A personal note by Teddy Fennelly
The late 1950s and early 1960s proved frustrating ones for town followers. While we won the minor double in 1961, the senior teams seemed to be further from a title than ever. The footballers lost to O’Dempseys rather tamely in the 1961 semi-final. I began my senior career that year and was at corner forward in this game. I remember creating two great chances for myself and then fluffing the lines by sending two ‘certain’ goals wide. That was my last outing in the forwards. The selectors saw my future, if I had any, in the backs – and maybe they were right!
In the final in 1962, we had a nice young team mixed with experience and seemed to have prospects. But we were again pitted against The Heath. A youthful Mick Murphy was centre-half back and a key figure in this final. But before half-time he was “roughed up” off ball and The Heath took full advantage of the weakened centre. We were steamrolled really in the second half. It was hard to take but it proved another milestone on the long road to the top. I remember some of the younger members of the team getting together and making a vow that this was the last time that our great neighbours in the black and amber hoops would get the better of us.
The Heath did not stand in our way in 1963 but Graiguecullen did. It was another tight call which we lost. O’Dempseys, without the services of their erstwhile saviour and wonderful footballer, Jack Kenna, who had retired the previous year, sensationally won the title. This was surely a lesson for Portlaoise. O’Dempseys had had their own pilgrimage to the title. If they could do it, why not us?
By this stage I was getting involved in the administration and, prompted by some established clubmen, including that delightful character and true blue townsman, Ralph Dowling, I was elected club treasurer. I still wonder why a 21 year old, totally wrapped up in playing and winning on the field, would want to get involved in the administration and the politics of the game. I am sure that the answer lies with Ralph, who was my guru and great friend.
We had wise heads in charge then with Joe Bracken, a solid chairman, and Jimmy Cotter, fearless and totally committed as secretary. We also had some great men in charge of the teams, men like Jack Delaney, Ned Harkin, Tommy Keogh and John Keenan.
The club had no grounds, no clubhouse, no home. We togged out in a ditch in the outside field at O’Moore Park, rented from the County Board, with no privacy from public view, our clothes left under the hedge, and no shower facility except for what fell from the skies. And there was no shortage of that. Summer or winter.
But, I guess, that’s what we had and we knew no better. I don’t remember any cribs or crying, just laughs and comraderie, with Alfie and the “Red Lad” always good for the “craic” and Bracken, the “Rake” and “Jazz” there for good measure, all in all a happy lot. It helped our team spirit, a bunch of hardy young bucks with a pride in our place, primed to put the effort in and prepared to accept the knocks and hardships that went along with what we were at.
In fairness to Ralph, he believed in better, and while there were others wishing for better, for me it was Ralph who was the driving force to a better future for our club. Coincidentally it was his namesake, Paudge Dowling, who took over the role of driving force for the ambitious development of the club on Ralph’s untimely death in 1976, many years into the future. Paudge, who coincidentally too married Ralph’s widow, Brigid, lived to see his great ambition fulfilled. Thanks to the foresight and sheer dedication of these and others, Portlaoise finally acquired its own grounds and facilities to match the best and also to match the great achievements of the club into the future.
Now back to the sixties and on to 1964 – the turning point for the club. After runaway wins over Killeshin, Ballylinan and Annanough, we faced a well fancied Graiguecullen side in the final. Dinty Byrne, at midfield, was their trump card. He was as good as there was in any county in Ireland of that or any era, and he rarely disappointed. Another Graigue man to watch specially was a young Mick Fennell, still a minor but obviously something special.
We moved our training camp to the Stradbally Road, where Jim Lewis, Summerhill, farmer and gentleman and father to Alfie and Syd, allowed us to use a derelict house and a convenient field for our final preparations. A pole was erected and the outside light was provided with what was probably a 100 watt bulb, a wonderful amenity on a dark autumn night in 1964. How things have changed!
Joe Byrne, that good humoured and staunch GAA man from nearby Summerhill Lane, who gave sterling service to the club, especially among the juveniles, over many years, was always on hand for a “rub”. We had put in the work and we had the players, a strong, well balanced team, full of footballing talent.
Jim Hughes was team captain and leader and with Jim leading the way the prospect of defeat was never entertained. You could say that there were few shrinking violets in this outfit. But if we were hoping for another runaway win, then we were rudely awakened. This Graigue side, had also put in the work and had the talent and what a game it was! Scores came at a premium and excitement and tensions ran high. There was a huge amount at stake for both proud clubs. I have often heard since that victory usually goes to the team that needed it most. We must have needed it most. Although never more than the minimum between the sides, we believed that this was Portlaoise’s day. And it was, if only just.
My father, Joe, had been a loyal member of the club all his life playing football and hurling back in Fr. Kearney’s day in the early decades of the last century. Now in his twilight years he, like all his club comrades of previous generations, had yearned for this day all his life. It had finally come.
The revelries that followed matched the importance of the occasion. We ended up in the derelict house where we had trained on the Stradbally Road and somebody provided a barrel of porter which did not last near as long as the extended celebrations. The curse had been finally lifted. And so it was. The rest is history