Boyhood in 1940/50s Ballinasloe
Chapter 11 – Sporting Ballinasloe
by Declan Burke
What I know about sport could fill a book (a very thin one at that).
You see, I have only passing interest in team sports and rarely participated.
My forte was individual stuff like tennis, table tennis, billiards and hunting, so I "spectated" mostly at the team sports that went on about me.
I was aware of Pat McManus who lived a few doors down from me and was a Galway County footballer and "Tull" Dunne and his son Cyril, also Galway footballers. They lived in lower Brackernagh.
I suppose part of my antipathy toward team sports stems from the GAA "Ban" on playing what were termed "foreign games" (especially soccer and rugby).
I attended one GAA meeting and a large part of that meeting was taken up with discussing the "Ban" (which was Rule 17 or 19, I think).
Some of my fellow Irishmen had been spied playing some other game of their choice and were reported back to this Committee. The concept of an organisation, no matter how well intended, doing just that, rubbed me the wrong way.
I realize the intention was to preserve the purity of Gaelic games, but nobody seemed to think that it was like legislating virginity. If Gaelic Games could not survive on their own appeal, they deserved oblivion. Obviously they could and did, so why were Irishmen spying on Irishmen?
I could not understand it. What was the point of achieving freedom if only to substitute another tyranny?
I am glad to see there is an improvement in recent years.
Maybe I will go back and try out for the Galway Football team.
Never a "rugger bugger"
I enjoyed Rugby though not as a player. I togged out once in Garbally and I had not the foggiest notion what was going on, as nobody had troubled to explain anything about Rugby to me.
Anyway, there I was standing in the field and the funny-shaped ball was dropping down out of the sky toward me. It seemed to natural thing to catch it whereupon I was promptly buried under a mountain of bodies. That was my last Rugby game as a participant.
Various friends of mine, Frank O'Meara, Noel Bannerton and Sean O'Dwyer played a good deal. O'Meara and Bannerton were part of an enthusiastic bunch of university students that played for their Dublin teams on Saturday and the Ballinasloe Team on Sunday. Ah, youth.
I think Rugby took the place of college fraternities here in the States.
The guys "networked" and even though they might be sworn enemies on the field, in that time of scarce jobs, it was very helpful having contacts through the game that was an advantage in getting work.
Tennis, cricket and billiards
Tennis at Cleaghmore was the summer sport and I remember a Doctor McDaid who worked in the Mental Hospital, as St Brigid's was called then. He was a Donegal man and in his late 30s or early 40s.
But he could stand in one place on the court all day long and return the cleanest of shots that forced his opponent to hit them right back to him as long as he liked.
As well, it was a great place to meet girls and be sociable generally.
Tennis balls cost a half-crown each, a fortune then but a pittance now. We used to envy the players at Wimbledon who only used a ball a few times before discarding it. We played the "knap" off them.
My father and older brother Fintan levelled a part of our large garden and planted grass which we rolled and mowed and marked and made a net of chicken-wire and had our own tennis court. We could not afford a real tennis net, so the chicken-wire had to do, even though a well hit ball could penetrate it.
I missed any real cricket being played in the town, though next door lived Tom "Duck" Beegan and Duck had a complete cricket outfit, bats, wickets and pads. That was my nearest contact with official cricket in Ireland, though I did play on a hospital team in Yorkshire in later years.
Billiards and snooker were played mostly in the Town Hall and the British Legion hut. The advantage of the Town Hall was a peephole from where the film that was playing in the cinema part could be watched while your opponent ran up a record "break", as would often happen if Billy Hogan was playing. Little did we know that he (Billy) was raising a son (Des Hogan) who would but Ballinasloe firmly on the map of the literary universe in a few years.
Ploughing competitions were convened in the Hill o' Back until it proved too expensive to restore the land to tillable acreage afterwards.
Greyhound coursing was done regularly out near St. Brigid's with live hares and slippers* who let the dogs out while they were still interested but too late to catch the hare. Usually.
The "cruelty to animals people" rightfully put a stop to that.
The handball alley in Derrymullen did not have a back-wall till well into the 60s, I believe. Its lack did not deter the hardy players, most of who played with their bare hands, with a ball a little softer than a rock.
There were numerous handball alleys in Garbally, but they were usually off limits during the school year. They also had four rugby fields, but that is to be expected with a school of that size.
The West Lawn of Garbally had the premier rugby field and once accommodated the landing of a light plane when one of the alums choose to do a little "showing off" by landing and taking off there. I went to see the plane then. It had to be in the late 40s.
Father Kevin Ryle got the Ballinasloe Relays going in Duggan Park. There, the usual collection of runners, jumpers, bomb throwers (shot putters) and spear-chuckers (javelinists) competed for the honour and glory of a ribbon or medal, and volunteers like me ran fairly popular events. I think we were collecting for the future swimming pool.
We also volunteered at Tofts Amusements during October Fair Week for the same reason.
Bicycle races on the grass did not last too long as the wheels dug into the sod and even Superman would have trouble moving on that. They became bicycle crawls.
The town had one outstanding athlete, Tom Goode who lived a few doors up from my home on Dunlo Hill.
Tom was the type who would have won the Iron Man competitions we see nowadays and his home was wall-papered with his numerous trophies.
That is till rheumatoid arthritis laid him low. He was one of the "miracle" cures that Cortisone caused, and sadly the cure lasted only a few weeks. I had an aunt in the same category and I remember the hiring of taxis to go to Shannon Airport to get the cortisone as soon as it came off the plane from America.
So Tom and all the others reverted back after having their hopes raised to the sky and then dashed utterly.
Shooting was always popular and we had shotguns in our house as long as I can remember. My father told me that in his youth, he was sent out to bag some rabbits for the table, else they went meatless that day, and a "miss" meant a valuable cartridge was wasted, so he became a very steady shot.
He started a tradition in our house in that I would have a cock pheasant for each of my birthdays and that went on till I completed medical school. At that stage I was expected to shoot my own bird, and did so on a few occasions but I thought it a terrible pity to kill such a magnificent animal for a trivial reason and ended the practice.
We had a very long narrow kitchen in our home on Dunlo Hill, about 10 or 11 yards long and we used it on cold winter nights to shoot an air gun at a metal target from the fireplace to the stairs end. In the little competitions we had, my mother invariably won and shot her pellet through the tiny hole that was the target and rang the bell more often than anyone else. She was a regular Annie Oakley.
There was badminton in the assembly hall of St Grellan's BNS, the boy's primary school, during winter evenings.
Ballinasloe pocket billiards
And last but not least was the continuous game of "pocket billiards" played by the denizens of the Bank Corner while they polished the limestone of the "Lazy Wall" with the seats of their pants and inspected public buildings conscientiously.
* slipper = some bloke who held the greyhounds as a live hare scooted past up a slight rise, and then "slipped" them so they "coursed" in competition with each other, as in a race.
Declan Burke is now a medical doctor and lives in Culpepper, Virginia, USA.