I was first introduced to Margaret Gallagher and her lovely, quaint cottage at Belcoo, County Fermanagh, by the then Northern Ireland Tourist Board’s chief photographer, Robert Blair MBE. I have a love for Fermanagh. It will always be special to me since it was the county where my grandparents were from and where my father was brought up. So when I was introduced to Margaret, saw her cottage and observed her lifestyle and passion for the area she lived in, I was more than excited at the prospect of returning with a film crew.
I was delighted when Margaret consented to me submitting a proposal for a full blown documentary to BBC Northern Ireland, and even more delighted when they gave the go-ahead. The year was 1992. I had spent a number of years as a staff film editor, so chose to shoot on 16mm film rather than video for better quality.
It didn’t surprise me at the time that the film would make its mark and be very popular. After its broadcast, Margaret was inundated with tourists. They literally began to arrive at the cottage by the coach load. Margaret didn’t actually mind too much. She was already working as a tour guide in the area and Fermanagh Council was on a drive to attract as many tourists as possible, since numbers were down due to the troubles.
The biggest problem arose when tourists began to make monetary offers to Margaret in an attempt to persuade her to part with her lovely Beleek hand-crafted plates, or other items which they fancied taking home as souvenirs. Of course, many of these foreign tourists came from a culture where money could ‘talk’, and persuasion with the right amount of negotiation never failed. So some kept raising their bid trying to find the ‘acceptance’ point.
What they didn’t realise was that they were dealing with someone whose ‘values’ were based on a totally different set of priorities. Eventually, the chief executive of Fermanagh Council, the late Gerry Burns, along with Robert Blair from the Tourist Board, came up with a solution. Robert Blair took a nice photograph of Margaret’s cottage and printed postcards. These became the souvenirs that tourists ‘were’ permitted to take away – with the compliments of the Council. The bottom line is: What Margaret has, cannot be bought, and it never could.
What has surprised me is that the popularity of this documentary is as strong today in 2023/24, as it was when it was filmed. It’s now had over 3.6 million views since it was posted on YouTube, along with thousands of favourable comments which still arrive in my inbox on an almost daily basis. It seems that in our modern technological age, considering all the things that money can buy, maybe we’re still on a quest for some of the things that can’t be bought.