Thursday, November 17, 2011

Michael Noonan

‘What was it’, I asked, ‘that drew publicans to greyhound racing?’  It was a question that puzzled me ever since my young days when local publicans, most prominently Louis O’Mara, Barney Dunne, Michael Noonan and his younger brother Des, were involved in the sport.  I could not remember a morning without witnessing greyhounds being walked to and from their training gallop in nearby fields on the Carlow Road.  My question was addressed to Michael Noonan, now retired after a lifetime serving customers in his pub at Stanhope Street.  Not even an unsurpassed knowledge of greyhound racing could give the answer to my question, but as Michael mused on the issue it struck me that perhaps the enclosed, almost claustrophobic working conditions of Irish pub life encouraged an interest in a sport which required regular, nearly daily, exercise of dogs in the Irish countryside. 

Michael Noonan, now in his 82nd year, comes from a background immersed in greyhound racing.  His Limerick based grandfather was involved with greyhounds and of course his father Michael is remembered while stationed as a Garda in Athy as a keen participant in the sport.  It was Garda Michael Noonan’s good fortune to acquire a greyhound, which although only a moderate race dog subsequently became a famous and extremely valuable stud dog.  ‘Bellas Prince’ was bought as a stud dog and Garda Noonan was in time able to retire and purchase a public house in Stanhope Street, such was the financial success resulting from ‘Bellas Prince’ stud career.

The pub was acquired in the mid 1940s and the Noonan family which lived in No. 3 St. Patrick’s Avenue moved to Stanhope Street.  It would be the Noonan family home for the next 60 years or so.  Michael, whom I had the pleasure of meeting last week, attended the local Christian Brothers School at a time when Brother Nelson was the superior.  He played Gaelic football for the school team and togged out for Athy Gaelic Football Club at all levels from minor to senior grade.  Michael’s success as a footballer was recognised by the Kildare County Board and he figured on Kildare County teams at minor, junior and senior levels.  Michael later succumbed to approaches made by Rheban’s Club Secretary Tom Moore to transfer to Tom’s beloved Rheban G.F.C.  How long that involvement lasted I forgot to ask but I am sure it was longer than the one year commitment which I gave to Rheban in my early playing days.  Again my transfer from Athy to Rheban was at my Offaly Street neighbour’s suggestion, but not even good hearted Tom Moore felt it worthwhile to continue the alignment beyond 12 months so I soon ended back in Athy G.F.C.

Some years ago I took notice for the first time of Michael Noonan’s fine tenor voice.  It was on an occasion in St. Dominic’s Church and prompted me to marvel at the quality of his singing which drew comparisons with another fine local singer, Charlie Prendergast.  I discovered that Michael sang with the Dominican Church Choir for some years and occasionally with the choir of St. Michael’s Parish Church.  He was also involved in a number of shows in the early 1960s, including the Shopkeepers Show put on in St. John’s Hall as part of the Church Development Fund campaign organised by the late Fr. Joe Corbett.

Michael spent his entire working life in the Stanhope Street pub, where a 24 hour day, 7 day week commitment was required.  The publican’s life was never an easy one and the many changes we have seen in recent times in Athy’s bar business is an indication of the unforgiving demands of a job which makes no allowances for family or social life.  Nevertheless Michael who retired six years ago has many happy memories of his long working life. 

Michael’s wife Helen, formerly a Cullen from the Narraghmore area, showed me a number of photographs featuring Michael in his footballing days.  One photograph was of particular interest and it accompanies this article.  It shows what I believe were the victorious St. Joseph’s football team following its success in a street league competition run by Athy G.F.C.  The photograph was dated 1949, but unfortunately the Geraldine Club’s records for that year are not available.  A St. Joseph’s team from 1947 included Jim McEvoy, Joe O’Neill, Eamon Kavanagh and Michael Noonan, all of whom are seen in this photograph.  Can anyone help to put names on the other players and spectators of 62 years ago?

Gaelic football and greyhound racing were a major part of Michael’s sporting and social life and they gave him great enjoyment and wonderful memories which he shared with me last week.  His greatest joy is undoubtedly his family which now includes several grandchildren, in addition to his son, four daughters and his charming wife Helen. 

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