Around Athboy, Eamonn Cassells is a very familiar face; a man of the community. He was a founder member of Athboy Macra na Feirme. He also helped found the Athboy drama and pantomime societies. Now, he tells Jimmy Geoghegan, it's time to pass on the baton to the next generation.
If he had taken a different route Eamonn Cassells could, very easily, have become a professional actor, appearing in productions in the Abbey, the Gate or maybe even on Broadway itself.
As a young man he was offered a place in the famous Brendan Smith Academy of Acting. It was an place that turned hopefuls into seasoned actors; raw youngsters into polished thespians. Many sought a place in the academy, few received the call.
Eamonn was one of the lucky ones - and it wasn’t as if he applied. He was picked for a scholarship out of the many who participated in amateur dramatics in the early 1960s - and it was a sure-fire route to the professional ranks.
For a few months he says, he travelled from his home in Gillstown close to Athboy to Dublin to attend the Academy. Then he decided it wasn’t for him. Instead he concentrated his energies on developing the family farm - and doing what he could for his local community.
You might think he harbours some regrets for for not following the life an an actor - but nothing would be further from the truth. “No regrets, I’ve had a lovely life, challenging, rewarding,” he says without hesitation adding that he still enjoys working around the farm and now, even at 78, he has no plans to retire.
“I still enjoy farming, to have a purpose when you get up to go out every morning is a huge bonus. I could retire but I don’t want to, it’s out of choice.”
Around Athboy Eamonn Cassells (who is an uncle of former Meath footballer Joe Cassells and grand-uncle of Meath West TD Shane Cassells) is a very familiar face; a man of the community.
He was founder member of Athboy Macra na Feirme. He also help ed to set up the Athboy Drama and Pantomime societies and was involved in numerous productions down the years. Now he has decided to step down. “I suppose there comes a time in life when you say it’s time to pass on the baton,” he says. For the first time since anyone can remember he will not be part of an upcoming production of Snow White.
It’s a Wednesday morning when the Meath Chronicle calls to talk to Eamonn in what he refers to in his good-humored way as “the Cassells’ residence.” He and his wife Moyra are in their kitchen as another day on the farm gets underway.
The list of awards Eamonn has won and the activities he has been involved in over the decades underlines just how much of a community man he really is - winner of the ‘Meath Personality of the Year Award for Outstanding Services to his Community;’ winner of the first ‘Macra na Feirme National Leadership Award’ twice winner of the ‘Athboy Community Person of the Year.’ Even when those accolades are listed you are still only scratching the surface.
He is a founder member of Athboy Macra na Feirme; he coached Macra teams to win national titles in drama, light entertainment, public speaking and debating; he was chairman of Athboy Community Council; chairman of Athboy Development Forum; represented Meath in various grades of football and hurling; won Meath SHC titles with Athboy; has numerous awards for acting and production; he has tasted All-Ireland success with Athboy Drama; he has written a one-act play and several comedy sketches; he was part of the Country Blue Jeans committee
Eamonn Cassells was born the last in a family of eight and grew up in the house in Gillstown he still lives in. The family had been given a Land Commission holding of just over 22 acres which his father Patrick farmed. Eamonn attended the local Vocational School. He was encouraged by a local teacher to take part in a play; he did just that and discovered he loved it. “The great thing about drama is that you get to be somebody else,” he adds.
He happily worked alongside is father on the farm and the wider world seemed full of possibilities too. Then one day, completely out of the blue, life changed; changed utterly. While they were helping a cow calf Patrick Cassells suddenly took ill and died. He was in his mid-sixties. Young Eamonn could do little but call for help.
“It was a traumatic experience my father, he dead beside me. We were delivering a cafe in the shed, he just collapsed beside me and died, he wasn’t ill, it was all very sudden,” recalls Eamonn. The next few days and weeks were a blur but despite the shock and the sadness life went on; somebody needed to take charge of the farm.
