The Sunday Interview - Conal McHugh

Conal McHugh. (SI0710AQ03)
Conal McHugh. (SI0710AQ03)

Derry man Conal McHugh is from the old school of banking.

Conal, who was born and reared on Dungiven Road in Derry in 1929, first started working for the Northern Bank in Belfast when he was 18 years-old. Conal worked in many Northern Bank branches in both the North and South of Ireland and in 1966 was made manager of the Cardonagh branch in Co. Donegal.

Irish Universities Soccer Team - 1952 - Back row (left to right) Brian Lenihan (UCD) Alex Rudnick (RCSI), Tommy Campbell (RCSI), Conal McHugh (School of Commerce), Peter Roulston (TCD), Silvi Kelly (UCD). Front row, (left to right), Ray McClean (RCS), Des Tate (TCD), Des McGovern (UCD), George Wheeler (TCD) and Andy Cassidy (Dental Hospital).

Irish Universities Soccer Team - 1952 - Back row (left to right) Brian Lenihan (UCD) Alex Rudnick (RCSI), Tommy Campbell (RCSI), Conal McHugh (School of Commerce), Peter Roulston (TCD), Silvi Kelly (UCD). Front row, (left to right), Ray McClean (RCS), Des Tate (TCD), Des McGovern (UCD), George Wheeler (TCD) and Andy Cassidy (Dental Hospital).

Conal is well known throughout Derry and Inishowen as a banker but in his younger days he was a keen footballer and golfer.

After he was transferred from Belfast to work in Dublin, Conal played football for Irish Universities team alongside former Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Brian Lenihan Snr. and the late Dr. Raymond McClean.

“The bank frowned upon bankers playing soccer and my mother didn’t approve of it either,” said Conal.

“But up until I was forced to give up all sport, I always took care of myself and exercised.

The class of 1937 pictured at a reunion at the Waterfoot Hotel. Included, are Bobby Toland, Conal McHugh, fr Joe Shield,s Brian McKeever, Jackie McCourt and Marty Murray (0907SL08) Photo: Stephen Latimer

The class of 1937 pictured at a reunion at the Waterfoot Hotel. Included, are Bobby Toland, Conal McHugh, fr Joe Shield,s Brian McKeever, Jackie McCourt and Marty Murray (0907SL08) Photo: Stephen Latimer

“The only way I could play football without the bank knowing was by making up a pseudonym for myself. I came up with the name Larry McCue and in all of the match reports in the papers I was known as Larry McCue.

“I played alongside Brian Lenihan and Dr. Raymond McClean. Myself and Raymond were great pals. Raymond was a great footballer in his day. I really enjoyed living and working in Dublin.”

Conal was the second youngest child in the McHugh household and his only surviving sibling is his sister Nuala.

“My father was called Michael McHugh and he was from Castlederg. He married my mother, Mary Elliot, and they ran the Clooney Bar.

'The Tall Top Hats' as they were in 1933 from left to right, Bobby Toland, Conal McHugh and Paddy Friel.

'The Tall Top Hats' as they were in 1933 from left to right, Bobby Toland, Conal McHugh and Paddy Friel.

“My father passed away as a result of a heart attack when I was five years-old. My youngest sister was only 13 months-old at the time and the oldest was my brother Aiden who was 13.

“It was tough for my mother because she had to raise 10 children and run a pub.”

Conal said that despite the death of his father, his childhood was perhaps the happiest time of his life.

“My mother was an amazing woman. She taught us to always take care and look out for those who are less fortunate. She would have made dinners and given us the food to take to the homes of people living close by.

“One of my earliest memories is of watching my brothers and cousins dancing to Victor Silvester in the kitchen at our house.

“I had the most amazing childhood. My mother’s family, the Elliots were always in and out of our house.

“There would always have been cousins, aunts and uncles staying over.

“I had a brother in the Irish army, a brother-in-law in the American army and cousins who were in the British navy - our house was like the United Nations at times,” he joked.

Conal attended Waterside Boys’ School, the Christian Brothers and then on to St. Columb’s College where he remained until he was 18 years-old.

“I really enjoyed all of my time at school. I played Gaelic football for St. Columb’s College and I also won a championship medal with Sarsfields (now known as Sean Dolan’s GAC).”

When he completed his studies at St. Columb’s College, Conal went to Belfast in search of work.

“Getting a job back in the 1940s was very different to how you get one now. If you wanted to work for a specific company or in a particular industry you took an exam.

“I must have done about four exams before I got the job with the Northern Bank in Belfast.”

