After years of planning and organising it was in early June 1987 that a group of 70 Derry expats from Australia made their way into Derry’s Guildhall Square.
For many it was a profoundly emotional day, some returning to their hometown for the first time in many long years. And many were the tears that flowed.
The man behind the ‘Colmcille Express’, as it became known, was Brandywell’s David Connolly who emigrated to Melbourne in the early 1960’s.
This week David spoke to the ‘Journal’ from his home ‘Down Under’ of his memories of that homecoming which occurred 25 years ago tomorrow.
“It’s still as clear today as it was on the day it happened - the sun was shining, the Colmcille pipe band was there to pipe us into the Guildhall and we were welcomed home by the Mayor Clr. Noel Mc Kenna, the Mayoress Susan Mc Kenna, His Lordship Bishop Edward Daly, former Alderman Willie O’Connell, Clr. Jim Guy (sadly now deceased) Town Clerk Colm Geary and Council staff namely Nuala Mc Gee, Kevin McCaul among others. Derry Journal editor Pat Mc Art and chief photographer Larry Doherty even showed up!”
Unlike today when air travel is the norm and reasonably cheap back then it was rare and very expensive with many of those who left these shores never, ever returning simply because they could not afford to. It was not unknown back then for emigrants never to return to their home place.
“It was an overpowering emotional reaction to meet and hug their families and friends; for some it was up to 20 years since they last seen our ‘Lovely Derry on the Banks of the Foyle’. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the place. The biggest surprise for the expats was the delight of their immediate families and friends who were there in their droves to welcome them home.”
He went on: “The emotional impact both from the visitors and the family members can’t be over stated.
“There was a lot of emigration in those days not just because of the dire economic situation but the Troubles had a major impact too. After the really dark days of the ‘seventies this was the first en masse return of people to the city and now families were reunited.
“There were two elderly citizens in particular that I always recall, both were in the their nineties - Mrs Villa and Mrs Mc Dowell and the joy of seeing these two totally overwhelmed ladies meeting their children and grandchildren would have taken tears from a stone.”
David Connolly spent about three years organising the trip. He was inspired to do it after meeting so many people from his home town on his trips across the country who had never got home. It was a major undertaking.
He explains: “Australia is a large continent and if you doubt me just ask Noel and Susan Mc Kenna, Willie O’Connell and then Buncrana radio presenter Damien Mc Grory who travelled extensively both in the cities and the outback. The expats came from east to west and north to south encompassing Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Newcastle and Brisbane.
“Indeed, it would be remiss if I didn’t mention the coordinators of that Colmcille Express in 1987 because without them I doubt it may not have become a reality; Peter Doherty, Perth,Western Australia; Willie Carey, Adelaide, South Australia; Eddie McCauley, Sydney, New South Wales; Sally Chenery (nee O ‘Kane) and Josie McDowell Newcastle, New South Wales; Pat and John McCloskey, Brisbane, Queensland; and also my wife, Patricia, here in Melbourne.
The Colmcille Express will be celebrating a quarter of a century on 2nd June 2012 and the expats below made the long journey home: - David and Patricia Connolly; Peter and Marion Doherty and children Judith, Sarah and Jonathan; Ken and Olive Grafton and daughter Michelle. George and Colleen Hudson; Phil and Peggy Esplin; Teresa Kelly and girls Annette and Louise; Frank and Elaine O’Hea and daughter Bernardine; Len and Sally Chenery; Tommy and Josie O’Donnell; Roy and Kerry Moyne; Gerard and Renee Mc Dowell; Patrick and Patricia McMonagle; Matthew Moran; Eddie and Stephanie Mc Cauley and son John; Lily Bradley; Brian and Susanne Ward,; Megan and Karina Isobel Rewell; Sandra Jago; Lily Mc Laughlin and daughter Bernadette; Kevin and Denise Burns; Bill and Philomena Mullan; Michael and Suriyong Downe and sons Sean and Aaron; John and Patricia McCloskey;
John and Marie Higgins and Caroline and Damien; Wille and Celia Carey; Nora Gallagher; Rose and Ted Travers; Pam Murphy and children Shane and Kelly Ann.
On the 27th November 1987 the Colmcille Express received the ‘British Airways Tourism Endeavour Awards 1987’ while David Connolly received a special commendation for enthusiastically organising a marvellous Australian home coming to Derry.
To close the circle on this trip David is returning to Derry this weekend where he hopes to meet up with old friends.