Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Knights of Malta - Sean O'Connor

Last week the Carlton Abbey Hotel was the venue for a pleasant event organised by the local troop of the Order of Malta.  Reference to them as troops conjures up military images but historically the reference is not too far off the mark.  Founded as a military order prior to the Crusades as the Knights of Malta to shelter and protect pilgrims travelling on the continent the Knights of Malta have long discarded any pretentions to militarism and now enjoy a well earned reputation as a voluntary medical organisation under the name of Order of Malta.

The Order of Malta came to Athy in the early 1950’s.  I heard a reference last week to 1950 as the foundation date but what I do know is that the late Eamon McCauley was the prime mover in setting up the Order of Malta in Athy.  Reference to Knights brings to mind images of secret religious organisations which of course the Knights of Malta are not.  There are no connections between the Knights of Malta and the Knights of Columbanus, or indeed any other Knights for that matter.

The gathering in the hotel was primarily to make a presentation to the current leader of the local Order of Malta on the completion of thirty years service.  The recipient of the presentation and of the kind words expressed by several senior members of the organisation at national and regional level was George Robinson or to give him his rank in the Order of Malta, First Lieutenant George Robinson.  He is known by everyone as “Bargy”, but from where that nick-name came or what it means is a mystery to most of us.

Master of Ceremonies on the night was Bargy’s son George who did a first class job.  I am always in admiration of the ability of young people today who unlike my generation are extremely confident public speakers.  I can recall the fear and dread with which I once faced the prospect of making a speech in public.  I now realise it was an unnatural response which was born out of a lack of confidence which seemed to be part of the makeup of those of us who lived through the discouraging decade of the 1950’s.  Compared to the confident able young people of later generations, we were not at the races as the expression goes.

Bargy’s record of service with the Order of Malta required a degree of commitment and dedication of enormous proportions which were outlined by the various speakers, one of whom was Pat O’Rourke, another Order of Malta member who will himself in the not too distant future also have thirty years service in the organisation.

The local community is all the better for having the commitment of persons like Bargy Robinson and Pat O’Rourke at its disposal.  Congratulations to Bargy on the recognition afforded to him.

This past week I have been immersed in the history of Athy Golf Club, so much so that the stuff is threatening to pour out of my ears.  You will understand then why it is that I devote the rest of this Eye on the Past to a man who for many years was an important part of the golfing story which is Athy’s Golf Club.  Sean O’Connor was from Labasheeda in County Clare, a place name unknown to me.  He came to live in Athy in or around 1950, soon after marrying his wife Mary who was a chemist in the town.  He was a young Lieutenant in the Irish Army based on the Curragh Camp.  Soon after joining Athy Golf Club he figured amongst the prizewinners when he came second in the competition with a handicap of 22.  Winner of a prize put up by some clerical members of the club later in the summer of 1950, Sean O’Connor was described in the local press as “one of the most promising beginners in the club”.

The following year Lieutenant O’Connor, partnering a Captain Lavelle, won an army fourball played in the Curragh Links, by which time his handicap had been reduced to 18.  He again hit the headlines a month later when coming second with a score of 67 net in the Collins Cup which was a Curragh Camp competition open to members of the Irish Army and “associates of General Michael Collins”.  The latter reference is an interesting one and prompts the question as to how and why associates of the late Michael Collins were identified for inclusion in an Army competition.  O’Connor’s score was reported as “the best of any Army competitor, and all the more noteworthy when it was considered that he is only a short time playing golf.”

By 1953 O’Connor, now promoted to Captain, had reduced his handicap to 12 and was a consistent tournament winner on his home course in Athy.  He practiced golf a lot, taking his game very seriously and always trying to lower his golf handicap as much as possible.  He was a 7 handicapper the following year and by 1956 had become a 4 handicap golfer.  Sean O’Connor’s ability at the game of golf allowed him to feature high up in all the golf competitions in which he competed.  In August 1957 he went around the 9 hole course in Athy in 38 shots to equal the feat of local golf professional Phil Lawlor achieved just two weeks previously.

His greatest golfing achievements came first in 1964 when he was runner-up in the Irish Army Golf Championship, finishing one shot behind the winner, and thirteen years later when he won the Irish Senior Championship.  A two day event played over 36 holes for golfers over 55 years of age Sean O’Connor, by now promoted to Commandant, lead by two strokes after the first days play with a round of 75.  He carded a 77 on the second day to finish three strokes ahead of the second place player and so became the only Athy Golf Club member ever to win a national golf title.

Sean, who for several years was treasurer of Athy Golf Club, was elected club captain in 1958 and four years later with a 3 handicap was described in the local press as “Athy’s No. 1 golf player”.  He served as president of Athy Golf Club in 1963 and 1964, but perhaps his most important role within the club was that of course manager.  It was a job he took very seriously.  I can remember sometime in the mid 1960’s at a time when I liked to potter around the course on my own hitting a number of golf balls (which one could do in those days) I came to the 9th hole and stayed there for a while chipping balls onto the green.  I was oblivious (or so I still claim) to the notice facing the clubhouse which informed all and sundry that practice was forbidden on the 9th hole.  As I chipped away Sean strode from the clubhouse and in the direct manner for which he was well known let me know in no uncertain terms that what I was doing was wrong and not, I can assure you, in terms of my golf swing.  Shell shocked, for that was the effect the military man had on any luckless chap who had the misfortune to cross his path, I slunk away, never forgetting the tongue lashing I got from the Commandant.

Sean O’Connor devoted a lot of his spare time to Athy Golf Club.  It was a voluntary commitment, much the same as the commitment of men such as George Robinson and Pat O’Rourke to the Order of Malta.

We, in the local community, are all the better for that commitment.

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