A few months after working in the Northern Bank head office in Victoria Street, Conal was transferred to Dublin where he remained until 1953.

“Dublin was a great place to be back then. There were very few cars on the road back then and everyone would have cycled everywhere.

“I would have seen days when I would have cycled all the way to Skerries or to Donabate. I really got to see Dublin on my bike and I met a lot of great people when I was there.

“I played a lot of football when I was in Dublin. I even played alongside the late great Christy ‘Bunny’ Fullam.

“I was a right half and a left half and I played for the Bohemians ‘B’ and ‘C’ teams and a few years later when I was working in another branch in West Ireland, I was offered seven pounds and 10 shillings to play for Sligo Rovers but the bank manager wouldn’t allow it.

“Representatives from Sligo actually came to the bank with a contract for me to sign and the manager told me that I wasn’t to even think about it.

“The men from Sligo Rovers had to go away and come back with an amateur contract - I was so annoyed because I would have been earning twice as much with Sligo than I was earning with the bank.

“I also played for Home Farm and Longford Town in my time.”

After making a good name for himself in Dublin, Conal was transferred to several branches in the West of Ireland before returning to Dublin once again.

Soon after moving back to Dublin, Conal was transferred back to the bank’s head office in Great Victoria Street in Belfast.

“I worked on the Antrim Road and in Holywood for a while before I was moved to Kilrea.

“I was sent to Kilrea as a relief worker for a man who moved to Canada. The man decided to stay in Canada and I must have done something right because the bank manager wrote to head office in Belfast asking for my position at the bank in Kilrea to be made permanent.”

Conal started off as junior relief at the Kilrea branch in 1953 and in 1966 he left as assistant manager.

In the 13 years he spent working in Kilrea, Conal met the woman he still describes as the love of his life and his best friend, Rose Stewart.

“The first time I saw Rose was at a dance in Ballymoney in 1954. It was love at first sight and to this day she is still my best friend.

“Rose was a popular girl when were younger. She was and still is very beautiful and if I am honest, I didn’t hold out much hope of going out with her.

“Rose and I started going out properly after a dance in Portstewart and I wasn’t going to let her go this time. We were engaged very soon afterwards and in 1958 we married and we have three daughters - Maura, Ursula and Paula.”

In 1966, Conal was head-hunted and was offered the bank manager’s job in Carndonagh in Donegal.

At the age of 35, Conal was the youngest Northern Bank bank manager in the north of Ireland.

“Carndonagh was an exceptional place. If you ask any of my three girls where they are from now, they will tell you Donegal.

“Living and working in Inishowen was great and those memories are amongst the happiest of my life.

“I remember thinking that I had made it when I became a bank manager but unlike a lot of the managers I worked under, I actually had to work,” he said laughing.

Conal spent 10 years working in Carndonagh before the bank asked him to open a new branch in Drogheda Co. Louth.

“Rose and the three girls came with me to Drogheda and we lived there for 11 years.

“I really liked living in Drogheda but the girls and Rose weren’t as keen so I took early retirement in 1985, moved to Greencastle in Donegal and set-up my own financial services company.

“I was glad to get out of banking at that time. Everything was changing and it was a completely different job to the one I became used to so I took early retirement and set up my own business.”

Just before retiring, Conal and Rose were involved in a serious car crash.

“Rose’s brother had died and I think we were returning from his memorial mass in Ballymena when another car crashed head on into our car.

“Rose was lucky to survive. One of her vertebrae was crushed in the accident and she had to spend a lot of time in hospital.

“I still suffer from back pain as a result of the car crash but when I think of what might have happened I thank God.”

Conal and Rose moved back to Derry 12 years ago.

“It’s nice being back in Derry. Derry will always be home to me,” he said.

Whilst his football days are long behind him, Conal still enjoys watching Derry City, Manchester United and Celtic but unfortunately his sight started to deteriorate a few years ago.

“A few years ago I was diagnosed with Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and since that time I’ve become involved with Anne-Marie Houston at the Royal National Institute for the Blind on the Strand Road.

“Anne-Marie lost her sight when she was 22 and she has done so much work for the blind and the partially sighted in the North West. I hope that I can continue to work with them over the coming years.”

When asked for his hopes and ambitions for the future Conal used the analogy of a balance sheet to say that as long as his figures are in liquidity then he can have no complaints.

“Throughout my entire life I have been blessed with great friends and an amazing family. I have always had a very strong faith and I look at life like a balance sheet, you have your assets and you have you liabilities but as long as I have liquidity then I’ll be happy,” said Conal smiling.