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
Laois hurling in the 70’s was about as predictable as it could possibly be. Seven out of ten years the mighty men of Camross marched into the county town and plundered the coveted and precious silverware of champions. They were hurling giants and they reigned supreme.
Borris-in-Ossory, Clonad and Clonaslee did claim a single title each in these years but the landscape was coloured in black and amber. As the decade closed out it seemed as if there was no team capable of mounting a serious and sustained challenge. But the challenge was coming, from an unlikely source, and when it came it was mighty.
Portlaoise is a proud sporting town and so it was in the ’70s, but almost entirely in football. Multiple county championships, and a couple of Leinster crowns thrown in for good measure. These were glorious and heady days for a resurgent club. Hurling, by comparison, was the poor relation. True there were morsels of hope. There was a precious minor title in ’72 and a rare senior final appearance in ’77. Hardly enough to suggest the emergence of a new super-power. So what happened?
Chairman of Portlaoise GAA for most of the ’70s was Teddy Fennelly. “We had decent players in the club at the time and there was good success at various underage levels but we always seemed to be Jacking the two or three players needed to mount a serious championship challenge at senior level. There was a general feeling among hurling people in the club that we had to strive to put it on an equal footing with football“.
A special hurling meeting was called in 1979. Teddy recalls, “Among the driving forces behind this were people like Tom ‘Nasser’ Lalor, Billy Bohan (Senior), Paddy Critchley, Paddy Brennan, John Keenan, Bill Phelan, Tom Bergin, Jimmy Lalor and more. The entire club rowed in behind them with their ideas to improve hurling in Portlaoise“. The wheels were in motion.
A young player back then was Pat Critchley, who went on to become one of the greatest players in the county and beyond. Pat traces the renaissance to a year earlier. “We won various underage titles growing up but we lost out at minor level. Winning the under 21 in ’78 when we beat Abbeyleix gave us a great self-belief and I thought that was a real turning point. We felt we were going places after that“. Other graduates from this team included three Bohans, Joe Keenan, Sean Bergin, ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett and a few more. It was a rich harvest.
An important decision to come from 1979’s meeting was that a high profile hurling person be sought to assist the management and structures that were already in place, in order to help and inspire the senior team to take the next vital steps. By chance, a great Portlaoise clubman, Owen Deegan, was married to the since dearly departed Olive Doyle (RIP). Olive was a Tipperary woman and her brother was none other than the legendary Jimmy Doyle, one of the greatest hurlers to ever grace the game. Owen worked his charm and Jimmy Doyle came aboard the good ship Portlaoise Hurling.
The mere presence of Jimmy Doyle had an effect on the players. Matty Keegan, a dangerous corner forward who especially thrived in combat against Camross, recalls, “Tom Lalor was our trainer and did excellent work as well as the selectors involved at the time. Jimmy coming to help was so exciting for the players. Here was a man who had won All-Irelands and was one of the most famous hurlers ever and he wanted to help us. I think it lifted everyone on the panel to a new level to have a man like that in with you. You wanted to do well for this management team and between Tom and Jimmy they did a great job.“
Cheddar’ Plunkett is similarly effusive about the impact of Jimmy. “Certainly the arrival of Jimmy Doyle to coach the Portlaoise Hurling Team was critical to the future success of the team. Remember that at that time Jimmy, along with Eddie Keher of Kilkenny, were the marquee names of hurling and Jimmy’s arrival to our team would be the equivalent of DJ Carey corning to coach a team in Laois in the present day. In addition to him being a hurling superstar he was also a very genuine and humble man and the team took to him immediately. I can remember clearly the first evening he came to a training session. We were lucky in that we had some very skilful players in our team at the time but on that first evening he partook in the session himself and we were all mesmerised by his first touch and control. His thoughts on the way the game should be played suited our style perfectly which was to play the game open and fast with players supporting the man with the ball all over the park. Jimmy, having played the game at the highest level also knew his tactics. At the time Martin Cuddy of Camross was a very strong but very fair centre forward and generally only took one route to goal – the shortest. … I’m sure Martin won’t mind me quoting him in this example. Time and again players would bounce off Martin as he headed for goal and he would offload to another forward or go the whole way himself but Jimmy changed that and instead got our backs to take a step back and force Martin to play the ball much earlier than he wished. In praising Jimmys role in the team however we will not forget the impact that a lot of other men from within the club had on our team, none more so than Tom Lalor. It is hard to believe now but just a few short years previous to Portlaoise winning in ’81 there were proposals doing the rounds to wind up senior hurling in the club and to join-up with another club. Those men deserve a huge amount of thanks for keeping senior hurling going in the club at the time. However once the team got going in the late seventies Jimmy was probably the final part of the management jigsaw and was probably the ideal counterfoil to Tom, and they worked really well together. I really couldn’t say enough about Jimmy both as a coach and as a person and it’s testament to his popularity that we all remain very good friends with him to this present day.“
Just a year later the town hurlers reached the county final and they gave an almighty display and ran 5-in-a-row chasing Camross to two points. Though losing by 3-4 to 1-8 a young Town team laid down a solid marker for the future. Most Portlaoise people will tell you that John Taylor was the finest player to ever wear the green and white, or the blue and white for that matter. He had been one of the best underage players in the club in the ’70s but he drifted away after Under 14 level and never even hurled minor. Peader Molloy was chairman of Portlaoise GAA from 1983-1998 and was a neighbour of Taylors. “I used to be onto him to come back up to the field as I knew he was a great prospect. He lost a bit of interest in the hurling but he came back before 1980 and thank God he did!” Taylor hurled for about twenty years after at senior level with the town winning 8 county titles, his last in 1998. He was universally acknowledged as one of the greatest left half-backs in the country and Taylor in full flight was a joy to behold for town supporters.
Fast forward to ’81 and utopia! Portlaoise turned the tables on Camross by 2-13 to 4-5 and there were memorable scenes in Rathdowney as John Joe Ging lifted the Bob O’Keefe Cup. Portlaoise, mere canon-fodder for so many years, were champions of Laois for the first time since 1943. This was the start of a glorious period and they went on to win four-in a row beating Errill, Camross again and the Harps. They created two historic records in the process. They became the first team to win four consecutive championships at four different venues and John Joe Ging – ‘the Auld Timer’ – became the first man to lift the Bob O Keefe four years in a row.
The five in a row dream was punctured by the old enemy Camross in 1985 in a dour and forgettable game by the narrowest of margins. But Portlaoise were the team of the ’80s and added titles in ’87 and ’89 to re-inforce the point. To date this is the most glorious chapter in Portlaoise hurling history. The likes of John Taylor, Pat Critchley, Liam Bergin, and Billy and John Bohan not only backboned their club but they also contributed hugely too to a memorable period for Laois at inter-county level. They were denied cruelly by Offaly in the Leinster Championship on a couple of occasions ….. Paddy Kirwan and Padraig Horan have a lot to answer for! And they also won through to the Centenary Cup Final in 1984 where a John Fenton-led Cork denied them. On the way to this final they defeated Tipperary and Galway in memorable contests. Winning their last Senior title in 2004 they have been knocking on the door in recent times having unfortunately lost a number finals.
In the Summer of 1998 Portlaoise Senior Hurlers were in the midst of their preparations for a senior Hurling Championship game. Seamus “Cheddar” Plunkett was our manager then and, as the Players togged out in the dressing room, he was pacing the side of the main pitch waiting for a juvenile football match to finish so he could set out his cones and drills.