The blue and white football jerseys balanced on the shoulders of former footballing team mates were marks of respect. The footballers of the past who marched either side of the coffined remains on the way to St. Michael’s Church and after mass to the local cemetery showed solidarity not just with the deceased, but also with the community of which he was a part. For Jack Maher epitomised everything that was good in the community to which he contributed so much over so many years.
Jack Maher and Rheban Gaelic Football Club were synonymous with each other for almost 70 years. The 77 year old Jack played football for his club for 20 years or more. Later on he was elected Chairman of the club, a position he occupied for 43 years, stepping down only to be elected by acclamation as President of the Rheban Club.
The Rheban community, shaped and fashioned over the years, are perhaps our closest link to the people of the medieval territory of Fassnagh Rheban of which Athy was once a part. Fassnagh Rheban or the wilderness of Rheban, was an integral part of the Marches of Kildare, that marshy wild area which separated those within the Pale from what the medievalists described as ‘the wild Irish on the west bank of the River Barrow’. Castles were built in close proximity to each other at Ardree, Woodstock and Rheban by the St. Michael family and others for defensive purposes, around which settlements were developed. The villages at Ardree and Rheban would not survive and the only remains of the St. Michael family links with Rheban are the ruins of Rheban Castle.
The great enemies of the settlers who lodged in the riverside castles stretching from Rheban to Ardree were the O’Mores of Laois who attacked them on many occasions. Peace came with the end of the Confederate Wars of the 1640s and with it the integration of settlers and native Irish. Fast forward to 1929 at a time when cricket was the most popular sport in rural Rheban. It was at the same time the glory years of Kildare football with the County Senior team having won two All Ireland championships in 1927 and 1928. Was it this success, which coincided with the attempts by school teacher and old I.R.A. activist Seamus Malone to reform the Gaelic football club in Athy, that prompted Tom Moore, his brother Jack and others to start their own football in Rheban? Tom had been playing football for Athy for nine years when in 1929 with other men from Rheban it was decided to form Rheban Gaelic Football Club. His brother Jack was the first chairman and Tom Moore, of treasured neighbourly memories from Offaly Street, was the club’s first and only secretary for the first 50 years of its life.
The blue and white colours chosen for the club’s football jerseys reflected the ancient ties between the lands on either side of the River Barrow – Kildare and Laois. With the name Moore the connection the first chairman and secretary had with the medieval protagonists of the original settlers in the area was readily apparent. But with the club’s formation the community in Rheban now had an opportunity to shape and share sporting experiences which helped bring together, and keep together a scattered rural community.
It was men like Tom Moore and Jack Maher who because of their lengthy involvement with Rheban Gaelic Football Club were able in their time to ensure that the people of Rheban continued to be bound by ties of community, family and sport. In 1979 Rheban Gaelic Football Club under the chairmanship of Jack Maher celebrated the 50th anniversary of the club’s formation. A booklet published to mark that event included a photograph of eight men who were members of the club’s first football team. Mick Hickey, Willie and Peter Hutchinson, Jack and Tom Moore, Jim Haughton, Owenie Pender and Jack Kavanagh were those men whose first forays on the playing field would in time give the Rheban club several junior championship medals as well as intermediate championship success in 1970. I have often heard it claimed that the club’s most important victory since 1929 was achieved in Geraldine Park on 11th October, 1970 when Rheban defeated Athy on the score of 1:14 to 1:7 to be crowned intermediate champions for that year. That, as far as I can ascertain, was when Jack was the Rheban club chairman and he would no doubt have enjoyed that victory over the club’s nearest neighbours. It could perhaps be viewed as the last battle between the settlers of Athy and the Irish from the borders of Fassnagh Rheban, ending as did many of the medieval battles in success for the Irish.
Jack Maher who started work in the Asbestos factory as a 15 year old boy retired 50 years later. At his funeral former work colleagues gathered with members of the Rheban community and the Rheban Gaelic Football Club to pay their respects to a man whose commitment to his work, to his community and to Rheban Football Club was indisputable.
Ar dhéis Dé go raibh a anam.