SLIOTHAIRS again slap on ash in Rathleague—after a pause of six decades or more. It’s a sound that evokes thoughts of a once great GAA club, The Rovers, that, alas, is fast fading from living memory.
Rathleague, the historic townland on the Stradbally side of the county town, was the home of the Rovers. So when the Portlaoise club moved there four years ago, it was, so to speak, stepping on to hallowed soil.
From its formation in 1937 until its demise in the early 1950s, the Rovers achieved amazing success, especially at minor level. And in the 1951 senior hurling final, played in 1952, it nearly went all the way but was pipped by a point. Kyle were the victors. The club revived for a brief period in the 1960s but never went near to repeating its former glory.
Rathleague—which, incidentally, was the ancestral home of Charles Stewart Parnell—and the New Road supplied most of the Rovers. They trained in a field belonging to the Maher family. Aptly, some of the Maher lads also togged out with the club.
Just up the road from the Mahers lived the Byrnes and from them came one of the Rovers’—and Laois’—greatest hurlers, Tom Byrne. He was centre half back on the O’Moore County team beaten by Tipperary in the 1949 All-Ireland final. Playing on that day, too, was Joe Styles, at centre field, who had honed his skills with the Rovers before transferring to Clonad.
Joe Byrne, Tom’s elder brother, was the Rovers’ dedicated secretary. He died in 1995, leaving behind minute books that give a fascinating and amusing insights into the workings of the club.
At a meeting on March 31, 1945, for instance, it was noted that the minors were to play Portarlington on the following Sunday and “all promised to do their best to have bicycles and get there the best way they could!” Truly a different world.
On September 21, 1945, the Rovers’ selected the side to play Raheen in the intermediate hurling final and issued the following instructions: “Get regular sleep and meals and keep fit. Also on day of match take no dinner, only a cup of tea, and smoke as little as possible. All to have their togs and jerseys washed, boots well-studded and good laces.” And it was arranged that J. Tierney, J. Byrne, C. Scully and A. Conroy would “bring towels to dry players at half-time.”
The same meeting appointed J. Byrne, J. Keenan, J. Tierney, F. Bergin and J. Maher to discuss with Portlaoise the proposed amalgamation of the two clubs. Lest we forget, we should point out that the Rovers’ Chairman in 1945 was the famous Paddy (‘Gael’) Bland of the New Road.
Joe Byrne retained many receipts and they cast light on the living costs in the late 1940s. An example: two cakes and two bracks bought from Annie Dalton, Lower Main Street, for the club céilí, six shillings; three sticks to make hurleys bought from Con Dowling, £1-2-0; Leinster Express advertisement for ceili, eleven shillings; and Coliseum Cinema advertisement for same, five shillings.
More: 70 cigarettes supplied by Julia Campion, seven shillings; cloakroom tickets purchased from M. Fortune, three shillings; car hire paid to Michael Dunne for match in Timahoe, sixteen shillings; fee to Louis Lalor, Bridge Street, for sawing and bandsawing 41 hurleys, fifteen shillings; two hurling balls from Thomas Higgins, Lower Main Street, seventeen shillings; meat teas for minors in James Fitzgibbon’s restaurant, Main Street, twelve shillings…the list goes on. The club’s running costs in 1948 were £234-4-8 and among the items of expenditure was ink. No biros in those days. Income for the year was £234-0-6.
A great Rover if ever there was one was Dan Kerry of St John’s Square and formerly of the New Road. He lived well into his 90s and died only a few years ago. In an interview with the Leinster Express, he recalled: “We travelled to matches mostly on bikes. What other means had we? We might have one car with half a dozen lads in it. We used to hire Joe Dunne of the Borris Road and he was lucky if he got five bob off us. At that time you could come home half crippled. There was no such thing as going to hospital, only getting out next day and hurling again.”
He went on: “You could have 40 or 50 playing playing out in Mahers’ fields in Rathleague. You could put up a goalpost and you didn’t even have to ask.” Why did the Rovers fade away? Dan replied: “All our good players were poached by other
Roll of honour In the decade from 1942 to 1951, The Rovers blazed like a comet in the Laois GAA world: minor hurling champions 1942/47 inclusive; minor football title 1942/44; junior hurling champions 1942; intermediate title holders 1945 and ’48; Roscrea tournament winners 1951; one point losers to Kyle in 1951 senior final, played in 1952, To sum up: six minor hurling titles in a row and six minor titles in three years, 1942/43/44. Rathleague and the Rovers: an inspiration to the Portlaoise.