A basketball tournament that began in a converted ballroom 50 years ago today has attained national and international acclaim not because it attracted many of the sport's luminaries but because it never forgot where it came from.
Shortly after 6.30am this morning, Eamonn Egan pointed his van from Tullig into Castleisland town and its widest street.
He passed the fountain and the Con Houlihan statue, steered it up towards St Stephen’s Park for Vince Barry and doubled back across town for Church Street, where St Stephen’s church and Den Joe’s chip shop share Christmas business. Before the road widens into the Greater Scartaglen Metropolitan Area, Egan veered left for Tonbwee and, before 7am, parked flush to the front door of Castleisland Community Centre, after lighting up the arena and firing the heating system once they turned the front door key and unlocked Christmas dreams for all.
Even after 50 years, the good feeling doesn’t change. That warmth is less the heating in the hall than a community blanket ushering in one of sport’s enduring holiday traditions in real Ireland.
Egan is chairman of the basketball club, St Mary’s, and if that was the extent of his duties over the next five days, it’d be a full plate for sure.
But he is coach, safety officer, registrar, shop assistant, and a father too and he is in no way unique in any of that. The Christmas Basketball blitz in Castleisland is celebrating its golden jubilee because there are 50, probably one hundred, Egans, and the buttress beneath them is a town and district recognising what St Stephen’s Day in the Centre meant for them and what it means for their children and grandchildren. The Blitz isn’t struggling to its 50th renewal as much as powering into it with gusto.
A compass point in a world moving fast, too fast, from one iOS absurdity to another.
Within its own sturdy structure, though, the Blitz has undergone seismic change since a group of renegades got together at No 22 Barrack Street and picked captains for the first blitz in 1970. Then Donal O’Connor — aka The Duke, before Jonathan Mardukis in Martin Brest’s 1980s classic,was created — shared slices of mother’s tart and nominated six captains for men’s and the same for the inaugural women’s competition.
From that to this is unrecognisable. This week almost 1,500 players will sweat it out over 169 games in 22 grades over five days across two venues — the small ’uns career around the tiny St John’s Hall for the first four days. And when it’s all done next Monday night at a late hour, the organisers will walk uptown and begin planning for no 51 in 2020.
It is a production of many moving parts and wonderful madness, from Superleague giants to the local national school kids who live off Christmas swishes for half a lifetime. Everyone in town remembers Ollie Nolan, the 1980 kid with the half-court buzzer-beater just like they remember hoops titans like Terry Strickland, Deora Marsh, Liam McHale, Gerard Kennedy, Anthony Jenkins.
Denis ‘Buttons’ Sugrue could still remind you, if one wasn’t busy enough, that his record of 104 points in four Boys National School games remains peerless.
It must seem incongruous that an event can segue from seven-year-olds rigid with stage fright to showmen hitting treys as they collapse into the courtside seating, but it happens annually and seamlessly in Castleisland. But it’s about so much more than either.
Below the high-towers are the girth of the blitz — an immodest collection of fuller-framed gentlemen who squeeze into shrinking singlets every year and compete in the lower-rung Division 4 and 5 competitions. I was one such. Timmy Egan, Eamonn’s father, remembers refereeing such robust encounters.
“I used to get great craic out of it. ‘Lads, ye are not on a rugby pitch now, keep the elbows to yerselves’.”
Because of all that, and the fear of what and who one might miss if they weren’t present, the Castleisland tournament thrived even when the sport in this country was in a trough in the 1990s. And that’s likely because it’s about much more than basketball.
“You were looking to see who was coming in the door as much as you’d be looking at what was on the court in those days,” remembers Eileen Nolan [nee Lyne], a Blitz stalwart, who was weaned on the tournament from its earliest days.
Her house on Killarney Road was across the street from the Astor Ballroom and cinema, owned by Jimmy ‘The Master’ O’Connor. The first captain she played under would become here sister-in-law. She found love and a husband at the blitz in PJ Nolan.
Fifty years ago, in that ballroom of romance, Duke and Ned O’Callaghan paid two and four to sit upstairs and watch Clint Eastwood, the Man with No Name, in A Fistful of Dollars.
“About 10 minutes before the movie started, I said to Ned ‘this is our venue’,” Donal O’Connor recalls. “It took the intervention of the local curate Fr Leahy to convince ‘the Master’ that a basketball tournament could work either side of the busiest hooley of the year on December 26th.”
It was about then one of the first captains and founding fathers of the Blitz, Denis Griffin, discovered the existence and benefits of masking tape. Duke dispatched him to Ahern’s Garage in town for a consignment to mark the lines on the court. “There were only five players per team,” Duke explains, “and that created its own problem. In 1971 we had a rule that instead of being fouled out after your fifth foul that the opposition would be given two points for each foul you were called for. Otherwise, we might not have been able to finish the games.”
It was one of a plethora of teething troubles. Local chippie Mike Mitchell stumbled by one year and secured the boards to the back wall of the Astor when it had confounded the Blitz crew. Every St Stephens’ night for the first half dozen renewals they’d regain the Astor from the revellers in the small hours on the 27th and put down fresh masking tape for Day Two.
After they nominated captains, the fun started. “The captains would go home to their mums and say ‘I’ll be bringing gear home for you to dye’, explains Ned O’Callaghan. “The parents would use insulation tape to put numbers on the tops. Duke’s sister, Peggy, cut out a load of numbers from an old sheet as well.”
But basketball in Castleisland had already shown its resourceful side in the early years. “You were coming from a very low base,” remembers Denis Griffin.
