Thursday, June 14, 2007

Great sporting moments from our history

The extraordinary event - TriAthy 2007 has come and gone. Never before has Athy played host to such a huge gathering of sportsmen, over 700 in all, who swam, cycled and ran their way to the finishing line at Barrow Quay. Athy has seen many major sporting events in its time, from All Ireland football and hurling finals played in Geraldine Park to National Ploughing championships run off at Russellstown, but never, I believe, have so many participants been involved in a single event such as took place last weekend. It was a magnificent spectacle, organised on the day with extraordinary precision and fulsome congratulations are due to the organisers who included local man Arthur Lynch. Emily Square in the centre of the town proved its worth yet again, providing as it did welcome space for competitors and bikes alike on a scale which few other towns in Ireland could match. All in all TriAthy was a resounding success and hopefully it will become an annual event in the sporting and social calendar of Athy.

Sporting activity has been a prominent feature of life in Athy for many decades. However, it wasn’t so apparent to a visitor who in 1884 wrote of his time spent in the town of Athy. “There was little sport about Athy.” There may well have been little inducement for sport in those given the social unrest due to Land League activities and chronic unemployment in the area.

We must go back even further than 1884 to find a record of sports in which the locals were actively involved. Cockfighting was one such sport and it retained its popularity amongst the local people right up to the 1920’s. A cockpit was located in Duke Street and hosted regular cock fights up to the middle of the 19th century when the medieval “sport” was made illegal. However, cockfighting still retained a large following in the area up to the 1920’s and beyond.

Another more acceptable form of sport which was popular in Athy over the years was handball. Athy once boasted two handball alleys, one located in Leinster Street, the other in Barrack Lane. The Estate Map of Athy prepared for the Duke of Leinster in 1827 showed both handball courts, the Barrack Lane court lying adjacent to the Military Barracks which had been built in the 1730’s. Clearly the court had been provided primarily for the use of the soldiers, while the Leinster Street court was presumably a commercial venture lying behind one of the local public houses. The Barrack Lane Court survived up to the 1970’s and in fact was replaced by a newly built court provided by the Urban District Council which however remained unused and was demolished after a few years.

Some of the local handballing champions from the past included John Delaney, Tom Aldridge, George Robinson, Jack Delaney, Bill Aldridge, Jim Foley and George Ryan. The last named won a junior All Ireland title in 1946 and so far as I know he was the last All Ireland champion to play out of Athy Handball Club.

Cycling was another sport which caught the publics imagination, even if it did not necessarily involve many locals as active participants. The sport developed in the 1890’s soon after J.P. Dunlop developed the pneumatic tyre. Local cyclists whose names figured prominently in the sport in its early years included C.W. Taylor of Forest Farm, Harry and Bob Large of Rheban, Andy Bergin and his brother J.J. Bergin of Maybrook.

Archery and rowing were two other sports which once figured on the sporting calendar for Athy. I have come across references to archery contests in the Peoples Park in the 1860’s or thereabouts, while around the same time the annual Athy regatta was a prominent local venture. The rowing boats used the same river course taken by the swimmers in the triathlon event last weekend and so popular was the sport that the regatta became and remained a regular event for many years.

Pat Bell in his book on 150 years of cricket in Kildare acknowledged that “Athy can justifiably lay claim to be the oldest cricket club in Kildare. There was a club in the town in 1870 which went by the name of Offaly Cricket Club whose Honorary Secretary was J.F. MacDonald of the Rectory. Two years later Athy Cricket Club was formed but sharing the same secretary”. I have in front of me John Lawrence’s Handbook of Cricket in Ireland for 1872/73, an annual then in its 8th issue which gave a detailed account of the Irish Cricket Club and their activities during the year. For the Athy Cricket Club the following entry appears.

“In 1872 the club played 3 matches, won 1 and lost 2. This club did not play any matches till very late in the season. The first was against the Portarlington, played on the Athy ground, and won by the home club. The return was played on the Portarlington ground, and won by the Portarlington. Both of these matches were played on very wet days. The third match was played against an eleven got up by Sir A.C. Weldon, and played on his domain at Kilmorony, in which the Athy suffered another defeat.”

The other Athy Club, Offaly Cricket Club, is noted merely with an entry as to its Honorary Secretary, H.P. MacDonald, The Rectory, Athy, who was the local Church of Ireland Curate.

In 1895 Athy Cricket Club won the Leinster Intermediate Cup with a team comprised of H.P. Hannon, A.K. Pennycook, H. Eckford, J.A. Duncan, T.J. Whelan, J. O’Neill, W. Keyes, H. O’Neill, A. Hutton and P. O’Neill. Victory in the Intermediate Cup was again secured by Athy Cricket Club in 1896. The sport continued to be played all over South Kildare up to the end of the 1930’s with teams from Ardreigh, Bert, Castlemitchell and Kilkea in addition to the Athy town team. A brief revival of cricket in Athy in the 1980’s saw Athy Cricket Club gain victories in the Midland Plate of 1990 and the Griffin Hawe Cup three years later. Today cricket, like cockfighting, and handball, is no longer an active sport in the Athy area.

To return to the triathlon of last weekend, the high number of participants made me think of the great sporting events which Athy has hosted over the decades. The All Ireland Football Final of 1906 played in Geraldine Park, between Kickhams of Dublin and Fermoy of Cork was obviously an important sporting event as was the Hurling Final of 1908, played in the same venue between Thurles of Tipperary and Kickhams of Dublin on 27th June 1909. It was a great privilege then to host an All Ireland Final as it was last weekend to provide the venue for the most successful triathlon event every held in this country. Here’s hoping TriAthy will become an annual event in the town’s sporting calendar.

Nowadays sporting activities rely on the provision of facilities which were not available decades ago. I can remember togging out at the side of playing fields in Narraghmore, Rheban and Castlemitchell before football matches in the late 1950’s. Inclement weather or otherwise, it made no difference as we struggled to shield our “modesty” which in those innocent days seemed more important than warding off the downpours which always appeared to accompany our visits to outlying rural football pitches. Recently I attended a birthday celebration for a good friend in St. Laurence’s G.A.A. Club and I marvelled at the wonderful facilities now available in the recently opened community complex. It’s a great credit to the people of Narraghmore, Ballitore, Fontstown and the other rural areas which now make up the St. Laurence’s Club. The truly magnificent club house together with several playing fields provide ample evidence of the success of the club which was formed 50 years ago when the G.A.A. clubs of Ballitore and Narraghmore came together. Congratulations to everyone associated with St. Laurence’s G.A.A. Club, not forgetting the good lady whose birthday party prompted my first visit to their new sporting complex.

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