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From Clare to here

Story by Tom Kelly

Friday, 2nd November, 2012 1:30pm

From Clare to here

"We may have a wrong word calling it volunteering, which makes it look that is aside from what you normally do, but years ago, our mothers volunteered by minding neighbours children without even thinking about it," says Betty Brennan, who believes anyone can be a volunteer, no matter what their circumstances, and even if they can only give as little as fifteen minutes per day.

"Those people years ago just saw a need, and met it," said Clare native Betty, who has been resident in Assumption Road for twenty-three years.

"I don't think they even gave such things a second thought, it was just something they did. All my life I saw that at home, and I'm happy to have seen it since I came to live here in Athlone."

Betty is the assistant secretary of the committee of St Kieran's Community Centre, and besides supervising at kids discos there, she has an interesting CV of movie work, football training, drama groups, and living life as a mother of Aisling, Sarah and Orlaith.

Betty and her husband Paul are also the grandparents of Kaitlyn.

Betty grew up in the heart of the Burren area of Co. Clare, where her parents ran their family pub and grocery - Cassidy's. Her family has run the business in the village, since before 1830, and Cassidy's Pub and Restaurant is run by her brother Robert, and the family hostel, Clare's Rock Hostel is run by her brother Pat. As the second youngest of eight children, Betty grew up in the village of Carron, ten miles from Ballyvaughn.

"It was beautiful growing up in the Burren, where there is side by side plants from the Tropics and the Arctic," said Betty, who still retains a strong Clare accent.

After she left school, Betty set up a youth club in Carron, and got children involved in producing a play, which managed to bring the small community together. She also got local women involved in cooking for the purposes of having an Old Folks Christmas party, which is still running in her native village, almost thirty years later.

Betty's mother, Mary, wanted her to experience new horizons, and she encouraged Betty and her siblings to travel and work abroad

Betty moved to live and work in Greenwich Village, New York, as an au pair between her time studying ceramics and pottery at Galway RTC,

"I was always interested in art, and really loved studying pottery, but I really like working with kids in sports, and I love doing face painting for hours," said Betty. "I'm usually asked back to face paint at festivals in Clare, and I facepainted children all day at the Assumption Road anniversary day two years ago."

Between studying pottery and filtering back and forth working in New York, she met her Athlone-born future husband, Paul Brennan. Paul was serving in the army in Galway, and he and Betty met through two mutual friends who were going out together.

A few years after Betty and Paul married, and after she settled in Athlone, she experimented with writing poetry, and decided to join the Athlone Writers Group. Gearoid O'Brien was chairman of this group, which was made up of local authors, poets and playwrights.

Betty joined the group in the early 1990s, when it was about five years in existence, and remained with the literary group for several years. She was greatly interested in writing poetry, although she had a Christmas short-story published in the Westmeath Independent. The group met in the loft of the Palace Bar, and Betty contributed some poetry to two of the group's publications, 'The Palace Treasury' and 'The Palace Papers'.

"Everyone has their own talent, and everyone has some creative ability, and there is a huge amount of people writing," she said.

Betty is also a singer, and used to sing at the family pub in Clare, and her late father, Bobby, was well known for his recitations. Her mother was an Irish set dancer, and related to members of the legendary Kilfenora celli band.

Betty has kept up her writing by joining the international poetry website,

"I am doing a bit more writing, but when you're busy doing other stuff, you lose a lot of inspiration, but I like the website, because it's like a writer's group online," she said.

However Betty is usually kept busy outside of her job at the Examinations Office at the Athlone Institute of Technology.

She takes a leading role in the community centre near her home at Assumption Road, and is noted for encouraging the many young people who assemble at the centre. She was originally asked to join the community group by the chairperson, Mona Joyce.

"It's a fantastic set up, and it's getting better there, and the people of the housing estates have done so much for the centre and for their community in general," said Betty.

"Mona asked me to volunteer, and she is a great inspiration, and a very community-spirited person. I joined the committee for the kids' discos, and said I'll give a hand, and I had secretarial skills, and there was a vacancy there, so I found myself being secretary, but recently I took a step back and am now assistant secretary."

The producers of a film, 'The Other Side of Sleep', did open auditions at St. Kieran's Community Centre, and Mona suggested to the committee, that some of their members should audition. Betty had appeared in a play, 'Sisterhood' at Athlone Little Theatre, and was involved in two plays written by Vernice Bacon Darnley, which were performed at the Passionfruit and at St. Kieran's community centre, and she also had experience of drama going back to her school days.

Betty did the audition, and then got a call-back, and the director and cameraman turned up at her door, to film her in her living room in Assumption Road. Betty won the role, and the movie was eventually filmed in Tullamore.

The role was a traumatic one, where she had to play the mother of a murdered teenage girl, and Athlone girl, Vicky Joyce, played her second daughter.

"I remembered my father's death and Paul's mother, who was one of my best friends, had died around that time, so I used all of those memories to get me through the auditions," said Betty. "I also read things that would make you cry, and I have three daughters, and I related it to what I would feel if anything happened to them."

Betty also trained an Athlone GAA U/12 girls football team some years ago, and learned a lot about psychology while working with the team.

"They needed someone, so I said I'd train them, and while I had played camogie for years, I wasn't a star player, but I told the team, that we were all a team, and I didn't like Player of the Year types, and that the team is the star, and we went on to win all around, and despite having five players down, we went on to win the championship," said Betty.

She has many ideas for her local community centre, which she would like to see brought to fruition, and volunteering is at the heart of it all. Betty believes there is inspiration in the recession to help people move on to the next stage of their lives.

"People years ago, had to cut their cloth according to their measure, and had to live through tough times, so it would be great if we could get some of those people into the centre to advise younger people, and also maybe do a booklet," she said.

"It's important to have high expectancy, but also important to know that you have to start at the bottom. If we use our time right, the recession can be a good thing, and now we have to use our innovation and creativity. I would love to see some of the groups in Athlone setting up a common forum for all volunteers, where everyone can connect. It need only be informal, and could maybe help people of all ages."

Betty believes that her adopted town of Athlone can be the heart of Ireland, and if the town takes on that role of becoming the heart of Ireland, the people of the town can make a difference with new vision.

"At the moment, the country feels demoralised, but if we want to do something different, instead of waiting for the government or somebody else to do something for us, we can make a change ourselves, and there is so much innovation in the town," said Betty.

"The people could be getting hold of a vision of what we can be, and then we can set an example to other towns. We have the great infrastructure here in Athlone like the Athlone IT, the Luan gallery, and the Civic Centre, to mention but a few."

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