Thursday, May 15, 2008

Football Memories

Thurles was the place to be last Saturday. The occasion, yet another onslaught by Kildare footballers on the football pinnacle which is the culmination of a successful All-Ireland campaign. The last time we traversed that same mountain was a decade ago when a spirited and I believe a fortunate Corrib based team turned the tide of optimism which had swept Kildare into a receding tidal wave of regrets and dare I say it, recriminations. If the result in 1998 was disappointing, last Saturday’s final in the under 21 All Ireland championship offered the prospect of some belated consolation. It was a promise which seemed justified by a spirited first half display which saw the Lilywhites trailing the lads from the Kingdom by only 2 points. The slender lead was achieved with the aid of a strong wind, which having regard to the earlier match between Limerick and Cavan girls promised to give Kildare a badly needed boost in the second half. It was not to be as the footballing craft and experience of the South Westerners saw off the challenge of the short grass men all too easily. It was a huge disappointment for the ever faithful Kildare followers, but nevertheless some individual players on the Kildare panel showed ability which augers well for future success at this or at senior level.

I was particularly disappointed that Athy did not have a representative on the under 21 team or on the list of substitutes. Athy players have in the past figured prominently on Kildare county teams, although in more recent years the town’s representation has been somewhat meagre. Seamus Malone, the County Westmeath born republican and teacher who was responsible for reviving Gaelic football in Athy in the mid-1920’s would surely be disappointed if he had occasion to review the strength of Gaelic football today in the South Kildare town. Athy had a number of players on the 1935 Kildare team which contested that year’s All Ireland final against Cavan, including Paul Matthews who was the team captain. In the 1998 All Ireland football final our only representative was Christy Byrne, and in truth he came courtesy of Rheban Gaelic Football Club.

Mealy Auctioneers, from my home town of Castlecomer, have a forthcoming auction of sporting memorabilia, including quite an interesting collection of G.A.A. material. Included among the many single-sheeted G.A.A. programmes on offer is one for a game in Geraldine Park on 1st March 1959 between Kildare and Carlow. The match was preceded by a minor tournament game between Athy and Eire Óg in which I played. The senior county team that day had four Athy players, Danny Flood at full back, Mick Carolan, the centre half back, Brendan Kehoe played on the left half forward line and in front of him Mick Coughlan. This was just one year after Kildare’s famous victory over Wexford in the Leinster final of 1956. Why I wonder haven’t Athy players continued to make an impact on Kildare County teams? The records will show no Athy players on the 2008 under 21 All Ireland team and sad it is to remember that the town’s only playing member of the 1965 All Ireland winning under 21 team, Denis Wynne passed away a few years ago. We are short of sporting heroes in South Kildare and must look back over the decades to find names in which we can take pride.

The day after the disappointment of Thurles I met Ann Keevins, whose husband Seamus died in March. Seamus Keevins was a retired Garda Sergeant based in Ballycullane in County Wexford when he passed away. Football officiandos will remember him as a man who played Inter County football in each of the four provinces, having displayed his footballing talents on senior teams for Counties Sligo, Cavan, Waterford and Wexford. It was as a member of the Wexford team that he togged out against Kildare in Croke Park on Sunday, 22nd July 1956. The occasion was the Leinster Final which Kildare had not won for 21 years. Seamus Keevins lined out on the half back line and when he had to retire with two minutes to go to the end of the first half Wexford led by 1-6 to 1-5. Strangely he was replaced by a former Kildare player, J. Goff and in his absence during the second half Kildare went on to carve out a famous victory on the scoreline of 2-11 to 1-8. Mitchel Cogley of the Irish Independent wrote in the following Monday morning’s paper, ‘Kildare won because they consistently played the ball, Wexford lost because they persisted in playing the man’. Kildare were awarded 37 frees and the Monasterevin ace, Seamie Harrison, pointed 7 of them. Athy’s folk hero from that day was Danny Flood, then an army lieutenant who stood like a colossus in front of the square, guarding the Kildare goalkeeper Des Marron.

Seamus Keevins, when he retired as a player, involved himself in the promotion of Gaelic football in Wexford, a county perhaps better known for its hurling prowess. Meeting Ann Keevins helped me relive one of the few great sporting occasions Kildare county has enjoyed during the last 50 years or so. Indeed 1956 was a vintage year for Kildare football, for just a week before the senior final Kildare defeated the same County Wexford in the Leinster Junior Final. The importance of Gaelic games in our sporting heritage cannot be overstated and the part played by men such as Seamus Keevins in keeping Gaelic football to the forefront of the nation’s sporting activity should not be forgotten. Coincidentally Seamus’s eldest son Michael, now lives in County Kildare, where he is a Garda Sergeant attached to the Traffic Corps in Naas.

Billy Shaw, eldest brother of Trevor Shaw, died during the week and his funeral in the Methodist Church in Carlow was attended by a large crowd which could not be accommodated in the small church adjoining the majestic courthouse. Rev. Forsyth, a young man whom I believe comes from the Athlone area, presided over the service which saw the congregation give a fulsome and full throated engagement in the hymns, ‘To God be the Glory’ and ‘Safe in the Arms of Jesus’. The latter is not included in the Methodist Hymnal, and indeed neither came from the pen of Charles Wesley but otherwise the service was everything I imagined to be the legacy of that great preacher and evangelist John Wesley. No sermon was preached, but somehow or other the spirit of Wesley filled the simple church as the young Minister conducted the short service. I have often wondered why John Wesley, who visited Ireland on 21 occasion and who on his last trip journeyed from Portlaoise to Carlow, never preached in Athy. In a short account of Methodism in Athy written over 30 years ago it was stated that John Wesley ‘appears to have visited Athy on only one occasion on Saturday 24th April 1789’. I am not satisfied that Wesley did visit Athy and more is the pity if he did not.

Older people in the town always refer to the Methodist Church as ‘the Wesleyan and Methodist Church’ which may well have been its correct title at one time. However, with the reunion of Wesleyan Methodists the Primitive Methodists and the United Methodist churches in 1932 the church was properly called ‘the Methodist Church’. The followers of the movement started by John Wesley, his brother Charles and their friend George Whitefield, when they first came together in Oxford over 270 years ago to form what was known as ‘the Holy Club’ are decreasing, like many of the other mainstream churches. Recent research in England shows that church attendance is declining to such an extent that the Church of England, Catholicism and other denominations will soon become financially unviable. A lack of funds from collection plates to support the church’s infrastructure including church upkeep and salaries will force church closures as ageing congregations die. It’s a problem facing churches in Ireland today and a problem which Athy, hosting five mainstream churches, will have to face up to over the next few years.

Billy Shaw was the son of the legendary Sam Shaw who opened Shaws third store in the former Duncans premises in Duke Street in 1915. He is survived by his widow, the former Sheila Yates of Grangemellon and his sons and daughters.

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