Jimmy Dunne - Part of the mortar without which the edifice of GAA would crumble

Jimmy Dunne has seen the world, Arklow to Alaska. He also saw the corridors of Croke Park. Now he stands in Pearses Park, his home ground

Jimmy Dunne - Part of the mortar without which the edifice of GAA would crumble

Arklow's Jimmy Dunne was recently inducted to the GAA's Hall of Fame, though he never scored a goal or a point in any GAA field. Instead he excelled in administration, becoming one of Croke Park's suits, without ever becoming a gray man.

Jimmy Dunne has seen the world, Arklow to Alaska.

He also saw the corridors of Croke Park. Now he stands in Pearses Park, his home ground, centre of operations for Arklow Geraldines Ballymoney. The January afternoon is fleet and dry.

Moving with remarkable ease and vigour for an 81-year-old, Dunne follows the photographer’s instruction with endless patience. I can see why this man made friends wherever he went, whatever he did.

Shoot over, he drives us to his neat and pleasant home in Ballyduff, a sheltered townland on the edge of Arklow. He was born in the town on September 2, 1938 and takes evident pride in its every stick and stone.

“There was no secondary school here as I grew up,” he says, at the wheel. “Now we have three, plus a Gaelscoil down beside our pitch. I left school at 14 and started work in a paintworks. My education all came afterwards.”

Jimmy Dunne is not a headline name. Yet he remains part of the mortar without which the edifice of Gaelic games would crumble.

He continues to act as Secretary of AGB, as his club is locally known. This man was recently inducted into the GAA’s ‘Hall of Fame’, an accolade granted on rare occasion to a highly valued individual.

Dunne scored no goals or points in Croke Park. He scored no goals or points in any stadium. Not even the most modest pitch did he adorn. There is unfailing modesty and candour about ability in this regard.

“I was pure useless,” he says, signature merriment about his face. “It’s well known that I once got a run out with the Leitrim hurlers, when they were rightly stuck and I was living in Manorhamilton, during the 1970s.

But I don’t think I’d call myself an inter-county hurler!

What did he do? He administered. How did he get on? Exceptionally well, from the start. When did he start? As Secretary of Wicklow’s South Juvenile Board in 1956. “I always loved administration,” Dunne summarises. “Loved the writing part, loved organising things.”

What came next? Many posts, including Secretary and Chairman of Wicklow County Board. Then important roles in Croke Park, Chairman of the Finance Committee and of the Games Administration Committee (forerunner of the CCCC). He was entrusted with sensitive tasks. Draw your own conclusions.

Yet Jimmy Dunne became one of the suits without ever becoming a grey man. There is his palpable delight in life. He seems never to have made an enemy, even though he participated in some of the GAA’s most febrile controversies.

Not coincidentally, he was once Chairman of the Newsagents’ Association in Ireland.

We settle in his study, lined with a striking collection of artefacts. He brings me over the minute book from the Wicklow County Board’s first meeting on December 26, 1886. On his shelves are many rare books, such as the history of Wicklow GAA published in 1935, and fugitive club histories.

Likewise there are bound copies of The Wicklow People, its annual run, since 1969. “I used put aside a People every week when I was a newsagent,” Dunne outlines. “Then I started getting them bound up. They are great for reference.”

Attachment to this newspaper runs back: “When I left the paintworks job, I trained as a confectioner. That time, it was six years of training. Afterwards, I spent a couple of years at sea, working on ships. We went all over the world.

“I would look up the ports of call beforehand, Buenos Aires and Valparaiso and all the rest, and my mother would send out the People to the agent for me to collect. So I kept up with Wicklow, even when I was thousands of miles away.”

Jimmy Dunne emphasises his time’s headline administrative issue: “The biggest change the GAA has seen, that changed the face of the GAA, was Croke Park.

First of all, the development of Croke Park. And then allowing rugby and soccer in to be played.

