Welcome to our 7th edition of the Tattler. Summer 2021 is rolling on and as we head into the second half of 2021, we pause and take a breath to reflect on all that has been achieved so far this year, despite all of the challenges currently facing individuals, and the wider community, in these still uncertain times. Our involvement in our games and in making our club a place for everyone continues to give us all a sense of pride and purpose. Club really is family. Thank you for all your support so far in 2021 and we look optimistically towards the rest of 2021.
Most Portlaoise GAA people will clearly remember the trauma and the uncertainty caused by the collapse in the sale of the old grounds in Fr Browne Avenue. The club had made the momentous decision to move to the more spacious surrounds of Rathleague following a very tense EGM. The developer who was purchasing Fr Browne Avenue had released €6.5M for Portlaoise GAA Club to acquire the new lands in Rathleague and to start the development of them. And then bang! The sale fell through and the club was left with an undeveloped green-field site and the millstone of massive debt around its neck.
This was a time of extreme stress for everyone connected with the club. The stuff of nightmares. But as the horrid reality dawned the real meaning of club also came to the fore.The club officials at the time showed tremendous resilience and the goodwill of members was plain to see.The determination to rise from the ashes was evident and to the forefront of this was Jim Gaynor.
Jim was a self-employed agri store owner and agri consultant and was involved in the club at committee level at the time. He went above and beyond in dealing with the fallout of the collapse and he led the way in driving the development of our new grounds in Rathleague. He halved the time he spent in his own business and invested this time and more into Portlaoise GAA club as a volunteer. Most people wouldn’t have a notion of the amount of work that went into Rathleague to get it to where it is right now. The grounds are in splendid condition – a testament to the tireless, everyday efforts of unbelievable club volunteers such as Liam Breen, Sonny Keogh, Ollie Byrne, Phil Harrington, Pat Loughman, Pat Keegan, JP Cahillane, and Seamus Smyth.
All of these men would point to the leadership and drive of Jim Gaynor when things were at the very lowest ebb. Jim recounts the story of the development of Rathleague in great detail and is very proud to have been involved and very appreciative of the help that people gave along the way.
Jim had a huge set back to his own health in 2019 when he had a brain haemorrhage and he spent 6 months in hospital following this. Physically, as he says himself, he’s ‘a bit bet up’ but mentally he’s as sharp as ever.
The Tattler recently caught up with Jim in his residence in Laurel Court on the Dublin Road, where he lives with his devoted wife and rock, Freida.
What's your background Jim?
I qualified in Agri Science in UCD. I’m originally from Westmeath. Just outside Mullingar – a little place called Ballinacarrigy.
What brought you to Portlaoise?
Work. We moved to Portlaoise and opened up a merchants store in Ballybrittas. I took out an auctioneer’s licence and would have done a lot of work in valuations, helping people affected by compulsory purchase orders. I worked all over the country so I was doing a lot of travelling. I worked on the re-instatement of the gas pipeline from Cork to Dublin which went through about 500-600 landowners. I had a lot of dealings with drainage and re-instatement of land.
First involvements in Portlaoise GAA
I have four sons and three of them played some football with the club, particularly Brian and Paul.They played with Ballyfin college too and Brian was full back on the Laois minor team of 1998, beaten by Tyrone in the All-Ireland Final in Dublin.
Your better half?
Freda is from Tipperary, outside Thurles. I met her at a dance in Dublin around 1970.
Your own playing career?
I played county minor for Westmeath as a corner back. I remember my first minor match against Dublin and I had a particularly good game. After the minor was finished, I played Junior and then Senior in the Autumn.I was only 18 or 19. I remember games against Fermanagh and Sligo. I played Senior for one year only and we got to a league final.
Did you grow up aspiring to play for Westmeath?
No it just happened. I never gave it much thought. We had a number of good players such as Dom Murtagh and Mick Caroly, Dessie Dolan Snr. We were in the play offs of the league against Down and then I was dropped off the team. All of a sudden I wasn’t even on the subs even though a lot of the subs that were there never even played a match. The club went in to ask what happened and I was told they forgot about me. I felt sore over that. I wouldn’t have minded being dropped to the subs but to be told they forgot about ya after being on the team for all the other matches. I felt really hurt. That turned me off playing for Westmeath and I never played after that. As a college student I went to America for two Summers and that kind of took me out of the game as well a bit. I worked for two Summers in New York. I worked in all sorts of places – bars, security, and I played with Leitrim over there.
When I moved to Kilkenny I was involved with James Stephens in hurling – I used to coach the lads there, they were all only in national school. When I came to Portlaoise there was very little being done with the juveniles at the time. A group of us got together including John Costelloe, the late Sean Mullins RIP, and a number of other people who had sons to start the Sunday morning training with the juveniles up in Fr Browne Avenue. I spent a number of years at that. I enjoyed the coaching immensely. I was a mentor with Paul’s U12 team. We got to the Féile final down in Kerry in a place called Carrow. I remember being involved with U21’s when Brian was playing and we played Stradbally Parish Gaels in the county final over in Timahoe. It was a famous match and we beat them. It was one of the most enjoyable matches I was ever at. Pauric Phelan, Aidan Fennelly, Bruno McCormack were on it – a great group of fellas. They had a good team with Clancy and Miller and others.
