You know how clubs love to stick chests out and boast about things like longevity, place in the historical evolution of the GAA and how one of their brethren was present at that ground-breaking meeting in Hayes Hotel back in the days, writes Barrie Henriques.
Mind you if all the people purporting to be at that meeting were actually there, one feels that Semple Stadium would not have been large enough to hold the crowd. On the other hand, many clubs were removed a goodly distance in time and origins from such remarkable days.
This column felt we should celebrate the courage and dedication of men who are still among us and who were responsible for instituting a GAA club in our time, and are still available to tell the story.
Sixty years ago last month Dan Phelan (pronounced Whaylan in Windgap speak) led the movement that evolved into the Windgap GAA club being formed. In that pioneering task, he was joined by Seamus Horgan, Ned Fitzpatrick, Geoff Butler, Jimmy Butler and Seamus Fleming.
All but Dan Phelan and Seamus Fleming have passed to their eternal reward. Dan lives in the only house on the right between Delaney’s (Slate Quarries) and Maloney’s, and even though he lost his lovely wife, Mary, some 14 years ago from the dreaded cancer, the fervour for his national game has diminished not a whit in all of that time.
Into his eighth decade, we felt that the acknowledgement of the contribution made by Dan Phelan and Seamus Fleming should be recorded, if for no other reason than they are still hale and hearty. I often think we do not acknowledge the contributions of such people when they are still among us.
Still carries the torch
The defining difference between the remaining godfathers of Windgap GAA club is that Dan Phelan still carries the torch for the club he helped construct. He has never lost his devotion and love for the little club from the hills which has defied the odds to continually punch above its weight.
How was the birth of Windgap planned? What if any was there of any form of hurling action in the parish?
“There was a hurling club in Tullahought which competed at junior level,” Dan informed. “Known as St Joseph’s, that team went into decline in the very early fifties. Seamus Horgan and myself were chatting outside Shea’s one day, and we felt that we needed to organise a hurling team in Windgap.
“I was courting my wife Mary Moore, who was living at the time at the Tullahought end of the parish. After the chat with Seamus, Mary told me that night that the lads in Tullahought were thinking of re-organising the now defunct hurling club.”
It wasn’t hurling that was the core element of Gaelic games being played around the area
“Not at all,” Dan agreed. “Football was the game around here, not only in the parish in Lamogue, but there were strong teams in Kilmaganny, Cotterstown, Coolagh, the Slate Quarries, Knocktopher, Glenmore, Piltown, Callan and even across the border in Mullinahone. Hurling in the area was secondary to football.”
Back to hurling matters! Who were the Tullahought men of a similar mind to yourself and Seamus?.
“Ned Fitzpatrick, Jimmy and Geoff Butler and Pierce Barry were central to the “hurling for Tullahought” idea,” Dan informed. “I was working for Watt Shea (Larry Shea’s father) and I would often be in and out of the creamery (Seamus’s father was the manager). I met with Seamus in the creamery (euphemistically identified as the centre of local Government) and he asked me to organise a meeting with the Tullahought lads.
“We met in the lane alongside Shea’s pub on a cold February night. We didn’t get consensus that night, but we met again within the week and there was no problem. We agreed that we should try to get a hurling team to represent the entire parish. A meeting was called subsequent to general approval, and the inaugural meeting of the Windgap club took place in a room of the Windgap card rooms.
“Mr Horgan and Tommy Brophy (Simon’s father) were the bosses of that building, and they facilitated us with the room.”
This most amiable and captivating of Windgap natives was in full flow, with information and observation. It was hard to stop him. Who would want to stop a subject as convivial, co-operative and informed?
Around 30 interested Windgappian hurling enthusiasts turned up for the meeting. Dan was satisfied.
“Why wouldn’t we be,” he asked. “We felt elated because you have to understand that we were in a very rural area, where families were scarce and numbers were small. The population of the entire parish at the time was scarcely 600. We elected the first committee. I was elected chairman, while the secretary/treasurer was Seamus Horgan. Ned Fitz was the vice-Chairman. Ned was also voted in as captain.”
That was a great night’s work. Given the spread of the parish, with two distinct centres - Windgap and Tullahought - communication would have been difficult. Not too many had motor cars.
“Are you mad man,” Dan exploded with a laugh. “Motor cars? I’ll go even farther, not too many had bikes. We managed, and the creamery was a great place to get the news, or send out a message to lads.”
