Bill Phelan – A Tribute
By Teddy Fennelly
Bill and I soldiered together through most of our lives. Of the same age we went through the CBS to Leaving Cert in the same classes and had similar interests especially regarding GAA. The games were an important part of school life with Bro. O’Mahoney taking a particularly keen interest in preparing us for competitions.
Bill took over the juvenile teams in the club in the 1960s (Mick Early and Brian Stack had been in charge of the under-age section prior to that) and it was here that he showed his great organisational skills and also his ability to get the best out of young people. He was a natural teacher and that was well recognised by those students and teachers he worked with in the Vocational School. Much help also came from his old Alma Mater at the CBS and wasn’t the club lucky to have such great men along with Bill such as Bro. Nolan, Bro. Somers and Bro. Beausang, all combined to inspire pride in the club and in the jersey.
The club was always foremost in Bill’s mind and how best to harness all the talent available in the town. In 1971, when Jimmy Cotter decided to step down from the role of secretary, Bill was ready, willing and able to take over from his experienced and diligent mentor, and he emulated his predecessor in carving a most respected reputation and by becoming one of the leading forces in the county’s pre-eminent club. It was my privilege to work with Bill as chairman during the 1970s and into the 1980s. We led a great team headed by Paudge Dowling who drove the development of club facilities, and Jas. O’Reilly, the chief fund-raiser. By that time the club was established as not only the county’s most powerful GAA unit but one of the country’s leading clubs.
In 1981, Portlaoise won the double at senior and at minor levels, it had acquired in own grounds and its own clubhouse and was almost debt free. That same year, when Portlaoise won the coveted senior hurling title for the first time since 1943, against Camross in Rathdowney, Bill and I were far from home with the Laois football team on tour in America. The great win was celebrated fully and happily and just as enthusiastically on the west coast of the USA as it was back home in the “Town”.
Bill continued to take a hands on with teams from under age to senior level and was to be seen in the field in all his spare time. This was apart from his administrative duties. He never stinted with his time or energy as regards the club was concerned and especially as regards players’ needs. He would constantly ferry players to training and to games and then make sure that they were left back home or to college safely again. All this time using his car and on the phone (there were no such things as group texting then) must have cost him a fortune but money never came into the equation and his claim for expenses at the year-end was minimal and no reflection on the amount he spent on behalf of the club.
Although Bill’s loyalty to the “Town” was absolute he always ensured that players with the ability to do so were made available to the county teams and indeed countless county as well as club stars can thank Bill for affording them the opportunity of being able to compete at their optimum levels, be it county, inter-provincial or Junior “B”.
Bill soon became an important cog in the county GAA scene and was elected or co-opted on various committees before being voted in as County Chairman in 1988. Strong-minded in his opinions, he was always straight up and with Bill you got what you saw and heard. He could never be accused of being “cute” to his own advantage or doing or saying anything derogatory behind peoples backs that he would not openly confront them with. This honesty was sometimes resented by a few people with lesser ambitions and somewhat more devious agendas than Bill’s, who gave his all to Portlaoise and Laois GAA. Fittingly the club marked Bill’s outstanding service by naming the main field at Fr. Browne Avenue Pairc Ui Faolain in his honour. If you wanted some help and if Bill could do anything to help, then it was always freely forthcoming. Bill did not mind whose toes he stood on or what the cost to himself or his reputation in his pursuit of helping out a friend in need. This was all the moreso forthcoming when it was a young person who needed a little help or advice and he was always conscious of the greater needs of young people from less affluent families. There are a lot of Portlaoise individuals and families who have reason to be grateful for Bill’s interventions.
While in the latter half of the 1980s and into the 1990s, although I was still involved in the club administration as the finance director and also on county committees, because of my growing work schedule as Editor of the Leinster Express I was less directly involved with club teams during those years. But in 1993, Bill asked me to help out with the club minor football team, along with Brian Delaney and Martin Parkinson. Although that particular group had won little in their under-age years and were not fancied for the championship, we made slow but sure progress. Little did we know that midway through that campaign Bill would be taken from us quite unexpectedly. The team went on to win the title and that would have given our lost leader great satisfaction.
In the course of our lives, much of it given to the GAA, especially on Bill’s part, we often had our differences but whatever the cause they were always resolved and we remained true friends to the end. If he had a fault it was that, sometimes, he tried too hard and took on too much on his broad shoulders. Bill was part of a family that had long associations with the club. His brothers Eamon and Tom, were members of the senior football squad of the late 1950s and early 1960s, which laid the foundations for greater success in the decades to follow while his other brothers, Oliver, Don and Pat also played on club teams. His untimely passing in 1993 at a mere fifty years, robbed his family, the GAA, the Vocational School, and his beloved community and club of a great friend and a great talent.
Ni bheidh a leithead ann aris.