just finished secondary school and hopes to follow his parents into teaching; and Gerard, who is currently studying music at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth.

The Dunnes moved to Gaybrook in 1993, around the same time as Danny took up his current post as principal at Clonard NS - his second spell in a Co. Meath school. He has stayed there ever since, and despite living in Gaybrook, he is very much at the centre of parish and community life in Clonard, which is a part of Kinnegad parish.


Aside from music and his love of educating future generations, Danny has devoted portions of his life and no shortage of time to gardening, and to exploring history.

"My interest in gardening developed from my maternal grandparents," Danny said, referring to the McGraths of Rickardstown, Collinstown. He says that his grandfather, Michael McGrath, in particular left him with a keen interest in all things green.

Danny has been a key member of Mullingar Gardening Club for the past decade, and plays a huge role in the club's annual show, both as an exhibitor and an administrator. He is the club's current vice-chairman, having sat in the chair before.

"It's very satisfying to see such a resurgence in gardening, with the recession," he said. "I grew up in a time when people practiced self-sufficiency.

"It was like that during the Second World War as well. Everything you had came off the land; you killed your own pigs and chickens, you grew your own potatoes and veg. Nowadays if there was a major crisis, because everything is mass produced, we'd be out of food in no time."

With that in mind, as well as planting flowers, Danny gardens with self-sufficiency in mind, growing sustainable and renewable crops like fruit trees.

Writing is also one of his main pursuits. He has published two children's books, one entitled 'The Little Silver Bell', published in the UK in 1995, and a second called 'Along the Gravel Road' (1996), which raised funds for children's causes in Chernobyl.

The Dunnes also immersed themselves in creating a link between the Mullingar area and the Mozyr region of Belarus - devastated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986.

In 1995, two years after he took up his job at Clonard, Danny decided to go back to college on a part-time basis, signing up for a two-year, part-time Masters in Local History at NUI Maynooth.

"Of course you have to do a thesis, and I started the Masters not having a clue what I was going to specialise in," he explained. "So I went to the County Library, and I started looking through the Col. Howard-Bury papers, and I came across a collection of letters and correspondence to do with the trustees of the Belvedere Orphanage at Tyrrellspass." The orphanage, set up by the established Protestant church in Ireland in 1843 to cater for orphans from Protestant families, operated until 1943. "At the time, the scandals about child care in the State were beginning to emerge, so anything about orphanages was very topical," Danny said.

His studies took him to a variety of repositories across the province, and he spent months studying private papers, newspapers, censuses, State papers and the Charitable Donations and Bequests records on Dublin's Clare Street.

"There's so much out there available to us about our country's history, and it's just waiting to be tapped," Danny remarked. "Some of it is in oral form; some it is photos or documents, but it needs to be preserved to prevent it being lost."

Tutored by Dr. Dympna McLoughlin, Danny finished his Masters in "the best two years" of his life; Betty followed him by picking up her own MA in Local History at Maynooth in 2001. His Masters experienced fanned the flames of a love of history which has occupied his life to this day.


In 2002, Danny edited a book for the centenary celebrations at Dalystown National School, entitled 'By Blossomed Furze' (after a line from Oliver Goldsmith's poem, 'The Deserted Village').

The following year, the prolific historian immersed himself in 'Children of the Mounds', the spectacular result of a millennium project for the Gainstown/Gaybrook area.

Danny's talents as an historian brought him to the attention of Fr. Patrick Moore and the parish community in Castlepollard, who in 2005 invited him to edit 'The Town at the Crossroads', a history of Castlepollard and Finea. The book was a tremendous success in north Westmeath.

Since then, he has been involved with projects in the run-up to the 1,500th anniversary of St. Finian's monastery at Clonard later this decade. Last year, he collaborated with Fr. Paul Connell (St. Finian's College), Fr. Michael Kilmartin (CC, Mullingar) and Ruth Illingworth to produce 'Beneath Cathedral Towers', a history of the Cathedral of Christ the King, Mullingar.

The Clonard 1500 project aside, his next focus will be the centenary history of his own Clonard NS. "That's coming down the line, but I've been at this since 2002, so I'm taking a little break," Danny says, with a smirk that betrays the number one rule of any enthusiastic historian: there are no breaks!

"When I'm not in the garden or in school, I keep myself busy doing my family tree," he finally gives in. "I'm using a computer programme called Family Tree Maker, and I think that I've filled in all the gaps back as far as 1854.

"It's like a jigsaw. It's rewarding, and something everyone should think of doing."

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