I got involved in the committee and I used to help with cutting the grass up in Fr Browne Avenue with Phil O Keeffe, Joe Daly and a few others. I recall the ground was quite wet – a lot of people mightn’t remember that.All along by where the SDS is now was very wet and up to the juvenile pitches. We used to get stuck there trying to park cars. It was the same type of soil as we have out in Rathleague. If you look at the soils map of Ireland you’ll see that all around Portlaoise the soil type is a heavy gley which means essentially it’s just not free-draining and you have to put in heavy drainage. For Rathleague, it means we have to keep the lateral drains running across the pitch fairly close and a network of drainage so that surface water can get away. Spiking is needed every so often in Rathleague to try reduce the compaction. It compacts with the players running on it. Spikes and also sand down into it make it a bit more free draining.
I thought Aidan Fennelly was a nice player. He had great speed and he was a good man to tackle players. Martin Delaney was a classy player. Ian Fitzgerald was a lovely player.
I’ve enjoyed following the different club teams through the years and seeing my son Brian play a part with the senior football teams. In 1999 the Club footballers, who had been through a lean period, won the county final with Brian in corner back. In the county final Portlaoise had about 12 players who were either minor or U21.
I also remember another final, I think in 2001, where Brian got an infection and a high temperature in the days leading up to the match. I got him an antibiotic and Mick Lillis arrived here with a big bowl of yoghurt and told him to eat it. I remember going out after the match when the final was over, and Brian’s jersey was wet on his back. He got through it though. There was great spirit in that team.
Running out of space in Fr Browne Avenue
We had a very active Juvenile Club in hurling and football at all ages. It was decided there wasn’t enough room to cater for everyone. I was given the job of trying to research the available sites around Portlaoise and report back to the committee. We were keen to stay as close to the town as we could. So I went around and I looked at a lot of grounds. A lot of the land we looked at was owned by dairy farmers who weren’t interested in selling. So we had limited enough options in terms of where we could go.
There was another site out on the Crookedy road, but it was wetter and worse and closer to the bog out there. We finally decided on the grounds at Rathleague. The late Mrs Conroy had a house in front of Pat Keegan’s, and she had about 20 acres. Mary and Joe Lalor owned another 19.5 acres.
The size and the shape of the land was important and with these two parcels of land it came to a total of just under 40 acres. Fr Brown, in comparison, was about 17 acres. It was also the right shape.
We sold the land in Fr Browne Avenue to the developers Firestone. Planning permission was obtained from Laois County Council and we thought we were sorted. We sold the place for €19M. However some locals appealed the decision. After waiting some months, Firestone – who wanted us to be working on the new grounds so that they would be ready to move when it came to Fr Browne – lent us €6.5M to buy land and develop it. Unfortunately, An Bord Pleanála rejected the planning and we were left in limbo.
Working away on Rathleague – Before things crashed
We appointed a contractor, Sol Golf from Cork, to clear out the site and change it from agricultural use. Ditches had to be removed and drains organised. We also got the green perimeter fencing installed at the time. We appointed, on the advice of Croke Park, Richard Hayden to supervise Sol Golf and to design the pitch layout and pitch drainage as he was an expert in that field. So we didn’t undertake that work ourselves. Hayden was also the person who developed Fr Browne Avenue for the County Board – the current Centre of Excellence. I just kept an eye on what was happening for my own interest.
I had knowledge in this area, but I wasn’t the person calling the shots. If there was something I thought might have been done differently I might have said it but you can’t have two or three different people directing to the contractor. Richard Hayden was the man we were relying on. Unfortunately, we ran out of money and we couldn’t drain all of the pitches properly. We owed Sol Golf some money in the end and eventually there was a deal done with them, but they weren’t prepared to release the drainage drawings, and that’s why the drawings we have now are sketchy.
Sol Golf finished their works and when they left it was a bit like a building site. Big heaps of stones, rubble was left and pitch 5 had no top soil spread on it. The car park was in rough condition. Pitches 1, 2, 3 & 4 were completed to a high standard including drainage. Pitches 5 and 6 weren’t drained at all.
Getting Stuck In
I spent a lot of time out there in 2010 and 2011. I took half time off my work. I had a business partner and I didn’t want to be blackguarding him. So I told him I’d just take half a salary for a year or two. I wanted to help move it from a building site to what it is today.
What made you do this?
Well I felt that in the club we were all shocked when planning was refused by An Bord Pleanála. The club was in bother and we needed to pull together. We needed people to rally around and to help. It was pure determination to make things work out. I felt we needed to rally together and a lot of people were called upon. We got a great response with lots of club members getting stuck in on a voluntary basis.
