Written in 2013 for Peter O’Neill’s book Portlaoise G.A.A. ‘One moment in time’ – A Pictorial Collection of “The Town” 1887 – 2013
A Journey begins.
I sometimes get asked “when did you first get involved in the GAA?” and I often respond that “my grandfather captained Galway to win the Football All-Ireland in 1938, so I think I got involved in the GAA about thirty years before I was born!“
My journey with Portlaoise GAA Club began in January 1981. The previous year the Féile na Gael U-14 All Ireland Hurling Tournament had been held in my home County of Galway.
My Grandad, the former Galway footballer John Dunne, was very impressed by the whole competition and sometime over the Christmas of 1980 when he and my Granny came to stay with us for a few weeks he apparently met up with “an official” of Portlaoise GAA Club, probably in Egan’s or Danny Donoghue’s as he socialised with my Father. Over a Brandy & Ginger and a Pint or two of Guinness my destiny was apparently decided!
And so it was that in his blue Datsun, my Grandad drove me down to the old Vocational School (“The Tech”) on Tower Hill one damp evening in January. He led me into the building and showed me into a small classroom packed to the rafters with boys of my own age, some of whom I knew from school and many others I didn’t, and sitting behind the desk was a big man with a big smile, ruddy complexion and glasses who was engaged in banter with the lads, all of whom he seemed to know.
“Bill, this is my grandson Johnny” said my granddad as pushed me through the door, nodded respectfully at the big man and left. I had just been introduced to Bill Phelan and I was now part of the Portlaoise U-14 Hurling squad for 1981.
The journey had begun.
Bill Phelan was a larger than life man. He was literally everything to Portlaoise GAA Club at the time, Secretary, Trainer and Selector (of multiple teams, adult and juvenile), Juvenile Chairman, County Board Delegate, Trustee, and it is fair to say Portlaoise GAA Club was everything to Bill.
For the next twelve years, until his untimely death in 1993, “Bill” was to have a defining influence on my life, my professional career (Bill was Vice Principal of The Tech” and got me my first full-time teaching job shortly after
I graduated from College), my GAA career, and the sporting careers of more than half a dozen generations of Portlaoise players.
Starting that January in 1981 we trained two or three times a week after school. There were about 30 lads in total. There were some great lads there; Cyril Duggan, James Skinny’ Fahy, Paul Bergin and Matthew McDonald to name but a few. What started out as a Hurling Panel soon became a Football Panel: Hurlers kicked Football and Footballers hurled! Bill instilled in us all a passion for the National Games, a pride in ourselves, a sense of our Club and a willingness to do our very best in all circumstances. He made sure we were all Dual Players, we were all the one Panel, the One Team, We were Portlaoise, “The Town“.
On and off the field we knew what that meant and it has stayed with each one of us to this very day.
With Bill at the helm and ably assisted by his “management team/kitchen cabinet/war office” or whatever you like to call them of Peter Carroll, Peter Fennell and Ollie Byrne we went on to win the Laois U-14 Hurling Championship that year, and, more importantly won the right to represent Laois in the Féile na Gael which was being held in Galway for the second year in a row. My Granny passed away in May of that year, just four weeks before the Féile. I stayed in Ballinasloe after the funeral and it was a welcome distraction for my Granddad to have to bring me to Galway to meet up with the team as they arrived from Portlaoise for the Parade. (We were positioned right behind a band from Bangor, Co. Down for the parade and the only song they played, over and over again, was “The Star of The County Down” we were whistling the damn tune in our sleep for a month afterwards!).
For the Féile itself Portlaoise was hosted by Tommy Larkins Hurling Club in Woodford and Johnny Lawless and myself were billeted with the then All Ireland Winning Galway Hurling Manager and now TV pundit, Cyril Farrell.
We were very well treated and it must have rubbed off on us because we progressed through the competition to reach the Finals on the Sunday.
Tommy Larkins rowed in behind us to support us all the way into Pearse Stadium for the final. We were playing against a fairly formidable team from Waterford that day.
I can still remember the (shorter) parade from St. Mary’s School to Pearse Stadium (thankfully devoid of any band) and proudly marching out on to the green sward with my teammates. As we entered the pitch behind the City goals (which were about forty yards out from the fence because of redevelopment works), still in formation, I spotted my Grandad standing behind the goals all on his own. He was obviously waiting to see us march past. As it happened Portlaoise were diverted by the back of the goals to line up on the far side of the pitch and we ended up marching straight in front of Grandad. As if the lads knew the poignancy of the moment we marched like a review straight past, heads left, all that was missing was a salute. I was so proud of us then and so was my Grandad, the tears streamed down our faces as we passed each other. Our Team that day included many players that went on to win honours with Club and County and many that are still involved with the Club today; players like Paul Doyle, Cyril Duggan, Noel ‘Reilly, Donal Conroy, Matthew McDonald, Paddy Norton, Paul Bergin, Ray Carroll, Greg Norton, James Fahy, Ollie Bartley, Tommy Fitzpatrick, Johnny Lawless, Philip Harrington, James O’Sullivan, Michael Mulhall, John Bosco Scully, Jim Coss.
Paul Bergin gave a Man of the Match performance in that game and we won the Féile na aGael Final 1981. Bill and my Granddad shook hands as we came down from the stand having collected our medals. That particular journey was complete but a lifetimes journey with my beloved “Town” had only just