Seamus O’Brien was barely a teenager when his brother Pascal arrived back home from seminary one time to usher him and another brother Brendan out the door and on to a train bound for Kingsbridge Station in Dublin.
An otherwise random day in 1956, this was heaven for the two younger siblings.
Seamus and ‘Benny’ would make the same journey time and again in the years to come and a growing posse of friends would begin to join them.
All drawn to the big smoke like so many moths to light by the prospect of Stuyvesant American smokes from the O’Connell Street kiosk and Morelli’s chip shop on Capel Street.
There were no chippers in Portlaoise in the mid-50s. “It was like living in the wilderness,” my dad Seamus laughed as he recalled those times yesterday. But what really lured them back to Dublin was the memory of that first visit and a league game at Tolka Park between Drumcondra and Shelbourne under the only set of floodlights in the country.
“I thought it was magical,” says Seamus.
The breadth of their expeditions would expand to take in Republic of Ireland games, the fortunes of the hurlers from Laois, Tipperary and Wexford and even dances but a love for Drums was embedded from the off that first evening, by the sight of men like Dessie Glynn and Bunny Fulham and the way he might cut you in two as soon as look at you.
None of this was normal.
The O’Brien kids and their pals were rare culchies on the city’s terraces even if Portlaoise had the credentials you’d expect for the Garrison Game. Founded as Maryborough fort by English settlers in the 16th century, soccer’s seeds were only being planted 400 years later by a former Athlone Town player called Paddy Clarke who worked in the town for CIE.
It would be 1966 before Portlaoise AFC was formed. A great year for football, as they say.
Among the founders were men from the ranks of those same young pioneers whose devotions had run so deep as to add the Leinster Senior Cup final on St Stephen’s Day to their schedule of capital outings.
Many was the cold, exposed thumb used to cadge a lift home to the Midlands in the dead of night. Every last one worth it.
Soccer’s siren song has proven increasingly irresistible to countless thousands all over the country. The 2015 Irish Sports Monitor tells us that it is by far and away the most popular team-based sporting activity in the 26 counties and yet the League of Ireland continues to find so much of that same landscape barren and rocky and aloof to its charms.
By the 1980s and 90s my dad and I would start to make the odd trip up the road to watch a league tie — a ritual we still try to keep alive on the odd Friday night — but the only time the domestic game made a dint in the psyche of our home town was in 1991 when Portlaoise AFC qualified for the FAI Cup for the first and only time.
Home Farm were seen off first but then Kilkenny City came away from our own Rossleighan Park with a 3-2 win built on a dodgy offside decision that caused ructions and fears for life and limb as the temporary stands bucked and swayed to the sudden fury of hundreds of souls whose fandom would last little longer than the 90 minutes.
Some of us were bitten badly enough to want more.
Half-a-dozen kids from the CBS made the trip to Lansdowne Road later that season to watch Bray Wanderers finally put an end to the St Francis fairytale along with 29,000 other punters. But any remnants of curiosity were shredded by the lack of any real attachment to it all as much as the drab fare a year later when some of us returned to watch Galway totter past Shamrock Rovers.
What was there to keep us rapt? To merit our loyalty.
The debate on the League of Ireland’s past, present, and future is so often framed by the focus on playing standards, infrastructure, marketing or the FAI’s management but only 13 counties are represented in the two-table ladder of senior Airtricity League football. Vast swathes of territory remain oblivious to the goings-on.
The FAI Cup, which reaches a climax on Sunday with the meeting of Cork City and Dundalk at the Aviva Stadium, has been decorated by the the likes of Boyle Celtic from Roscommon, Edenderry from Offaly, and Donegal’s Cockhill Celtic in recent years but even here the dominance of the ‘traditional’ heartlands sticks out.
Fifty-four of the 76 berths claimed by junior sides in the cup this last five seasons have originated from either Dublin or Cork. It’s too much. Gone are the days when soccer was the poor relation, a pastime that could earn you a quizzical stare or ostracisation from your local GAA club but the senior domestic game still needs to spread its wings if it hopes to fly.
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