People who have never lived in one have no what a small town is like.
Small towns are unrecognisable in the glib dismissals of metropolitans, who condemn every one of them as drab and narrow and devoid of diversity.
Each town is a place unto itself. It is defined by the people who live in it and the accretion of the impact of their actions over time.
There are examples everywhere of how towns have been changed by the actions of individuals or a small group.
From one moment, the lives of many can be transformed.
This is what happened when, on Friday night, November 13, 1953, a small group of men met under a lamppost in the middle of Tullamore, Co. Offaly. Several of the men worked in Salts Factory in the town, a textile mill behind the façade of the old Tullamore Gaol. It employed 800.
As well as working in Salts, the men also ran for an athletics team based at the factory. And now, out under the lamppost, they stood talking about founding a new athletics club in Tullamore, one that would be open to all the athletes of the town.
With the November cold biting the air, Eddie Clarke — who owned Clarke’s hairdressers, which stood beside the lamppost — invited the men inside. They could use his shop to set up their club.
Among the men present was Billy Dowling, who is still a stalwart of Tullamore GAA Club, and then a fine athlete and footballer.
With him was his brother, John Dowling — he later refereed All-Ireland football and hurling finals, and served as president of the GAA, from 1988 to 1991.
He became the first chairman of the new club, although three other men — Noel Gowran, Paddy Larkin, and Brendan O’Shea — drove its development for the next 50 years.
Their commitment to the club epitomises the idea of a lifetime of service. Over the decades that followed, backed by a legion of voluntary workers, they built a club unmatched in any town in Ireland.
The story of what they achieved, and how they achieved it, is laid out in Kevin Corrigan’s excellent new book,
Tullamore Harriers: A History, 1953-2018.
What this book tells, more than anything, is how a meeting under a lamppost set in train a series of happenings that transformed the lives of generations of people from the midlands and beyond.
It is tempting to foreground the physical infrastructure that was built as evidence of the club’s progress.
From small rooms on Offaly Street, in the middle of town, they moved to a site out on the Charleville Road in the early 1960s, where, over the following decades, they built what is considered one of the ‘premier club-owned facilities in Europe.’ A tartan track was laid down in 1978, making the Harriers the only privately- owned members’ club in Europe to hold such a facility.
By 1980, there was a new stadium in place, with a gym, dressing rooms, two saunas, two plunge pools and a viewing area, as well as all the facilities for competitions.
A second track and warm-up area was added and, in the 1990s, a concrete stand was built.
It is tempting, also, to set out a roll-call of the great athletes who ran at the Harriers’ wonderful facilities, but it is a simple fact that every significant Irish athlete who competed in Ireland over the last 50 years ran at the Harriers.
From Ronnie Delany, Eamonn Coghlan and John Treacy to Sonia O’Sullivan and Catherina McKiernan, all of Ireland’s top athletes came to run.
And the venue was also used for international soccer matches, with Roy Keane playing there in an U16 international, against Greece, in 1987.
The Harriers gave athletics a profile in Offaly that produced national champions, such as John O’Toole and Pauline Curley.
O’Toole also represented (and captained ) Ireland at a series of world cross country championships in the early 1980s, while Curley won a team bronze medal, alongside O’Sullivan and McKiernan, in the World Cross Country championships, in Turin, in 1997.
And, in 2008, she became the Tullamore Harriers’ first Olympian, when she competed in the marathon at the Beijing Games.
But year after year, great runners represented the club: Mick Neville, Mick Hayden, Ann Carroll, Gordon Kennedy, and so many more.
At this elite end of running, the Harriers have been home to an Olympian and eight national senior champions, who have shared 19 titles between them, as well as medallists in numerous national and provincial grades, and internationals, at every level.
How was all of this possible?
It is, of course, impossible to build a club and improve facilities without raising money.
And the people who ran Tullamore Harriers had a talent for making money that was outstanding. And, in the process, they had an awful lot of fun. It began in the 1950s, when the club hosted dances in the County Ballroom, a building that later became the Tullamore court house.
The Harriers attracted all the top showbands in the country into the town and began an annual carnival in 1957, which drew people from far and wide. It was this capacity to draw in people from outside Tullamore that was essential to the club’s extensive fundraising.
This was repeatedly demonstrated at the club’s pavilion, after its opening in 1972.
Thursday and Sunday nights saw bands and dinner dances; Friday night was ‘fork supper’ night and Saturday night was ‘disco night’.
There’s no way to dress this up, but it was at this Saturday ‘disco night’ that — between the 1970s and the dawn of the new millennium — many young midlanders learned how to drink and dance and make ‘romantic’ acquaintance.
Indeed, the slow-sets at the Harriers could see all three of those developing talents united on a Saturday night, all going well.
That many of those present had decanted from buses that had ferried them in from towns and villages all across the midlands made the place all the more special.
There are three other points to note: the first is the competitions that were run by the club. Pride of place among these must go to the Quinlan Cup. This actually began in the 1950s and by 1960 it was a six-mile, open cross country race.
There are extraordinary photos in Kevin Corrgian’s book of a dozen men attempting to cross a fence in this race in 1960. Most of the men are barefoot, as they clamber across the wooden fence onto the trampled mud out at Arden, on the edge of Tullamore.
he cup was named after Ned Quinlan, a man who led the 7th Tipperary Brigade of the IRA during the War of Independence, before working as a garda detective in Tullamore, where he earned much regard as an athlete and athletics administrator.
The Quinlan Cup moved from being a cross-country race to a road race and, more recently, has been run as a half-marathon.
Competitions such as these drew the best runners in Ireland to Tullamore and gave a focal point, also, for local athletes in their training.
The second point of note is the extent to which the Harriers have catered for recreational runners. The number of people engaged in recreational, rather than ultra-competitive, running has climbed over the years, beginning to grow in the 1990s and growing further and further since 2000. This mass participation sits alongside the enduring excellence of the premium runners who represent the club in national competitions.
The final point of note is that in any club there are controversies and the story of the Tullamore Harriers has its fair share. It is the type of thing that always happens whenever people try to do anything together.
The building of the pavilion, which became central to the social scene in the midlands for four decades, only occurred after a series of appeals against council decisions and objections from residents. The most fascinating controversy came in 1961. There were violent scenes at the Leinster Cross Country championships, in Tallaght, when officials tried to remove some Tullamore athletes in a dispute over eligibility. What ensued is known as the ‘Battle of Tallaght’ and it was a display of spirit that explained precisely why the club developed in a way unlike any other in Ireland.
Paul Rouse is associate
professor of history at University College Dublin.