Getting the grounds up and running
We identified a long list of jobs that needed to be done to get the grounds ready for use. This included removing the rubble and sand, getting the car park built, laying pitch 5, and constructing the changing rooms and services.
Installing the dressing rooms
Once we cleared the site and layed Pitch 5 we turned our attention to getting some covered areas and temporary dressing rooms. I had a plan in my head as to what way I thought we should lay out the dressing rooms. We bought a good wide container off Sol Golf – that’s where the showers are – and got stuck in with a lot of help from a lot of people. A range of portacabins were organised through different sources across the county and transport to Rathleague was arranged. Foundation walls were put in for the containers to be dropped in sections. A 40-foot container was bought and used for dressing rooms. People don’t realise we have 4,000 sq ft of covered space out there.
When we were designing the portacabins we deliberately left space for the clubhouse. There is room to build it without having to shut the place down. Some people might think some of the old stock are against the clubhouse. We are not of course – but it’s a question of what the priorities are for the club. My thinking is that the drainage and the lights are the priority. The players need proper training facilities for the winter.
From where we started, it is amazing to look back at all the jobs that we’ve got done over the years. We upgraded and set out the car park and entrance road, installed the gym and machinery shed, put up floodlights on pitch 4, put fencing around pitch 1, install ball catcher nets, landscape the grounds with trees and hedging, etc.
Lots of Help
I got great satisfaction out of seeing the grounds develop. We had come from a point where we were on our knees to turning it around and salvaging it as a club. Lots of people helped down throughout the years with different jobs. If we had got the €19M I don’t think people would have come out to help as much. I don’t want to start naming names as I know I’ll leave somebody out.
Needless to say, there were so many people who volunteered. It is what makes this club so special. Some were able to give more time than others but every bit helped get us to where we are now. It gives me great pride to look back on this time and to have met all these people. The sub-committee at the time responsible for the relocation was great. It included John Hanniffy, who played a big part in the negotiation with the developer, Teddy Fennelly Snr, Vinny Dowling and Peter O Neill. The day-to-day maintenance in Rathleague has, and still is very well kept. I still call out for the morning cuppa from time to time and meet up with Ollie, Sonny, Liam, Phil, JP, Seamus, and the two Pats. The banter is great out there and it’s great to catch up with all the lads.
Tell us about taking ill Jim
I’m badly bet up as you can see. I had a brain haemorrhage. In the Spring of 2019, I had a bit of a problem with low blood pressure. I was getting dizzy spells. I went into the hospital in Portlaoise, and they did a scan on me, and they noticed I had an unusual shading in my brain. They said there was a cluster of blood vessels that shouldn’t be there, so they sent me to Beaumount and they did an angiogram. The options I was given were that I could have an operation and have them removed, do nothing and they could be there for years, or have radiotherapy. I opted for the radiotherapy as it was the least intrusive.I didn’t like the idea of a big operation opening my head up. But I didn’t get to have the treatment.
I had a date for the radiotherapy but 4 or 5 days before it I got a massive headache. I went up to bed and I took two anadin. I thought it was just a bad headache. Freda came up ten minutes later and I was gone unconscious so she called an ambulance and they brought me up to Beaumount. They operated on me that Sunday night.
Thankfully I pulled through it although I was in a coma then and kept on a life support machine for 2 or 3 weeks. I was paralysed all down my left side. I couldn’t walk, stand, and I couldn’t talk which was a major problem for me! There were tubes sticking out of me everywhere. When they took out the tracheotomy, I got my voice back and the boys said to me if you don’t stop talking, we’ll get them to put the tracheotomy back in! I gradually recovered and went to Peamount then. It’s a rehabilitation hospital and they got me back on my feet. I was 2 or 3 months there. I spent 6 months in hospital between Beaumount, Naas, Peamount and Portlaoise.
How are you now?
I’m badly restricted. Freda got the house converted for me downstairs when I was in hospital. Freda is my rock and only for her I’d be lost. I use a walker a lot. I can walk but if I fell I wouldn’t be able to get up.
A lot of my power is gone. A homecare lady comes in the mornings to wash and shave me. But I’m upbeat. I don’t feel sick or anything. At this point Freda comes in to check on us as we have been chatting for nearly 3 hours. Jim may have lost some of his power but his memory is still in good shape. As we get ready to part, Jim reminds me of a few practical things in the club grounds such as the importance of having the Bord Na Mona treatment plant properly serviced. He sees no reason why this can’t serve the club well regardless of whatever facilities development is planned. And he tells us the name of the man who will service it. Finally, he says that he would like to thank everyone who he worked with and volunteered in the development of the grounds. It is a place that is very special to him.
Jim Gaynor is a man who has made a tremendous selfless contribution to Portlaoise GAA but for him it’s what he got out of it himself. As he said on numerous occasions, he got great satisfaction in seeing the club develop. And he looks forward to it continuing to develop long into the future.