Eric Browne could always find a reason to smile and make those around him do the same.
Bursting with charisma, he was the very definition of amiable. It was a skill honed from being thrust into the family’s butchery business aged 14 in William Street, Listowel, following the sudden death of his father, and then perfected by a near lifetime as a bookmaker across the land.
A proud son of a town that exceeded the production quota for characters, Browne was a one-man show.
He made his first forays into bookmaking at Ballybunion Greyhound track and soon became a constant and beloved figure wherever coursing, racing, and point-to-point fixtures were being held.
Wherever he was, Eric Browne always seemed to have time for people — a couple of seconds for a wave and his trademark greeting of ‘my great friend’, a few moments of pleasantries and plamás while there was always a few minutes to spare for a hot tip to be shared or knowledge to impart.
Racing photographer, and fellow Listowel native, Pat Healy, saw the best of Browne at work and at play.
“Eric touched six generations — he could remember back to his grandparents’ time all the way to his own grandkids. He could walk into any pub in Listowel and whether you were 19 or 99 he would know you or know the people belonging to you.
He could mix with princes or paupers — and he’d treat everyone the same.”
Tim ‘Spike’ Murphy nods in agreement. Murphy was literally Eric’s right-hand man for close on 40 years, working on pitches in all seasons and conditions. “Eric was a very good bookmaker. He had a great mathematical head. Fellas nowadays are looking into screens and laptops for the percentages and liabilities but in the olden days it was all very different.”
Browne’s name may be fresh in some people’s minds given the recent award-winning radio documentary A Very Irish Coup which detailed the key role he played in a scarcely believable incident at Mullingar Greyhound Track over 40 years ago.
Conor Keane, who knew Eric since childhood, produced the documentary: “Eric was one of the masterminds behind the Ballydonnell Sam betting coup that saw the bookies facing exposure to losses of between £200,000 and £400,000 in 1978 — a massive €2m to €3m in today’s money. The front pages of newspapers in Ireland and Britain told how the gang manipulated the Tote at Mullingar Greyhound Track to force Ballydonnell Sam’s odds to a staggering 945/1, when he was a 1/2 hot favourite with the bookies.
“Eric and a group from Abbeyfeale hatched a plan to block the Tote windows and force Ballydonnell’s price through the roof on the Tote while backing Ballydonnel Sam at Tote prices at betting shops across the country. Furious bookmakers demanded the Garda Fraud Squad get involved. The investigating officer Insp Martin McCarthy said some mild mischief may be involved, but added: “A bit of roguery is far removed from a criminal offence.”
“We pulled a few strokes in our time,” Spike said with a laugh when reminded of that story. “But Eric loved a bet, it didn’t matter what the sport, if he had good information we’d go with it. I remember coming from Cork one afternoon and Eric got a call about speedway racing. Now we were far from experts on speedway racing but our man said that Norway was great value. So we put on our few pounds and headed to watch it in some pub. We were two hours waiting for the outcome. But we won — and had a great day in the process!”
Cheltenham was one of his favourite trips and one story jumps out for Healy: “Berkie (Eric’s son) and Spike would have to be at the track around 9am to set up for the day’s racing but that was too early for Eric. We rented a house about 20 minutes from the track and discovered a bus stop just down the street. We told him that he could stroll down to the bus stop and get to the track at his ease.
“So the first morning, he hopped on the bus, sat down at the back and headed off. After about 20 minutes there was no sign of the racetrack and he noticed that all the other passengers were kids. So he walked up to the bus driver and asked ‘Are we far from the race track?’
‘What racetrack?’ replied the driver. ‘This is the bus for the swimming pool!’
“Eric got such a laugh out of that and had a great kick telling people about his misadventure.”
Though a lover of all sports, football was his primary passion. He won an All-Ireland minor medal with Kerry in 1964 and had stints as a selector with his home club, Feale Rangers, Shannon Rangers, and the Kerry U21s. He was also vice-president of his beloved Listowel Emmets at the time of his death.
Indeed, legendary jockey Tommy Stack, a native of neighbouring Moyvane parish described Browne as both “a great character and a wonderful footballer. He was always in good humour, he was very jolly and always had a smile.”
Club and county games would be sliced and diced on Sunday afternoons (and the odd late night) around Listowel and further afield in the company of a crew that featured a cast of pals like Pat Whelan, Bob O’Sullivan, and Alfie Chute while the Palace Bar in Dublin was a favourite staging post when Kerry were in the big smoke for Championship games.
People would actively seek him out for his thoughts and his often forthright opinions.
“He was a great judge of football,” said Spike. “He wasn’t a man to tow the party line. If he thought that Kerry were overrated, he would say it straight out. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind but he always would have plenty of reasons to back up his argument.”
But his love of football came with terms and conditions. Eric was famed for parking as close to the ground as possible and passengers knew that the US Marine mantra of ‘no man left behind’ didn’t apply to those strolling back from a game at their ease. A biblical downpour before a Cork Kerry clash in Páirc Uí Chaoimh about a decade ago was such that he and his travelling party, abandoned their expedition from Listowel within touching distance of the stadium and instead watched the match while being fed and watered in a hostelry in Ballincollig.
Golf was another passion, both playing and spectating. “He played golf up to about three months ago,” Spike continued. “And he was a very good golfer. He was great pals with JP McManus and John Magnier and they would often play in Ballybunion together. He played in a couple of JP’s Pro-Ams alongside the likes of Lucas Glover, Michael Campbell, and Mark O’Meara. He loved the craic.”
JP McManus paid a warm tribute to ‘a great friend’: “I have nothing but the best of memories of him. I would always seek him out at the races and enjoy every moment I spent with him. He was a unique person, blessed with a great turn of phrase, so entertaining, and a great sport.
I was always the wiser having spent time in his company.”
Much of his golf was in his home club of Ballybunion, where he had another more regular, special guest, for company. “Eric was the only man that would have a dog on the course in Ballybunion,” Spike laughed. “They must have been afraid to ask him to stop!”
But Eric was good to Ballybunion also and he played a pivotal role in bringing the 2000 Irish Open to the world-famous links. He was a regular on the course on Monday afternoons and from there it was up the town to Mikey Joes for a few pints and a singsong where Eric always insisted that the singer got respect — ‘one dog, one bone’.
“That,” said Berkie, “was his perfect day.”
“Eric had a heart of gold,” said Spike. “At Christmas time he’d pick out a few charities and give them some hefty donations. He wouldn’t say a word. Eric will be remembered as a decent man. He was someone who didn’t take life too seriously. He’d often say that ‘the darkest hour is just before dawn.’ He simply enjoyed life.”
Pat Healy: “Eric will be remembered like John B Keane and Bryan McMahon — great men who put Listowel on the map.
“There will be fellas telling stories about Eric Browne in 100 years’ time.”
The final words belong to Berkie, who gave a moving eulogy in St Mary’s Church, Listowel on Tuesday.
“Eric had a great love for the underdog and invariably rallied to their cause. He loved his family and friends, feared no one, and always stood by those he loved and respected.
“‘Eric Browne was my father’ — those are possibly five of the proudest words I will ever say.”
- Eric Browne (77) was buried in Listowel on Tuesday. He is survived by his wife Mary, son Berkie, daughters Jani & Sarah, sister Patsy, son-in-law Tony, daughter-in-law Kelly, grandchildren Dara & Daithi, Jack, Molly, Charlie, and Lucy.