Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Kevin O'Toole / Aiden McHugh and Athy's Gymnastic Club

Twice this week I joined with friends, acquaintances and neighbours to pay tribute to members of our local community on Tuesday evening.  I walked behind the funeral cortege of Kevin O’Toole, a young married man, on its journey to our local Parish church.  A lone piper walked before the hearse as it passed down Duke Street and into Stanhope Street.  The plaintive air of ‘The Dawning of the Day’ provided a sombre setting as the measured steps of local sympathisers approached St. Michael’s Church.  Kevin’s passing was not unexpected as illness marked his last days, but the announcement at Mass of his death on Sunday filled me with sadness. 

I knew Kevin from his involvement in the re-enactment group which he headed up and from the Medieval Festival he organised in the Town Square for the last two years.  As Fr. Dennehy said at the Church that evening Kevin was a very pleasant man who was universally liked.  He is survived by his wife and two young children, as well as his mother, sister and two brothers, to all of whom we extend our sympathy.

Earlier in the week I was one of an admiring group comprised of parents and young people who came to the local G.A.A. Centre to pay tribute to Aiden McHugh.  It’s not every person who receives a well deserved accolade or acknowledgement during his or her lifetime.  Indeed, for many such as the late Kevin O’Toole, the only time we show, as a community, our appreciation is when we join a funeral cortege.  But last Saturday evening things were very different.  A small group had got together and brought many more together on that Saturday night to pay a well deserved tribute to the man who for the last 35 years had organised and trained the members of Athy Gymnastics Club.  Aiden McHugh is a native of Athy, his father Mick and his mother Kathy having raised a family of six in their home at St. Michael’s Terrace.  He served in the Irish Army for many years where he developed an expertise in gymnastics which would eventually lead him back to his home town of Athy. 

It was in 1972 that Brother Sykes of the local Christian Brothers started the Gymnastic Club which for the first year or so used a large building in Meeting Lane as the gym centre.  Shortly thereafter the Club’s activities were transferred to the Christian Brothers School in St. John’s Lane where another Christian Brother, Br. Creevy, helped out.  Some of the early members of that Club included Gabriel Dooley, Anthony Healy, Derek Donovan, Kevin McDermott and Colm Wall whose training, owing to lack of equipment, was confined to floor and horse exercises.  This was soon to change when transfers amongst the Christian Brothers personnel prompted the Club to seek the services of an experienced gymnast.  An approach was made to Aiden McHugh and in 1974 he took over as trainer and organiser of the young club.

The enthusiasm and expertise of the new trainer soon brought rewards for the youthful gymnasts who practised every Saturday under Aiden’s watchful guidance.  The Club affiliated to the I.A.G.A. and its members started to compete in national competitions.  The first Community Games in which the Athy Gymnastics Club participated was in 1975 and two years later the Athy gymnasts recorded what was their first success at national level.  Athy Club members returned from the 1977 Community Games with four gold medals and one bronze, making almost a clean sweep of Ireland’s premier games for young gymnasts.  The gold medals were won in underage competitions at Under 10, Under 12, Under 14 and Under 16 levels, while Conor Wall won a bronze medal in the Under 8 category.  The gold medallists were Declan Porter, Michael Rowan, Niall Wall and Paul Porter. 

The members of the Scottish Gym Council who attended the 1977 Mosney Games were so impressed by the Athy Club members that an invitation was extended to the South Kildare Club to travel to Scotland.  The resulting trip was the first overseas visit by members of Athy’s gymnastic club which by the late 1970s had almost 30 members.  In a few short years the club had become one of the best gymnastics club in Ireland, but as an exclusively male club it required pairing with female gymnasts from Sligo to allow for participation in mixed pairing events. 

Early in the 1980s the club was opened to female members and before long the membership had increased to 100 or more and the premises at the Christian Brothers School proved no longer adequate.  A move to the former Dreamland Ballroom, a move facilitated by the local Lions Club, provided much improved facilities and allowed the club to host several All Ireland competitions.  However, a further move, this time to the GAA Hall at Geraldine Park, was necessary and it was there that the Club hosted the County Community Games for six years in succession.  Following the opening of the new secondary school in Rathstewart the old Christian Brothers School again became available and the Gym Club relocated back to St. John’s Lane, now using rooms much larger than those previously available. 

The female gymnasts soon showed abilities to match those of their male colleagues and Fiona McHugh, Rosemary O’Sullivan and Clara O’Neill were honoured to represent Ireland at an international event in Cobh, while Rosemary O’Sullivan and Susan Walshe were among the winners at an international competition in Germany.

The success of the Gymnastics Club was due to the extraordinary commitment and dedication of Aiden McHugh who over the past 35 years has guided the club and trained its young members.  Former club members who could not be present at the function on Saturday night sent messages of congratulations.  Mark Loughman, now in Boston, fondly remembered a club trip to London in 1983 and wrote of the happy memories he retained of his 10 years as a gymnast under Aiden’s supervision. Tributes were also paid to Aiden’s leadership by other former members who couldn’t attend.  Ian Macdougald, Niall Wall and Conor Wall gave glowing accounts of happy days spent in the gym, while Paul Griffin, now in a Californian University, referred to ‘Aiden’s inspiration and dedication’.  Several speakers in the G.A.A. Hall that night made reference to Aiden’s work with the club members as ‘enhancing so many young lives’.  Aiden’s involvement also extended to providing since 1992 gym classes for youngsters with special needs in conjunction with KARE.  The Gaisce Awards has seen the club’s most recent involvement with several young gymnasts taking part in the Presidents Awards Scheme.

While Aiden’s stepping down as club trainer was the occasion for the reception, reference was also made to his involvement in the Canoe Club which he started in Athy approximately 20 years ago.  There was an earlier Canoe Club, founded by Athy Lions Club under the guidance of Lions members Michael Wall, Des Perry and Jerry Carbery in or about 1976 which had faltered.  Aiden revived the Club some years later and his involvement in canoeing will continue into the future.  However, in the meantime Aiden is off to Australia for further adventure to add to parachuting, hot air ballooning and other exploits which form part of his ‘bucket list’.  Padraig Dooley from Nicholastown, perhaps the most successful gymnast to come out of the local club and an Irish international gymnast will take Aiden’s place as the club trainer. 

Athy has benefitted enormously from the involvement in their community of Kevin O’Toole and Aiden McHugh and a week which sees the passing of Kevin and the stepping down of Aiden after 35 years heading up Athy Gym Club is a sad week for our local community.

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