“There was a time when there was only one basketball in the whole town and it was in the possession of the Presentation Sisters. Sometimes when you’d call to the convent, you’d get the ball and other times you’d get the road,” he tells a specialpodcast, now available, to celebrate the 50th Blitz. “And the seams might be coming apart, creating a big bulge in the side of the ball. So from that, you can imagine how wonderful it was for us to get into a hall, where there might be three, perhaps four basketballs.”
“People volunteered who knew nothing about basketball. They did the door, the shop, anything that could help,” Eamonn ‘Power’ O’Connor remarks. A core of obsessive volunteers drove progress, from Denny Porter to Domo Lyne, from Billy O’Connor to John Begley to Des McCarthy to Tom McCarthy and innumerable others, many of them credited in the annual programmes.
‘Power’ was one of the originals who thrilled in the move from the Astor to a shiny new Community Centre in 1976. A decade after, the good and the great of the game were wooed to Castleisland for their Christmases but wisely the direction of the blitz remained steadfastly local and young — to the point of scheduling the kids’ finals as curtain-raisers to the Premier fare.
“I’d be refereeing those matches,” ‘Power’ remembers, “and there might be 1,500 people packed into the centre and you could literally see the hearts of the young lads and lassies pounding out through their singlets.”
His wife Liz is a former chair of the club. “There were years in our house we never turned on the Christmas lights at home. Sure what would you want them up for? We left for the Centre St Stephen’s morning and got back the night before New Year’s Eve. They were great, chaotic days,” she told a commemorative booklet for the 50th, compiled by the club PRO Liz Galwey and her daughter Amber.
By the 25th anniversary, the tournament was like an outsized jamboree. Castleisland had the pick of the country’s top teams and anyone who came left with a favourable impression of this organised mayhem.
“Your country is beautiful, people friendly and your tournament is certainly a first-class operation,” wrote Clark University head coach Larry Mangino after 21 of his students travelled from Massachusetts to Kerry. It was a tournament “rich with community involvement and enthusiasm,” he said.
The good word spread as the world grew smaller. “Fellas went off to college and brought back teams. They went off to England and brought back teams, went to America and did the same,” Eamonn O’Connor explains. “There are blitz programmes now going out to Saudi Arabia, Australia, New Zealand, America, Canada, and England.”
Added Eileen Nolan: “I was on the phone to Sheila Hickey in Chicago, she played many years in the Blitz, and she’d been chatting with [another Castleislander] Neasa Kirwan, who is nursing in New York. Neasa was at a training conference and got talking to a fella from Cork. When she said where she was from, he said the Castleisland Blitz was his most treasured basketball memory. God only knows how many of those stories there are around the place.”
Denis Griffin went off teaching in Portlaoise before returning home later. If it offered some physical distance, it never changed his sense that the blitz was something very special in any context.
The blitz gives us a sense of place, a pride in our own town and the facilities we have to offer. Castleisland has always supported its own, whatever the endeavour, be that Desmonds GAA, the Soccer Club which the late George O’Callaghan built up, the fabulous Rugby Club facilities, the amazing An Ríocht AC. There’s an amazing golf course and a treasured Pitch and Putt club. That’s some going for a town of 3,000 people.
Duke’s skill in avoiding limelight is legendary but merely an extension of his understated genius as tournament director for each of those 50 years. He is the ‘gel’ keeping it all together, Denis Griffin says.
And a mentor, adds Eamonn O’Connor. “Unwittingly Duke educated us in organisation, in how to deal with people, he bestowed all of that in a gentle way and I’m not sure any educational body could have given us that.”
The Blitz remains, says Ned O’Callaghan, “the best thing that ever happened to Castleisland”, and not just because it gave him an excuse to avoid collecting for the Wren at Christmas.
“You never thought much of the significance of being one of the first captains, but now it is a big deal. It’s a big deal too that the Blitz is there after 50 years. It might just go on forever.”
And launch another Ollie Nolan moment perhaps.
“I can still see it,” says Liz O’Connor. “He looked shocked and amazed. He was standing there rooted to the floor and the hall just went mad. I will never forget it.
Castleisland Blitz milestones
The Astor plays host to the first indoor basketball tournament in Castleisland. The first captains were (Men): Eamonn P O’Connor, Denis Griffin, Paudie Nolan, Sean McCarthy, John Lyons, Paudie Griffin; (Women’s): Marion Long, Pat Keane, Elizabeth Sugrue, Maura Lyons, Catherine Brosnan, Eileen O’Connor.
The Blitz moves to the new Community Centre.
The number of games hit 100.
The first Premier Men’s competition takes place featuring Marathon (Limerick), Killorglin, Celtics, Greyhounds and Rockets (all Tralee) and the local St Mary’s outfit. Charles O’Sullivan from Tralee was the top scorer on 44.
The Blitz expands to a five-day event.
The supercool Turk Sami Muduroglu made his debut at the Blitz and wooed the crowds – particularly the female spectators! Also performing for the first time was the great Ed Randolph. The literary quality of the blitz programme is elevated by the musings of a certain Con Houlihan who writes: 'Basketball has a major advantage over most other team sports in that it can be played indoors and thus is independent of Ireland's notoriously fickle weather'.
A new secondary venue, Garvey’s Arena, is introduced for a two-year stint before St John’s Hall returns in 1995.
The last year the Blitz would charge £1 entry. The euro was on the way.
The number of competitions rose to 26.
Getting bigger – the number of competitions rises to 28, the highest it’s been before or since.
A whopping 12,830 people attended the Blitz over the five days.
*Courtesy of ‘Something Special, Celebrating 50 Years of St Mary’s Christmas Blitz (€5).