Arklow Geraldines Ballymoney proposed the motion that ultimately did away with Rule 42 in 2005. Dunne never doubted the initiative’s wisdom:

“It gave a new image to the GAA, the new building, how a voluntary organisation could put up such a magnificent stadium. The second thing was the rugby and soccer. Doing that broadened the horizons of what people thought of the GAA. The move showed how big we were, how capable we were of embracing other organisations, other sports.

“That wasn’t easy. Very good friends of mine disagreed, and we’re still very good friends.

I even got anonymous phone calls, saying it was dreadful and calling me insulting names. But look… You’ve got to take these things and move on.

This tangle between sport as recreation and sport as identity was not a new one. Jimmy Dunne came to consciousness in a particular milieu:

“The effects of the Civil War were still fiercely present. A lot of people’s parents and grandparents had grown up through it. The conflict formed their attitudes to a lot of things. People sometimes found it difficult to let go.”

Even home ground experienced tremors. As Dunne recounts: “Back in the early 1950s, the Geraldines wanted to call their pitch ‘Pearse Park’. So they wrote to Pádraig Pearse’s sister Margaret Pearse, who was a Senator at the time, asking for permission.

She wrote back and basically said: ‘It should be called ‘Pearses Park’, because Willie [Pearse] was there in 1916 too.’

“So they did that, and Margaret Pearse spoke at the opening of the pitch. There’s a photograph of that day and I’m in it. I think it might have been her last official engagement before she died.”

Margaret Pearse speaking at the opening of Pearses Park, Arklow on September 14, 1952. Fourteen-year-old Jimmy Dunne is circled.
Margaret Pearse speaking at the opening of Pearses Park, Arklow on September 14, 1952. Fourteen-year-old Jimmy Dunne is circled.

Passion for hurling sidesteps every kind of ambivalence. “I truly loved hurling as a youngster,” Dunne reflects. “It was class. But I was no good. But we would do anything to make sure we had access to a hurl. They were minded more carefully than anything.”

Young in the 1950s, he idolised the Wexford team that brought off the biggest breakthrough in decades: “They seemed a team of giants. They really did. Everyone in Arklow was Wexford. So was everyone in Carnew. Wexford lifted everything. And it also enhanced the club here.”

History brushed his hand: “The Wexford team came through the town, on their way home, after they won their second All-Ireland in 1956. It was a lot less sophisticated in those days… Nick O’Donnell, their captain, was holding the [Liam MacCarthy] Cup out the window of a car. I could have reached out and touched it.”

Dunne is a committed local historian. His conversation turns quickly towards older teams in the place (“Fr Michael Murphy’s, the Billy Byrnes”). He discerns irony in the fact that hurling in the town enjoyed its most successful period between 1917 and 1919, when three Senior titles in a row were won. “That team was just called Arklow,” he explains. “The key part was that you had Kynoch Munitions Factory at the time. People from all over Ireland worked there, which strengthened the hurling in a big way.”

Dunne takes down a local history book off his shelves, a history of the Kynoch plant. Then he shows me a photograph of a hurling team in South Africa, moustached and Edwardian:

“There was a massive explosion in the factory in September 1917. They say the bang was like an earthquake. 27 men were killed.

“There was such upset in the aftermath that people were offered free passage to work in another Kynoch factory in South Africa. A lot of the workers did opt to go out, and the men started a hurling team out there. I don’t know how long it lasted.”

The present? AGB now cater solely for football. Arklow Rock Parnells are the hurling outfit roundabouts. Jimmy Dunne naturally hopes to see his crowd win their inaugural Senior football title: “We’ve won things. We’ve won everything except the Senior. We were beaten by two points by St Patrick’s in last year’s final. They had won in 2018 as well. But I think we can get there.”

Then he swerves philosophical: “I used to think as a young man that I would see the Wicklow footballers in a Senior All-Ireland final. I don’t think that’ll be seen now, best will in the world.”

Our reveries are interrupted by the front door, by the woman of the house returning home. The Irish form of introduction gets done: “Bridie is from Kerry, from Scartaglen, near Castleisland.” I am equally Irish in return: “What sort of a place is Scartaglen?” The husband turns puckish: “Oh, a bit like New York.” And the wife turns authoritative: “Listen to himself, the man from the metropolis of Arklow.”

