TWO SPORTING codes joined forces to pay tribute to a club man who served his community with dedication.
The sports field in Johnstown has long been a focal point of the North Kilkenny community. Home to both the Fenians GAA club and junior soccer side Spa United, much work has been carried out there recently, with new dressing-rooms the latest chapter in their tale of work. The final chapter was added when the grounds were christened the Jim Maher Memorial Park, named after a man who gave much of his time to promoting sport in his locality.
"Both the GAA and soccer clubs really wanted to honour Jim," said Neil Tynan, a former chairman of the Fenians. "He was involved in every facet of club life."
The ceremony, held as part of the GAA's La na gClub, saw former President Nickey Brennan unveil a plaque in Jim's name.
Naturally for a Johnstown man, Jim Maher hurled with the Fenians. He was part of the team that won the junior county hurling title in 1968, beating Glenmore by 5-8 to 3-4 in a game which was actually played on Easter Sunday in 1969 (there was a delay in the championship).
"Jim was the captain of that team, but got a bad knee injury which affected his hurling career," Mr Tynan added. "He got heavily involved in the soccer after that."
The GAA's loss would be soccer's gain as Donie Butler, who served with Jim Maher in the Kilkenny & District League, recalled.
"Jim was chairman of the Kilkenny & District League from around 1971 to 1974," he said.
"He was a top class man. He always had the approach of getting something done without going into a voting situation, get the consensus and bring everyone with you. It's always the sign of a very good chairman when you can do that.
"He was involved in soccer all of his playing life, right up to his mid 30s," added Mr Butler. "He would have played with Deen Rovers – the forerunner of Deen Celtic – but was a founding member of Spa United in 1969."
Soccer may have taken a lot of his focus, but Jim never forgot about the Fenians. Unsurprisingly, the hurlers were given a home by Jim before they moved to their current base.
"Where the hurling field is now was originally where Spa United played – there wasn't any hurling played there," Mr Tynan said.
"Our hurling field was on Jim Maher's land – the club won five county titles in that time, and did all their training on Jim's land. It was called Dwan's Field, but Jim let them hurl and train on that for as long as they wanted."
When the time came to develop a proper home befitting the two clubs, Maher was part of the committee which got the money together to buy the field on which the teams play.
Playing his part in a team was also highlighted when the reformation of Kilkenny soccer came while Maher was at the helm.
"Jim was one of the chief people behind the reorganisation of the junior game in Kilkenny, which had been on its knees in the late 1960s," Mr Butler recalled. "Just like Con Downey with the schoolboys' game Jim played an equally big part in getting the South-Eastern League up and running, which then formed the new Kilkenny & District League.
"We had teams from Tipperary, Laois and Carlow playing in the league here – teams like Cahir Park, Thurles, Peake Villa, Barrow Rovers and the likes of the Lions and Rathdowney.
"He was very supportive, always gave 100% backing for anything that was progressive for Kilkenny soccer."
Naturally Mr Butler, who was also a former commercial manager of the Football Association of Ireland, was delighted his old colleague received such a warm tribute from his community.
"I think it's a wonderful honour for Jim Maher," he said. "It truly reflects the ecumenical spirit of his local community that both the Fenians GAA club and Spa United soccer club have come together to remember him. It totally befits Jim as a person."
Such support was never more present than when the idea of renaming the sportsfield after Jim Maher was suggested.
"It was club committee decision, but it would have been discussed at the GAA club's annual meeting," said Mr Tynan. "After that both the GAA and the soccer clubs pulled together. Plenty of people are involved in both playing and running the two clubs, which is great to see."
Such a close link between the GAA and soccer clubs is still something of a rarity – in Tullaroan both codes share the same grounds – and not just in Kilkenny.
"It's something you'd notice more when Spa United play in competitions like the Leinster Junior Cup," said Mr Tynan. "When the away team drive in they can't get over the fact that there's a GAA pitch there as well – they can't fathom how it works, but thank God it does so very well."
Note: There is an interesting addition to the celebrations around the official naming of Jim Maher Memorial Park. The 1968 team were honoured as part of the La na gClub celebrations, with every surviving member receiving a framed photograph of the 1968 side.
Elevated to the senior championship after that – there was no intermediate grade in Kilkenny between 1938 and 1972 – the Fenians have never dropped down since. Their 40-year unbroken spell in the top grade is impressive, and is surpassed only by James Stephens.
Losing the 1969 final marked the first of six years where the Fenians appeared in every senior hurling county final. The results from the games were:
1969 – Lost to James Stephens, 8-5 to 2-7.
1970 – Beat James Stephens, 2-11 to 3-5.
1971 – Lost to Bennettsbridge, 3-10 to 1-7.
1972 – Beat Bennettsbridge, 3-10 to 1-6.
1973 – Beat James Stephens, 7-8 to 5-10.
1974 – Beat Bennettsbridge, 0-10 to 0-6.
The Fenians team who lost the 1969 senior title – P.J. Ryan, Micky Carroll, Nicky Orr, Martin Fitzpatrick, Shem Delaney, Pat Henderson, Seamus Grace, Fergus Farrell, Pat Murphy, Johnny Moriarty, Pat Delaney, Tommy O'Connell, Mick Garrett, Frank Holohan, Billy Watson. Subs: Jim Maher, Donal Walsh, Paddy Broderick.
The 1970 Fenians team who won the club's first title featured P.J. Ryan, Shem Delaney, Nicky Orr, Martin Fitzpatrick, Pat Murphy, Pat Henderson, Seamus Grace, Mick Garrett, Donal Walsh, Johnny Moriarty, Pat Delaney, Paddy Broderick, Dick Dowling, Tommy O'Connell, Billy Watson. Sub: Fergus Farrell, Frank Holohan.