"The changes in Athlone have been dramatic," says local man based in the US

By David Flynn

There are now roads where there used to be hills in the outskirts of the Athlone where Professor Declan McCabe grew up in the 70s and 80s. He has lived more than three decades in the US, and recently made a trip to his hometown to visit his family.

“The changes in the town have been dramatic and it’s really nice to walk around,” said Declan, who is a Professor of Biology in Vermont.

Declan was the youngest member of six siblings of an Assumption Road family. His parents were Martin, a well-known Army man, and Edna, and his siblings are Grace, Valerie, Mary, Martina and Martin.

Declan got his first science training looking for water life in the drains at the back of Assumption Road on grounds now built over as Applegreen and B&Q.

Declan went to school at Marist College in Athlone in the 1980s. “I was involved with the Marbo youth club at the school, which was a mix of Bower and Marist students and there was good craic there,” he said.

“I had Luke Walsh for Science up to Inter Cert and picked Biology with Neil Molloy for Leaving Cert.”

He made friends with lads such as Pat Smith and Robbie O’Shea, through being a St Mary’s Hall scout, and has kept up those and other Athlone friendships.

“The people who you grew up around influence you and make you who you are,” said Declan.

“I used to love going out to Portlick when I was with the scouts. There is a nice mixture out there of the lake on one side, and forestry and a nice border of native trees there. The level of forestry in Ireland has increased and needs to keep increasing.”

After his Leaving Cert, Declan went to Athlone Regional Technical College where he studied Applied Biology.

“I had an idea that I wanted to be a scientist and it was great to get into the college to start using the science labs and equipment,” he said.

After completing his National Cert, Declan decided to work in a summer camp in Pennsylvania, USA. The summer camp was to change his life when he met a girl, Margaret Vizzard, whom he would later marry.

“I came home after the camp looking for a job in Athlone and through doing an Anco course I went working at the science labs at Summerhill School for a short time,” he recalled.

He then worked in the sanitary services section of Westmeath County Council in Mullingar.

“I worked there for six months and it was great experience. I’d be out there sampling streams all over the place,” said Declan. “In those days I could reliably hitch to Mullingar every morning, and be in time for work, and hitch back to Athlone in the evening. The lab in there was very well equipped for its time.”

Declan went back to America to reunite with Margaret in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and as he said himself, he “forgot to go home again”.

“I managed to find a legal way to stay in the US by getting a student visa through St Joseph’s University in Pennsylvania and I studied Biology and found I could get classes at half-price, by attending in the evening,” he said. “I returned to work and lived at the summer camp helping with its winter-time conferences.”

He then applied for a scholarship to get more funding, which paid for half his courses, while also working in a 7/11 grocery store in Pennsylvania. In addition, he worked there as a plumber’s assistant for his Assumption Road neighbour, Willie Sweeney, and cut grass in spare time. Declan also found himself as the weekend cook at the camp for various conference groups.

Declan and Margaret got married in 1991 and today they are the parents of three children.

“Margaret was ahead of me in that she was finishing her PhD and then did a post-doctorate in Pittsburgh, and at the same time I got into a Masters' programme there,” said Declan. “Margaret then got a job in Vermont and I landed a PhD at the same university. It took the next five years of slogging and working weekends to complete the PhD.”

He got a short-term job as an aquatic biologist at Middlebury College, Vermont, and was then offered work at St Michael’s College, also in the state, long term.

“I went in as an instructor working on a lot of courses and got called in by the Vice President, who asked me if I would like to be a Professor. I went through it all, Assistant Professor and Associate Professor for a time, and then another four or five years to be Professor,” said Declan

His tenure involved looking at river insects, which he admits he has been doing all his life, since his time as a child in the drains at the back of Assumption Road with local friends, Michael White and David McCormack.

“I’ve been looking at the bugs forever,” he said laughing.

Today, Declan is involved in his hobby of writing, which he loves. He has a column in a quarterly, Northern Woodlands Magazine, called The Invertebrate Bestiary.

He has written essays and teaches on Climate Change and admits he would like to say that he hasn’t seen changes in the environment in his studies, but unfortunately he has seen many changes.

“The most common birds in Vermont now weren’t common in the 1940s and 50s and along with opossums have moved up from places like New Jersey,” said Declan.

“I’m in the North East of the US, and in the mid-1990s there was increased moisture in the atmosphere, and the beginning of more frequent, intense storms. When you look at the numbers, the increase has been dramatic. There is a rainfall increase and more erosion because of that. The additional erosion moves phosphorus to the lake causing algal blooms.”

He said that the ski season is shifting, because some years the snow is not there in November, and it can be December before skiing can begin.

Declan says climate change needs a very long-term fix.

“It needs everybody planting trees, reducing how much fuel they are using, which does involve preserving the bogs and having to rely on solar and on winds,” he said.

“I was in Kerry last week and the wind nearly peeled me off the rocks. If we harness that……people claim they don’t like the look of turbines, but you can’t have it every way. If you are going to be an environmentalist there is a trade-off to sacrifice a bit of the scenery.

“I wrote an article recently on ice in Lake Champlain and in the early 1900s you could walk to New York on the ice every year, but now you could maybe do so in two winters out of ten.”

He remembers first learning about the Greenhouse Effect from teacher Paddy Walsh in Geography class in the Marist College in the early 1980s.

“We can hope they develop a way of trapping carbon, but for now the best way is growing trees and cutting fossil fuel use,” he said.

He is currently working on 365 acres of waste ground beside his college in Vermont. “I asked the college if I could use it as a natural area for wetlands and there are two or three type of forest and former agricultural land belonging to the college, and I asked if I could put four miles of trails in there,” he said.

“We got federal funding for it. There was also 65 acres for farming where we now plant. I can walk students over to see trees that have been planted in 2019, and some have now reached fourteen foot tall.

“People think my small contribution is meaningless, but we need to think instead of all those small contributions.

“You haven’t heard much about the ozone hole lately, because there was reduction in the gases which caused it, and acid rain has also reduced, which demonstrated that humans have the capacity to fix global problems. It’s not all perfect, but better than it used to be.”