Thursday, August 28, 2003

'Skurt' Doyle

Jack Doyle, “the gorgeous Gael” was a well known Irish boxing hero, albeit a somewhat flawed one, during the 1940’s and 1950’s.  Here in Athy the name Jack Doyle is a common enough one and was the name of a local sporting legend who was known far and wide as “Skurt” Doyle.  What was the origin of the nickname “Skurt” I cannot say, but it was a name proudly borne by Athy man Jack Doyle, whose prowess on many sporting fields ranked him in the forefront of sporting heroes of his time.

I have been accumulating bits and pieces of information on “Skurt” Doyle for many years, always conscious of his importance in the pantheon of local sporting legends of the past.  There are very few people today who remember “Skurt” Doyle and those who do recall him will have memories and recollections of this great man in his later years. 

“Skurt” Doyle as a young man enlisted in the Dublin Fusiliers a few years after the dawning of the 20th century.  The year was 1904 and just months previously Athy had been en fête for the Gordon Bennett Race which thrilled and excited the locals and visitors alike who thronged the streets of Athy and the roads leading out of the town on that famous day in July 1903.  “Skurt” was sent to England for training with the Dublin Fusiliers following which he was based for a few years in Egypt and Malta.  It was while in Egypt that “Skurt’s” sporting prowess first came to prominence.  He participated in a boxing tournament while stationed in Khartoum and became the British Army Novice Cruiserweight Champion when he defeated Jim Lillis, a Dublin born one time professional boxer.

I have often heard accounts of “Skurt’s” prowess as a runner and the story of how he ran in a marathon race across the Egyptian Desert, only to lose out to a fleet footed Arab.  The story goes that “Skurt” only managed second place, simply because he had consumed a quantity of porter before the race and was not in peak condition for the desert run.  But for that, we were told, the Arab would have found himself floundering in the wake of the Athy man!

Before he enlisted in the British Army, “Skurt” played Gaelic football for the Athy club and was enormously proud of the day he and another local man, Paddy “Thatcher” Nolan togged out to play alongside the legendary Joe Rafferty after the Clane team arrived in Athy to play a football match with only 13 players.  Clane were county champions between 1901 and 1903 and their star player was Joe Rafferty, regarded as the greatest mid-fielder of his time.  Rafferty who was born on Lambay Island was the lynchpin of the Clane team which won three successive county championships and when he transferred to Roseberry he helped that club win seven championship titles in a row from 1904.  One of Kildare’s most famous footballers, Joe Rafferty, played for the county in the famous All Ireland Football Finals of 1905 and 1907. 

That match involving Clane and Athy was played a short time before “Skurt” Doyle left Athy to join the British Army but while a regular soldier in the Dublin Fusiliers “Skurt” continued to play Gaelic football.  He was a member of the regimental team which in 1910 played in Aldershot, England against an Irish Guard’s team before approximately 7,000 spectators.  Was this I wonder the first Gaelic football match between British Army Regiments based in England.

“Skurt” as a regular soldier was part of the British Expeditionary Force which landed in France at the start of World War I.  He was captured during the Battle of Mons and like so many other Irish men spent the remaining years of the war as a prisoner in the Limburg P.O.W. camp.  It was in Limburg that “Skurt” met Fr. J.T. Crotty, the Dominican priest who had previously served in the Athy Priory, who was then one of the chaplains to the 3,000 or so Irishmen imprisoned in Limburg.  Three Athy men, Michael Bowden, Martin Maher and John Byrne who like “Skurt” Doyle were soldiers of the 2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers were to die in Limburg before the end of the war. 

On his release from the German P.O.W. camp “Skurt” returned to his regiment and before his discharge from the Army he played both soccer and rugby for the British Army in what is generally regarded as international games.  As an Army soccer player he played with well known English soccer players such as Steve Bloomer of Derby County and Dickie Bond of Bradford City.  In rugby he lined out for the National Army team against the English Navy team and also against the Belgium Army team.  His skill at games was quite extraordinary and on one occasion in a cricket match against the Gravesend town team he made a century for which feat he was presented with a gold medal.

“Skurt” Doyle, on being demobbed in 1919, returned to Athy and rejoined the local G.A.A. Club.  He played football for Athy G.F.C. for the next four years.  Before long his talents came to the notice of the County Selectors and from 1920 to 1922 he was the regular goal keeper on the County Kildare senior team.  His last game for the county was in Croke Park in April 1922.  Athy Hockey Club was another beneficiary of “Skurt’s” talents and he fielded for the Showgrounds based club on several occasions.  It was however his prowess as a rugby player and a Gaelic footballer that “Skurt” Doyle was best remembered.  He joined the Irish Army for a short time in the 1920’s and while stationed in Carlow he was a key member of the local Rugby Club.  On one occasion he incurred the displeasure of his superiors and was confined to barracks.  The restriction coincided with an important match involving the Carlow team and since “Skurt” was such an important part of that team, high powered representations to the Military Authorities were required to allow him out to play.

 “Skurt” played with Athy Rugby Club from 1924 onwards and featured in three memorable, if ultimately disappointing, Towns Cup finals.  Athy, ably assisted by their powerful prop forward “Skurt” Doyle, were involved in the Towns Cup finals of 1927, 1928 and 1929 but on each occasion victory was denied.  Following one memorable final played in Landsdowne Road, a teammate Jerry O’Neill noticed that “Skurt” had difficulty taking off his shirt.  It was later discovered the not so old warrior had broken his collarbone just before half time, yet had played out the entire match without complaint.  Apart from the British Army, Carlow and Athy Rugby Clubs, “Skurt” also played for the Dublin Club, Monkstown, and I believe he may have ended his rugby playing days there. 

On retiring as a player “Skurt” continued his involvement in Gaelic football and rugby.  He was trainer to both the Rugby Club and the G.A.A. Club in Athy and he is to be seen photographed with teams from both codes during the 1930’s and 1940’s.  James “Skurt” Doyle married Mary Lawler of Ardreigh and they lived at No. 18 Convent View.  He worked in later years as a helper on the local C.I.E. delivery lorry.  “Skurt” Doyle, one of the greatest local sporting legends of his time, died 50 years ago and is buried in St. Michael’s cemetery.

Someone, somewhere, has the gold medal presented to “Skurt” Doyle following the cricket match in Gravesend and maybe also his war medals and the watch and chain with which he was presented on leaving the British Army in recognition of his sporting achievements.  He was truly one of the great sporting legends of this town.  His story is one to which I will return again.

The local Heritage Centre in the Town Hall is about to set up a “Friends of the Heritage Centre” with a view to enlisting the support of retired persons who might be willing to devote a few hours every month or so to curating the centre during Sunday afternoon openings.  The Heritage Centre is scheduled to open seven days a week during the summer season but with the limited staff employed it is not always possible to do this.  If you would like to be involved in helping out at the local Heritage Centre please contact the Centre on Ph. (0507) 33075.

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