In 1951, the new curate in Glencolmcille, Fr James McDyer arranged a meeting the parish council and Gaeltarra Eireann representatives, hoping to get a better deal for local weavers.
At the meeting, McDyer listed what he considered to be ‘the five curses’ of rural Ireland’: no industry, no electricity, no public water supply, no dispensary and unsurfaced roads.
‘I forgot that Williie Cunningham, the local reporter, was present,’ McDyer later wrote in his autobiography. ‘I was quite shocked to see in front page banner headlines in the next issue of the Donegal Democrat the caption ‘The Five Curses of Glencolmcille, by Fr McDyer’.’
McDyer, born in Glenties in 1910, was educated in Glenties NS and St Eunan’s College, Letterkenny, before being ordained to the priesthood in 1937. Before coming to Glencolmcille, he served as a curate on Tory Island and in London during the blitz.
When he arrived in the west Donegal parish in 1951, he saw that the community was dying.
Willie Cunningham didn’t just send his report of that meeting to the Donegal Democrat. He also worked as a ‘stringer’, a regional reporter for the Irish Press, and so Fr McDyer’s speech got national coverage.
The activist priest realised the power of publicity, and in the years that followed, a symbiotic relationship developed, the reporter and the priest both benefiting from the coverage.
Sometimes described as a ‘practical socialist’, over the next thirty years Fr McDyer campaigned tirelessly against official neglect of Glencolmcille and similar communities throughout the west.
On of his first major projects was the Halla Mhuire – a parish hall built by local volunteers and completed in twelve weeks in the winter of 1953.
He helped establish weaving, knitting and vegetable-processing factories and campaigned successfully for electricity and piped water schemes. The Errigal Eisc Teo fish-processing factory in MÃn an Aoire which provides seasonal employment is one lasting result of his work.
Fr McDyer also recognised that tourism could play a key role in revitalizing rural Ireland but stressed that it must be both environmentally and culturally sensitive. In 1967 he was the driving force behind An ClachÃ¡n – the Folk Village – a museum representing three hundred years of domestic life in south west Donegal.
His fame spread beyond Donegal, and indeed beyond Ireland, as did the work of the people of Glencolmcille in saving a community threatened with extinction because of emigration. One can only wonder if his campaigns would had had the same impact without the reporting of his deeds started at at meeting by Willie Cunningham.
[Full disclosure: Willie Cunningham was my great-uncle]