Battle lines drawn at the border

EVER since the two counties came out of the hat together for the All-Ireland qualifiers a fortnight ago, the banter has been flying over the Laois-Offaly border.

Nowhere has the exchange been as keen as in Portarlington, a town separated only by the River Barrow to the uninformed but by over a century of football rivalry to the locals.

The lines have been blurred by people crossing the water to live and work in the other side’s backyard and Pádraig Dunne has spent the last two weeks embedded deep in enemy territory in his pub “After Dark”.

The green and gold flags flutter defiantly from his walls amidst the wave of blue and white in the town’s main square on the Laois side of the Barrow Bridge that cuts the town in two.

Tomorrow, the counties meet for the 28th time in the championship. Whatever the outcome, says Dunne, fans will return to “Port” that evening to carouse together into the night.

“I know in some bordering counties the rivalry wouldn’t be very nice. It was never that way with Laois and Offaly,” says Dunne, an All-Ireland medal winner and All-Star in 1982.

“There was always great slagging and banter. I can see now with my own two kids, the rivalry is better than ever this last few years.”

The links between the two counties are long and tangled. The first man to lift the Sam Maguire for Offaly was Willie Bryan who was born in Portlaoise. The last man to do so was Richie Connor who managed the O’Moores in the early 1990s.

It’s in Portarlington though where the lines get really blurred. Leo Turley grew up on the blue side of the river and played for the senior team but his upbringing is what he dubs a “cross-community” one.

Though his mother is from Laois, his father Martin played minor for the other side for four years and won a Leinster title in 1960. That team contained names like Bryan, Martin Furlong and Tony McTague, all of whom featured on Offaly’s first All-Ireland winning team in 1971.

Who knows? Martin Turley might have played himself only for the 10-year ban handed down to him in 1962 for playing rugby but he was still good enough to win a pair of Leinster medals with Gracefield and county juniors when his sentence ended.

“I remember going to the two All-Ireland finals in 1981, when Offaly won the hurling, and lost the football with my dad,” Turley recalls. “You wouldn’t be jumping up or down but you might wear the colours because it’s your dad’s team.

“You would want to root for your neighbour — in a roundabout sort of way. Of course, if it was Laois playing Offaly you were totally for Laois.”

Neither Dunne nor Turley were aware of any great rivalry growing up.

With GAA structures based so religiously on county boundaries, none of the teams in the parish — Portarlington, Gracefield or O’Dempseys — ever met. “The only time I ever saw the Offaly lads was at Sunday mass,” says Turley.

The first time he recalls the rivalry sticking in his mind was the Leinster final between the counties in 1981 when he was 14 years old.

Dunne remembers only too well. “That was my very first game to play with Offaly and I was only told the night before by Eugene McGee,” he says.

It worked out well for Dunne and Offaly. It did throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, though that wasn’t always the case. Up until the end of the ‘60s, Offaly suffered terribly at the hands of Laois, winning only twice in 14 attempts.

The next 20 years saw the tables turned with Laois claiming bragging rights only twice in 10 attempts.

“At the time, Laois had a fantastic team,” says Dunne. “I know they won the league in 1986 but they should have won more. They deserved to. Man for man they were as good as Offaly but they just lacked that little bit of belief.”

After ‘82 the rivalry lost its bite with the sides meeting only once in almost 20 years — a 10-point victory for Laois in which Leo Turley played and his brother Michael scored 2-7.

Offaly sank to divisions three and four of the league before rising to win a provincial and NFL title in 1997 and ‘98 before sinking back just as quickly.

Five championships meetings in four years since the new millennium stoked up the fires along the border again and Laois enjoyed their greatest day three summers ago, ending a 57-year wait by winning the provincial championship, beating Offaly on the way.

“At the Laois end of the Barrow Bridge there was a sign put up that said ‘Laois: Leinster champions’. You couldn’t miss it when you came over from the Offaly side,” recalls Turley.

Dunne chuckles at the memory of those days but, far from battening down the hatches at After Dark, the former Offaly player celebrated like the Faithful themselves had just won the cup.

“I was never as happy to see any team winning. The same with Westmeath the next year.

“I know Myself and Richie Connor had a couple of nights out on the back of that Laois win in 2003 and I’m sure there will be a few pints sunk no matter what the result is in O’Moore Park.”


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