Thursday, July 12, 2007

Of county managers and sporting success

The first county manager I came across was the legendary Matt Macken. He was the Carlow/Kildare county manager when I got my first job as a clerical officer with Kildare County Council in St Mary’s Naas. He was the nearest thing to God and he received as much obsequious treat-ment from the Council staff as you might expect the Pope to receive today. Well I remember if he appeared in the hallway of the Council offices, mere clerical officers such as myself ducked out of view in much the same way as servants did in the days of the big houses.

My next encounter with that heady level of administrative excellence was when I went to Kells as town clerk. My first day on the job coincided with the monthly meeting of the urban council, which the county manager in those days always attended. Denis Candy was the manager’s name and he too came from Athy, the scion of a well-known Athy family.

Belying his name, he was not all sweetness. Indeed, Denis Candy was a difficult man to get on with at the best of times but, given my lowly position in the ranks, I just had to knuckle under and get on with the job. Legendary are the stories told of Denis Candy’s time in County Meath, equalled only by those told of my next county manager, George Cannon of Monaghan. I have written before of George Cannon, a man small in terms of physique but an intellectual giant who stood apart from his colleagues as much for his waspish contrariness as for the individual streak which marked his daily activities.

Denis Candy, as I have said earlier, was an Athy man and strangely and perhaps uniquely the South Kildare town has given us three county managers since the first County Management Act of 1940. Apart from Denis Candy there was Jack Taaffe, the now retired county manager for Westmeath and John Keyes, presently occupying the premier local government position in the county of Cavan.

John is the son of the late Jackie and Liz Keyes of William Street. Jackie Keyes was office manager in the Asbestos factory in the 1950s and was one of three Keyes brothers who worked for the same company. Jackie’s brothers, Billy and Tommy, worked in the Asbestos company’s head office in Dublin. Their father, William Keyes, was local postman and in the days before footballing of all kinds held sway, was a cricketer of note who played for Athy Cricket Club. Indeed, the Keyes’ involvement in the game of cricket passed from father William to his sons and Jackie Keyes was an excellent cricketer in his younger days. Apart from the three sons, William and his wife, the former Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, had four daughters, Katie, Margaret, Angie and Mamie, all of whom married, uniting in marriage the Rowan, Ryan, Prendergast and McNamara families.

John Keyes, who now holds the reins of municipal power in County Cavan, started his education in the local Christian Brothers School. He was a member of the under-15 school team which won the 1967 Leinster College Championship. Athy CBS played what was the country final against Portlarlington in Mullingar and emerged winners, courtesy of two goals scored by Christy Delahunt. The final saw the country winners, Athy CBS, pitched against St Declan’s, the Dublin City winners in the provincial final played on the GAA pitch in Naas. Athy won, with the Stapleton brothers, Dan and Martin, between them amassing a wealth of scores to ensure Athy’s victory. That year also saw the young footballer, John Keyes, take up association football with Athy Soccer Club, where he played on the under-15 team before graduating to the seniors, where he achieved more success. He was a member of the Athy soccer team which won the Sheeran Cup in 1972. John played on the Athy team with the likes of Cha Chanders and Vincent Gray, who later had a stint with Shamrock Rovers and Limerick City and he recalls one of the more memorable football occasions outside the cup final of 1972 as the last soccer game of what was Cha Chanders long footballing career.

John went to university in Dublin, from where in time he graduated from UCD with an engineering degree. While in university, he played rugby, the game at which his father and his uncle Billy had won Provincial Towns Cup medals with Athy. He was a member of the Anderson cupwinning team of the 1972/73 season and played on the Athy team which competed for the Provincial Towns Cup in the 1975/ 76 season. The photograph of that team shows John sixth from the left at the back row with his father Jackie, then the president of Athy Rugby Club on the extreme left of the same row.

John’s biggest regret is that he transferred from the Athy Club to play senior rugby with Monkstown in Dublin soon thereafter and missed out on the Provincial Towns Cup victories which came Athy’s way in the latter part of the 1970s. John retired from rugby playing following a serious injury in 1981, but continued his involvement in the game as a coach.

The Keyes family name goes back several generations in Athy and over the decades from William onwards the Keyes name has graced the cricket pitch, the rugby pitch, the soccer pitch and the Gaelic playing field. Sport played an important part in the life of at least three generations of the Keyes family, but perhaps none had a more varied sporting career than John Keyes. The holder of winning medals in Gaelic football, association football and rugby, his is a record to be envied. His sporting achievements are in a sense mirrored by the successes in his professional life.

Graduating as an engineer from UCD, he first worked for Dublin Corporation in the mid-1980s, transferring in 1991 to Offaly County Council as a senior executive engineer. He spent 12 years in County Offaly becoming the director of community enterprise and planning in 1999, before taking up the appointment of county manager in Cavan in 2004.

The drive which gave John his successful sporting and professional career may owe something to his spirited grandmother Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, who married the postman William Keyes. It was she who in the early 1930s opened the shop at the corner of William Street and Shrewleen Lane which proved so important after William suffered a stroke a few years later. Elizabeth died in 1963, but the Keyes’ shop was a readily identifiable landmark during the ’40s and ’50s and continued in business right up to the early 1960s, coinciding with the opening of Dreamland Ballroom on the Kilkenny road.

It is a wonderful achievement for a former Christian Brothers schoolboy to climb the highest rung on the local government ladder and for Athy to boast no less than three county managers is a great tribute to the town and to our local schools.

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