Across the generations, the fundamental strength of every single sports club is defined by its ability to command the devotion of people who commit their time, energy and talents to its service.
Without such service, no sports club can survive, let alone thrive. Usually, these people form the bedrock of the club and have often served at all levels — as players, coaches, administrators, and supporters.
Sometimes, indeed, they fill all of those roles at the same time. The very best of sports clubs both mine and cultivate this spirit of volunteerism.
Rita Parsons (née Coburn) was a volunteer of the very highest order.
She joined Railway Union in the 1940s and by the time of her death this year she had given some six decades of service to the club of which she was so proud to be a member.
The irony of it is that she had not intended to join Railway Union at all.
Growing up at Derrynane Gardens in Sandymount (where she had lived following her birth in 1933), she enquired about playing hockey and was given directions to Pembroke Wanderers Club on Serpentine Avenue.
She set off on her bike, but one wrong turn led to another and she ended up cycling in to Railway Union on Park Avenue. It’s fair to say she never really left.
With Railway Union, she proved to be a brilliant player, most notably as a goalscorer for the Firsts who was brave and determined. She ended up being good enough to play for Leinster and continued to play long after so many others of her own age had retired.
Indeed, in the 1970s she captained the Railway Union Seconds to win the Irish Junior Cup.
She also played tennis, cricket and bowls, but the games were only part of the story.
Sports clubs are, of course, for many people the focal point of a social scene that extends far beyond sport. Clubhouses act as a sort of social glue — they bind people together and help forge communities from the bricks and mortar of suburban sprawl.
It is a simple fact that Rita enjoyed a wonderful social life in Railway Union.
It was there that she met her husband Eric Parsons, who predeceased her by six months. He was a cricketer who went on to become an international cricket umpire, taking charge of many international and first class matches including matches between Ireland and the West Indies, Australia and Scotland.
Their wedding is the stuff of films. In 1946, while Rita was still in primary school, her eldest sister Mona, who had started working in the Department of Foreign Affairs, received a letter from a primary school in Germany asking if they could be paired with a school in Ireland.
Every student in Mona’s class was then paired with a student in the German school. Rita became pen-friends and then best friends with Rosemarie Gentges.
When Rita and Eric eloped to be married, it was Rosemarie who organised their wedding in Cologne. They visited each other regularly — indeed Rita travelled to Berlin last year to be at Rosemarie’s husband Martin’s funeral.
They were the only students in their classes to stay in touch and they continued to write to each other until this year.
All the while, Rita was deeply involved in the running of Railway Union. Indeed, she served as treasurer of the club for more than 50 years and was famed for her pursuit of membership fees.
That she managed to fulfil this most thankless of roles in any club and at the same time managed to remain immensely popular was a tribute to her tact, discretion and sense of fairness.
Her loyalty to the club she joined by accident was boundless. When her beloved son Brendan — himself an outstanding hockey player with Railway Union and Leinster — told her that he was moving to play for Glenanne, Rita declined to speak to him for two months!
As well as serving Railway Union, she also served as League Secretary and President of the Leinster Ladies Hockey Union, treasurer of the Irish Ladies Hockey Union and assistant treasurer of the Irish Hockey Association (after the men’s and women’s sections united).
That she was awarded honorary life membership of all those associations speaks eloquently of her contribution across the decades.
Proper tribute was paid to her contribution on the weekend that she passed away: the World League 2 quarter-final between Ireland and Poland was preceded by a minute’s silence.
As Fr Aquinas T Duffy said at Rita’s funeral Mass: “Most sports clubs and indeed all parishes could not survive without volunteers like Rita who inspire and make it possible for whole generations of young people to develop a love for sport.”
If this love is as deep as the love felt by Rita Parsons, it will flourish and endure right until the very end. There is something truly wonderful about the fact that on her final day at St Mary’s in Castleblayney, she was on her way to play balloon tennis when she was taken ill.
Everybody who has ever walked through the gates of a sports ground has benefited from the labour of the volunteers who give their hours to make playing games possible.
The story of Rita Parsons is unique unto itself, shaped by her character and her interests and her gifts.
But it is also one which fits with the stories of those who have shared her selflessness in their devotion to others.
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