Windgap had an organisation club with democratically elected officers. There was an awful lot of goodwill. Did they affiliate to the junior championship that year? What about a field? .
“We had no money, so not only could we not go out and buy a field, we couldn’t afford to pay rent for one,” he told us. “To the undying credit of the Windgap people, there were plenty of generous landowners who bought into what we were trying to do. Paddy Walsh gave us the use of one of his fields which we used for a long time.
“Dick Murray lent us a field too, as did Mikey Barry. And there was a man by the name of Brittain in Coolhill who came to our rescue often.”
You had a team, probably a couple of sliotair, we prodded. Most of the players would have a pair of boots, with a wide variety of socks. Obviously a set of colours was needed. For a club that had no financials and billeted in borrowed property, the procurement of jerseys was more than problematic.
A solution was found
“It was difficult for the first few years,” Dan recalled. “We registered our colours as red and white, and an alternative colour of blue and white. There was a method in our planning in this regard because we got much assistance from more established clubs on the peripheral of the parish.
“For instance, when the Carrick Davins were not playing they would never refuse us the loan of their red and white jerseys. Likewise with Kilmoganny football club. They also obliged with their blue and white jerseys. Those two clubs were extremely unselfish and gave us any help we needed and that they could muster.”
In the naming of the new club, was there general agreement that it should be called Windgap?.
“There was not one dissenting voice when it was decided to call the club after the name of our parish,” the first chairman informed . .
The club, of course, could not survive on fresh air. At some stage dreaded money matters had to be addressed.
“Mr Horgan (what indomitable respect) was an agent for the Irish Hospitals Sweepstake - the Lotto of the time - and he suggested that any ticket bought by a club member, or sold by a club member, he would pass on the sellers commission to the club,” Dan explained .
What kind of money are we talking about?
“I think the tickets were selling for half a crown (12 cents), and he agreed that the commission of 1/3 (7 cents) would go to the club,” we were told. “In those times we would collect a couple of coppers (cents) from the players to buy a sliotar. They cost about two bob (10 cent). We might use two of them in the year. It was all we could afford.
“Everyone got their own hurley. Some would make their own. I often think now when I’m up in the field back to our time, and compare them to the present. Every young lad and girl would have their own sliotar, and probably a few hurleys.
“In our day, if we had more than two sliotair, we would have been considered hurling snobs. I know it is expensive running clubs in the present climate, but we had nothing at all.”
Did you have any other forms of fund-raising events, Dan?
“We started to run dances every so often in Shea’s hall in the village, and they were immensely successful,” he informed. “We even became more entrepreneurial, when organising huge ceilithe down in Ashgrove in Mooncoin. They were even more lucrative. Then we progressed on to the carnival dancing festivals. The roads would be black with cars carrying people to the Windgap carnival. Slowly but surely we got our little club up and noticed.”
You obviously had a tremendous core of great volunteers to do all the things that needed doing?
“God save us but there was terrific co-operation around the parish,” Dan insisted. “The idea of having our own GAA club, and all it entailed, created a tremendous bond among all in our small community. Without singling out anybody in particular, you couldn’t have better men with you than the likes of Jimmy Butler. He was an outstanding man.
“That man would leave his farm, where there was plenty to do on a Saturday after dinner, and come down and line the field. He wasn’t alone in that regard. Our secretary/treasurer, Seamus Horgan, was a brilliant administrator, making an enormous contribution in time, dedication and monetary assistance when needed.”.
Did he remember the first championship match Windgap played? I could barely believe the reply.
“We played a second string Hugginstown/Carrickshock junior team on the Fair Green in Callan,” he recalled. “We beat them handy enough. We faced Inistioge (no Rower) in the second round and took care of them as well. Kilmacow beat us in the third round.
“We were well pleased with our initial experience of championship hurling. We had come a long way in a short time,” he smiled as the memories came tumbling back
What about the players who togged out in that historic first match? He remembered, of course he did. Jimmy Butler was in goal. Willie Fitz, Phil Cronin and Seamus Horgan were on the full-back line. Paddy Houlihan, Thomas Murphy and Pake Aylward stretched across the half backline. Dan Phelan and Bertie Norris manned midfield. On the half forward line were Ned Fitz with the two Butlers, Geoff and Tommy. Inside then there was Eddie Houlihan, John Norris and Chris Comerford
Names rolled off tongue
Amazed? I was! He just rolled off the names. He is over 80, remember
We wondered was there huge rivalry in the immediate surrounds .