Mrs Dunne says tea is not enough and insists on producing scrambled egg on toast. “We cannot let a man back to Kilkenny hungry after his first visit here,” she smiles. “It’s certainly not something that would happen in County Kerry.” Mr Dunne is in his element, all sorts of ways.

Chat swerves to the couple’s enjoyment of cruises. “We might go on two a year,” Dunne relates. “We’ve been back to nearly all the places I visited when I was a young chef aboard ship.

“See, we’ve no family. There aren’t the usual ties that might be there at our age. There’s just two of us, and we’re comfortable. It’s a tonic, to head off.”

He knew, from those young days, his sea legs were fine. But he worried about his wife, worried about rolling waves and a lurching ship. He need not have fretted: “There were always enough [sea sickness] tablets for everybody. But Bridie never bothered [with them]. The sea never bothered her at all.” She chimes: “We pretty much went through a hurricane, when we were going around the Cape of Horn, the Straits of Magellan, around South America. And everyone on the ship was dying. But I was fine.”

“That’s why Kerry have 37 All Irelands,” I say. Her husband lets out a trumpet laugh.

Highlights of these voyages? He considers: “I would always say Buenos Aires has a lot of culture to it. Going out to the cemetery to see all the Irish graves. Eva Perón is there as well. And then the founder of the Argentine Navy, Admiral Brown from Mayo, is buried there. It’s great culture, Argentina.”

His wife opts for a colder climate: “Alaska was also pretty amazing. You have all these famous glaciers. And then you can get the railway up to The Yukon, where The Gold Rush was.”

Is The Yukon a touristy spot? A snort: “It’s full of snow! There’s nothing in it. So there’s not, Bridie?” Her reply: “No, but yet it’s very historical. You know, the way they have preserved all the taverns, where the miners used go.”

A sojourn in Seward, one of Alaska’s centres, emphasised the world’s smallness. The Arklow native brightens at the memory: “It’s only a big town, in honesty. We went into a souvenir shop to get a few fridge magnets and so on. I said to the girl behind the counter: ‘Did ever an Irishman come in here before?’ She said: ‘There’s one working here.’

“She called him downstairs and introduced us. He was only a young fella. I said to him: ‘Where are you from?’ He says: ‘From just outside of Arklow. I’m from Deputy’s Pass.’ Well…”

Dunne elaborates: “I never knew him. His father, I found out later, had a farm. I said to him: ‘What are you doing up here?’ He said: ‘I come up here to take photographs of wildlife, and I sell them here in the shop. And I work in the shop as well. But I only do it in the summer. I go home for the winter.’

“I thought it was a most interesting place to find a guy from outside Arklow…”

Another trip landed them at Iguazu Falls, the famous sheets of water between Argentina and Brazil. As Dunne details, these journeys can place Irishness in new lights: “We were checking into our hotel, near the Falls. The fella behind the counter wasn’t great at English. He only had: ‘Country? Country?’ I said: ‘Ireland.’

“He said: ‘Aye! [Conor] McGregor!’ That was the only thing he knew about Ireland. And he had gone to Las Vegas to see him [fight].”

Jimmy Dunne and I, toast gratefully eaten, spin back into the centre of town. He loops around, pointing out spots from childhood and youth. He instances where the old technical college was (“All apartments now”), the areas from where Street League teams were drawn during the 1940s and ’50s.

“Fishermen’s Pride were around here, because we are near the harbour,” he clarifies. “And Starlights were from a bit further up there. I loved those Street Leagues.

The past glitters still, as if some kind of a sea. There is a bus to get and I kill the half hour in a surly pub, thinking about Jimmy Dunne, a Croke Park man, finding astonishment during the couple’s most recent cruise.

Sitting at the table, he offered one last tale: “Last year, we went to Abu Dhabi, and cruised up into Jordan.

“We got a tour, then, to Petra, the lost city, out in the desert. And it’s fantastic… It’s unreal. They built these temples, in the rocks. It’s just massive. How they did it, I don’t know.

“With nothing, like. They had nothing.”

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