Suddenly Eamonn, in his mid-twenties, became the main man with all the responsibility that involved. He had to learn quickly. “It was a challenge, realistically, I was put in charge of a business at a very young age, it was a demanding business at that time and, thank God, I was up to it.”
He needed help and he got it from various sources. “My mother (Brigid) was very wise, strong personality who understood life. I often felt grateful to her because she pointed me in certain directions, gave me good advice. I have to say I had very good neighbours as well.
“I had a neighbour up the road, a bachelor farmer, James McConnell. He took me under his wing and was very, very useful to me as regards giving advice and basically keeping an eye on me knowing, that as a young man, I was liable to do rash things. His advice was always there for me and looking back on it he had a bigger influence on my life than I realised at the time. It just shows you how important a good neighbour can be.”
Armed with snippets of advice Eamonn set about building up the farm. His working days extended to 15 or 16 hours, often longer. A talented footballer and hurler he would, at times, come home from games carrying a leg or hand injury, yet he kept working. There was always something to be done around the farm, and only the most serious of injuries could be allowed to interfere with that work.
Over time Eamonn gradually built up the family farm from the original holding to it’s current size of over 100 acres. There were times when he had to borrow from the bank to fund his expansion plans but he knew that if he kept working hard everything would work out just fine. His health held and he prospered.
“I took over the farm at an early stage in my life and that was great because at that stage of your life you are full of enthusiasm and energy, nothing is too difficult.”
He also somehow found time to engage in his many community activities. They were never a chore; if anything they enriched his life. He was clearly good at acting too; a fact borne out by that offer of a scholarship in the Brendan Smith Academy but he eventually opted to focus on the farming - and amateur dramatics.
It was while working on a local production that he became friendly with the lady who was to become his wife. Moyra and Eamonn went on to have two sons - Eamon and Declan.
Eamonn senior (he spells his name with two ns so that the postman can distinguish between father and son) is fully aware of just how isolating life can be for farmers. He says his involvement with drama groups and his community work, were vital in helping him stave off isolation, his gregarious nature also a great ally when it came to getting himself known. He knows that’s not the case for everyone.
He could have been a full-time actor but instead he opted for farming - and he has no regrets. “People who came from the acting fraternity appeared to act all the time, it’s a precarious existence as well. In this (farming) you are perfectly grounded. There’s nothing fictitious about it, it’s a much more meaningful life.”
Eamonn Cassells could have taken a different route but he didn’t - and he’s content with his decision.
EAMONN CASSELLS ON....
...THE DANGERS OF RURAL ISOLATION
"Personally I never found it an issue because I was so involved in so many activities in the local town but I can understand for anyone less involved it can be an issue. Unless you are involved in some sort of community activity the only outlet is the pub and if you do that well and good but it's no really, sufficient inter-action in my view, it's only having a chat occasionally. You need to be involved in some kind of social activity to truly integrate into your local community.
"You need to be part of a team of some description, that's very, very important. Working on a farm is very isolating. Before I got married there were a lot of days when I would speak to nobody except, perhaps, my mother, until the evening time when I went to play hurling or football, drama whatever.
"The whole day can be spent in isolation. Some who work on the land can be good at interacting with others but some are not, they have difficulty with it. Unless you are a gregarious person mixing with others, saying hello even, can be very difficult. It's all right if you have family members close at hand, relatives, but just to be one cog in a wheel, can, shall we say, be very dangerous."
...LIFE AFTER HIS FATHER PASSED AWAY
"It was just a fact of life, you just carried on. I went to the Vocational School in Athboy and in fairness it was an education that prepared me well for the life I subsequently embarked on because I did rural science, we were taught life skills. I often thought looking back on it it was an excellent education for life."
...ON HIS FAVOURITE PLAYWRIGHT
"John B Keane's plays are great for giving an insight to rural life. We staged most of them over the years because his characters, like Bull McCabe, were drawn from rural Ireland and we were part of rural Ireland, we could buy into his characters quite easily compared to to say, Sean O'Casey, whose characters were strictly Dublin orientated. John B Keane understood rural people and we understood him."