Written by Barry Lally (Originally Published in Feb/March 2013 issue of Ballinasloe Life Magazine)
As Ireland journeys through a decade that will be rendered noteworthy by the number of its centenary commemorations, it may be appropriate to recall that we in Ballinasloe can justly claim the right to celebrate the life of one of the town’s most distinguished sons whose centenary will occur in 2019.
His name was Eugene Watters, born on 3rd April 1919 in a house on Dunlo Hill next door to Dooley’s pub. Tom, his father, a veteran of the 1914-18 War, owned and drove a motor hackney cab, one of only two in Ballinasloe at the time.
From the infant school in the Convent of Mercy, Eugene moved across the road to the boys’ school in 1925, then housed in a number of rooms at the back of the Town Hall. While there he was greatly influenced by a young teacher from Kilconnell, Paddy Joyce, who instilled in him a lifelong love of the Irish language.
In 1930 the family moved to a local authority house in Brackernagh, and two years later Eugene won a scholarship to Garbally College, which he attended first as a day boy and subsequently as a boarder. In Garbally he excelled in English, Irish and the Classical languages, and was awarded a scholarship to U.C.G. in 1937. Due to family circumstances, however, he was unable to take this degree, and went instead to St. Patrick’s Training College, Drumcondra.
On qualifying as a national teacher, he obtained a post in a boys’ school in Rathfarnham in September 1939, and the following year he enrolled in the extra-mural BA course at UCD. Although Eugene did well at his studies, eventually graduating with a first-class MA Degree in English Literature, his experiences in college left him with an abiding dislike of academics.
In November 1944 Eugene moved to a national school in Finglas, and on 10th March 1945 he married Una McDonnell from Cappagh, a librarian and a talented visual artist. The honeymoon was spent touring the south of Ireland in a horsedrawn caravan Eugene had built with his own hands.
While he had been writing since his time in Garbally, it was in the years from 1946 to 1960 that Eugene developed as a prolific author. Articles, pantomime scripts, poems and short stories flowed from his pen, the latter mostly inspired by characters and incidents recalled from his earlier years in Ballinasloe, where he and Una would holiday each year, boating and fishing on the Suck.
His long poem, The Weekend of Dermot and Grace, generally regarded as his most important work, was completed during this period, and his only novel in English, Murder in Three Moves, was published in 1960.
By now Eugene realized that he could not successfully combine his career as a writer with his job as a teacher, so he decided to resign from the school to devote himself fulltime to his literary work. His decision had Una’s wholehearted support. Whereas hitherto most of his output had been in English, from 1961 onwards the emphasis shifted to Irish, and in that year his first play in the language, De Réir na Rúibricí (According to the Rubrics) was produced at both the Taibhdhearc in Galway and the Damer in Dublin. It was a comedy based on the characters of Michael Connolly, a sacristan in St. Michael’s Church in the 1920s, and Fr. John Heenan, a local curate, and received popular and as well as critical acclaim. Two years later Eugene was appointed editor of Feasta, a literary magazine published by the Gaelic League.
Profoundly affected by the sudden death of his wife on 20th November 1965, Eugene experienced great difficulty in coming to terms with his loss, which was to adversely influence his writing for years afterwards. He spent some months teaching in the school attached to St. Mary’s Children’s Hospital, Cappagh, in 1967 and the following year he left his Dublin home and went to live in a riverside house he had bought in Maganey, located between the town of Carlow and Athy. His health, however, deteriorated, and he returned to Ballinasloe to reside with his family, now domiciled in “Pines View” at the Grand Canal Basin, formerly the harbourmaster’s house.
While in Ballinasloe he directed a play be had co-authored with Sandra Warde, a young local wrier, The Song of the Nightingale, for the Relays Drama Group, and accompanied the production on its tour of the festival circuit. On 28th December 1972 he married Rita Kelly, a budding creative writer and a daughter of Peter Kelly, Brackernagh, in St. Michael’s Church, and the couple went directly to take up residence in the house at Maganey.
Their time in the “Lough House”, as their home was known, proved to be a fruitful period for both Eugene’s and Rita’s writing. However, because of their precarious financial situation, Eugene was obliged to undertake a lot of non-creative work such as lecturing, adjudicating and reviewing, which ultimately took a heavy toll on his physical well-being. In August 1981 they moved to another house, this time on the main road to Carlow.
Their last move was to “The leap” near Enniscorthy the following June, where Eugene succumbed to a heart attack on 24th August. Two days later he was laid to rest beside his beloved Una in Creagh cemetery. Apart from the works already mentioned, other notable publications of his include L’Attaque, Lux Aeterna, Dé Luain, Lá Fhéile Míchíl, Infinite Variety, The Road to Brightcity, An Lomnochtán and Fornocht do Chonac.
Eugene Waters was indisputably the most versatile creative writer in Irish to come from a non-Gaeltacht background, and showed exceptional courage in attempting to live by his pen alone. If he is less well remembered today than he deserves to be, this may be at least partly due to the fact that he had a deepseated aversion to organisations and wasn’t part of the Irish language revival movement. Also, he failed to conform to the stereotype of the Irish man of letters, inasmuch as he never frequented public houses or cultivated the society of the
Dublin literary set.
His memory awaits a fitting and deserved monument in the town where he drew his first breath of life.