In an old cine reel shot in the 1950’s that focuses largely on a Ballyshannon Harvest Fair of that time, there is one brief segment where a well-dressed young man, smiling broadly and then laughing, walks towards the camera.
He has a confident swagger about him. That man is Hugh John McGonigle and for many it is how we will remember him.
Sadly, Hugh John passed away at home on Friday, March 19, aged 87. His unexpected passing came as a great shock to his family, relatives and many friends to whom sympathy is extended.
Known more recently as Hugh John McGonigle Snr., to differentiate between himself and one of his sons of the same name, Hugh John packed a lot into his time on this earth.
He will perhaps be best known for his work as a baker/confectioner for Burke’s Bakery where he worked and subsequently took over and ran as the owner.
He will also be recalled for his time as a Ballyshannon Town Commissioner, 1980 to 1985 and more recently as the owner of The Lantern Bar on Allingham Road in Ballyshannon.
Others will remember his love for salmon fishing on the channel, more than once when I spoke to people who knew him, they mentioned a famous “mini world tour” he took with among others, his old pal, the late Derek Doyle in 1990, suggesting that while he was a hard worker, he also enjoyed life and wasn’t afraid of taking on a project or an adventure.
Hugh John lived in Wardtown with his grandmother, Mrs Patton, he had three siblings, his sister Mary lives in London, he was predeceased by his brothers, Frankie and Larry.
In 1948/49 he started his working life with Michael Burke at Burke’s Bakery which was located at what was known then as ‘Lyon’s Forge’ - an area now occupied by an apartment and shop complex known as Baker’s Court (almost directly opposite Cleary’s Garage).
In 1948/49, as the bakery premises were being built Michael Burke started out in what is now the larger function room in Dorrian’s Thatch Pub. Thanks to his own ability and the expert instruction of Michael Burke, Hugh John became a top class confectioner and baker. As they got the business on its feet some of the finer confectionery work, for practical reasons, was done in Tommy and Tess Cleary’s house.
But, once the business proper opened in 1948/49, it took off, with huge demand for the products including white sliced pans, which were in fact baked in Boland’s in Dublin and brought by train to Sligo, collected by a Burke’s Bakery van and from there distributed with all the other locally produced confectionery lines. Hugh John’s skill at icing cakes under the guidance of Michael continued over the years and Hugh John's work became an art in itself.
Many will also remember Hugh John’s beautiful motorbikes and one old friend has fond memories of watching Hugh John on the bike and parking her up at the bakery. “I thought he was the coolest man in Ireland,” the friend added.
Michael Burke as owner of the bakery, usually started his day at 3am when the ovens were lit, Hugh John and a large staff would be at work by 6am, but as Hugh John’s role grew he took on more responsibility (and very early starts at 3am).
When Michael Burke started Burke’s Laundry in 1962, Hugh John took over the bakery and effectively ran it with minimal involvement from Michael.
By the mid 70’s Hugh John owned the bakery while Michael sold the front shop part of the premises to Pascal Gildea and it operated as ‘Pascal’s Takeaway’.
Ian Anderson subsequently took over the bakery and more recently Hugh John’s son Declan redeveloped the entire property into an apartment and retail development known as ‘Baker’s Court’.
Outside work, Hugh John had a great interest in politics and was a life-long member of Fine Gael and at the time of his passing was president of the local branch of the party, having shared that honour for many years with CC Maguire who passed away in November.
Fine Gael TD Frank Feighan extended his sympathy to the family and his thanks to Hugh John for his tremendous service and loyalty to Fine Gael over the years.
Hugh John stood for Fine Gael and was elected as a Town Commissioner, serving from 1980 to 1985.
In everything he did Hugh John put his heart and soul into his work. His final enterprise was the purchase of The Lantern Bar on Allingham Road, now run by his son Hugh John Junior.
In more recent years he became a keen walker and would be spotted out locally taking exercise and enjoying the wonderful countryside walks offered to all of us lucky enough to live in or near Ballyshannon.
One life-long friend told me he was a wonderful man: “He was really quick to pick up a skill and was so talented as a confectioner and baker. He enjoyed life too, but he worked very hard and enjoyed success from his efforts.”
Hugh John's funeral Mass was celebrated last Wednesday morning in St Patrick's Church, Ballyshannon, with interment following immediately afterwards in the Abbey Cemetery.
Sympathy is extended to his wife Mari, sons and daughters, Michelle, Hugh John Jnr, Michael, Declan, Karl and Diane, his sister Mary (London), his grandchildren, sons-in-law and daughters-in-law and all extended family and friends.
May he rest in peace.
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