“Initially, I suppose, we were not rated, but as time progressed, people started to take notice,” he smiled at an obviously warm memory. “We had a healthy rivalry with teams like Dunnamaggan, Piltown and Callan. There was skin and hair flying when we met Knocktopher.
“They would have the Heaslips’, the Goreys’ and the Cummins lads from Floodhall. We had plenty of fiery tussles with the likes of Kilmacow.”
Could they afford the luxury of a bus to take the teams to games?
“Are you codding me,” came the question in reply. “Bicycles were the most pronounced mode of transport. Others would walk. Pat Shea (shop) had the only car around. He would bring a share of the lads. A lad by the name of Pat Cahill (Kilmoganny) working in his bar also had a car, and he would bust the car with as many bodies as would fit.
“The rest walked or biked it. On one occasion we travelled to a football match in Dunnamaggan where we played Thomastown. Many of us travelled in a dray horse and car. There were 15 or 16 on the dray. It took us about an hour to get there, and another hour to come home.
“It was a big pull up to Windgap from Dunnamaggan. Would you remember one of them yokes,” he asked.
They were different times then Dan? .
“I always say that even though people had very little to live on, they were far happier,” he offered. “There was great nature in people, and everyone helped out everyone else. Nobody was going around with his hand out looking for payment.
“I mentioned Paddy Walsh earlier, and he gave us the field. Well I remember talking to him about the rent. He often said that payment didn’t matter that much, but that if we had a few pound to spare at the end of the year, we could throw a few his way. That was the way things were.
Keys in door
“People went to bed at night leaving the key in the door. There was nothing to worry about. Mikey Barry was the same. He gave us a field up there at the Cross of Lamogue. No demands then or ever,” he smiled .
It is a matter of public record that Dan Phelan, founding member, elected as the first chairman, continued in the office for 11 years. He trained the senior team in the good years; the late 60s, early 70s. As their star declined a little Dan, at the behest of Eddie Ryan, and in the company of Kieran Purcell and Eamonn Cronin decided that a juvenile concept be created.
In 1979 Windgap formed their first juvenile club with Dan as chairman (again); Eddie Kelly as secretary and the four acting as selectors
Over to Dan!
“We needed an under-age element if we were to survive. We won the under-14 league and championship that year, and the Féile group final as well. That was a great start. Thankfully that idea has maintained its momentum, and even though we have all long gone from the scene, there are many more great people taking up the challenge in the Windgap cause.
“The numbers of girls playing camogie is terrific, and one must compliment all of the people over the years who nurtured the youth of the parish, because without them, there is no club. That is as true for little Windgap as it is for the biggest clubs in the county.”.
Dan brought back memories of great days when the club played in the senior championship. He recalled being beaten by the great Bennettsbridge side in the championship by a single point, having led by eight with as many minutes remaining. He recalled a tremendous quarter-final joust with the Fenians of Johnstown too
While people always remember Purcell whenever the name of Windgap is mentioned, there were others.
“Undoubtedly there were,” Dan insisted. “There were great family hurling names here, who made enormous contributions to our club CV over the years. One of the greatest men we ever had in the club was Tom Kenny. Thomas Meehan, Eamonn Meehan and Joe O’Shea were equally great Windgap men.
Never short changed
“Men like those would never short-change you. What you saw is what you got. Their dedication to Windgap was unconditional. The family names keep on repeating since those times. We had Kennys’, Meehans’, Purcells’, Jackmans’, Doyles’, Cronins’, Hawes’, Walshes’, Powers’, Mackeys’ and the importance of that was that their children came on after them to play for the club.” We spoke of Dan’s career as a highly-respected referee, a career which blossomed after his activities in his club faded. He told how referees received £4 for a junior game. He also told of a time when the late, great iconic secretary of the South Board, Joe Walsh gave him £28 to officiate at a South final at the last minute
Dan takes great pride in the fact that a Windgap man, Jimmy Walsh has risen to one of the most prestigious offices in the county, following in the shadows of such luminaries as Paddy Grace, Ted Carroll and Ned Quinn as County Board secretary.
He spoke of his interest in Windgap badminton, a club which won many national titles, and how his children, Judith and Seamie were enormously involved .
Would he have changed any of it? .
With a moistening eye, and not too little emotion, he shook his head, and haltingly whispered: “Not one second.”