None compare with the people of Leitrim, where I learned my trade

Award-winning sportswriter David Walsh reflects on his two formative years in a county he loved from the start

David Walsh

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David Walsh

None compare with the people of Leitrim, where I learned my trade

David Walsh recalls his years in Leitrim and the Observer

Last week, 39 years after leaving the Leitrim Observer, I wrote about Arthur Boyle in a column for the London Sunday Times. Arthur was once a garda stationed in Drumkeeran. We became friends. On journeys from Carrick to Manorhamilton, Drumkeeran was the pit stop and for an hour or more with Arthur and Pat Duignan we’d shoot the breeze about football, politics and life.
It was Arthur who once said that his job and my job had one thing in common: neither of us was paid to be popular, which was just as well. The first enemies I made in journalism were all from Ballinamore, which of course endeared me to everyone in nearby Aughawillan. As far as I can remember Arthur was from Aughnasheelin, another parish in that neck of the woods.
So many times over the years I’ve told the story of the Dubliner who pulled in at Pat McManus’s garage in Ballinamore asking for directions to Johnny McKiernan’s place in Aughnasheelin. Pat was uncle to the great writer John McGahern so it was probably unrealistic to expect a straightforward answer.
“Which Johnny McKiernan from Aughnasheelin would that be?” asked McManus.
“There can’t be too many Johnny McKiernans from Aughnasheelin,” said the Dubliner.
“As common as trees,” said McManus.

I joined the Observer in April 1978, so wet behind the ears that when I showed up for the first time senior reporter Mickey Oates gave me a notebook and a dry sponge. The Observer cost 15p and I’m not saying it was worth it, but the reach of the paper never ceased to amaze. If you lived in Leitrim, you had to have the Observer.
I don’t remember much of what I wrote in those two years but, reacquainted recently with some of what passed for journalism back then, all I can do is apologise. I was very young, very enthusiastic and clueless. Eugene McGloin, who preceded me at the Observer, was a genuinely outstanding reporter and ran away with the national Young Journalist of the Year award for two years on the trot.
What I can say is that the settling into Leitrim took all of 10 minutes. Fortune was on my side. During three years at University College Dublin I’d become friends with Janie Quinn from Aughawillan. We met coming out of a match at Pairc Sean Mac Diarmada and soon after that she invited me to come for Sunday dinner to her parents’ home.
Leitrim was a long way from where I’d been brought up in the southernmost corner of Kilkenny but soon it felt familiar. So many Sundays were spent with Desy and Nora, Janie’s parents, days that began around midday wouldn’t end until shortly before midnight. Lots of times Janie wouldn’t even be there. Talk about hospitality and making a stranger feel at home.
I became a committed Aughawillan supporter and though it is frowned upon for a reporter to have such an allegiance, the afternoon Aughawillan beat Ballinamore in the first round of the 1979 county championship was the happiest of my life. This joy was later equalled but not surpassed by the arrival of our first-born child.
There was no chance of not settling in. Shortly after starting at the Observer, someone called the office. “Hello,” he said almost solemnly, “my name is John Dwyer from Tipperary, I work with the council here in Carrick. Are you David Walsh?”
I confessed. He asked if I’d be available to play in the county final for St Mary’s on Sunday. I wondered what sport this might be and this caused the conversation to become deadly serious.
“Hurling, of course,” he said sternly.
“Well John, to be honest, I’ve played very little hurling in my life and I don’t think I’d be much good to you in a county final?”
“Are you David Walsh from Kilkenny?”
“I am,” I said.
“Well,” he said, “you’ll do us.”
And so it came to pass that the only hurling match I’ve played as an adult was a county final. Not many men can say that. I was left-half-forward and marked by Frankie Mulvey from Allen Gaels. Frankie was a good, let us say robust, player and he wasn’t going to get any trouble from me. To borrow from the great Con Houlihan, that day I saw the 50-50 ball as a lost cause. Still, St Mary’s won and when men say “show me your medals” I’m not slow to come forward.

Nowhere have I met a people to compare with those encountered during the first two years of my working life. Warm, wonderfully self-deprecating and generous by nature, they were the Leitrim people I met

I loved my time in Leitrim for many reasons, but really for just one reason. The people. Over the last four decades I’ve been to many places, lived in more than a few and nowhere have I met a people to compare with those encountered during the first two years of my working life. Warm, wonderfully self-deprecating and generous by nature, they were the Leitrim people I met.
If it was Saturday morning you would have found me playing tennis with Tommy Ahearne in Drumshanbo. Murderous matches where each set lasted an hour and Tommy won every single one. To this day I follow his sporting career at the Carrick golf club and he’s regularly in the prizes. After the tennis we’d go back to his house, where his wife Mary had lunch ready.
My colleague at the Observer Willie Donnellan brought me to my first Connacht championship game, Leitrim against Mayo in Ballina. There were four of us —Willie, Ted Clifford, Sean Gibbons and the cub reporter. On the way back we stopped at a pub in Bonniconlon. Willie was in a rush to get back to Leitrim Village because he worked at his aunt’s pub on Sunday nights. It was one of his 11 jobs at the time. So it would have to be a quick one in Bonniconlon.
Not much of a drinking man, I thought one pint of Smithwicks wouldn’t hurt. Entering the pub Willie moved his eyebrows a fraction and in no time the barman had four pints sitting on the counter. Clifford took one sip from his and gave the barman the nod. Another four. Then Gibbons did the same. Didn’t have much option, did I? Another four.
At that point, I had three-and-a-bit pints resting on the counter. The lads were downing their last. Forced to drastically up the pace, I swallowed long and hard and frequently. I got there, though. Four pints in less than 20 minutes: a record that remains to this day.
On the bumpy road home to Leitrim the ale swilled in the stomach, not knowing whether to go up or down. All is explainable except one detail: how could the consumption of half a gallon of ale in less than 18 minutes not knock a feather from Donnellan, Gibbons or Clifford?
So much happens and is forgotten and yet so much has remained from those two years. The best night I’ve ever had at a theatre was an evening in Sligo watching the Cloonclare Players’ production of John B Keane’s Sharon’s Grave win a national award. Spellbinding, that’s what it was. Leitrim’s amateur groups were then the best in the country.
A couple of times since I’ve had the opportunity to see Sharon’s Grave but resisted. It could only be a disappointment. In parochial halls and community centres all over the county I discovered the brilliance of John B Keane: The Year of the Hiker, Big Maggie, The Field. Drama critic at the Observer, it had a ring to it.
And it was at the Leitrim Observer that I read the finest line of biased reportage ever typed. The Observer’s Carrick correspondent Sean Murray was writing about a county championship game in which his club St Mary’s were doing battle. Sean loved the GAA, loved Leitrim and loved St Mary’s. Their star player Mickey Martin was his favourite.
In his match report Murray described how Martin burst through the opposition defence and unleashed a pile-driver that was bound for the roof of the net “until the crossbar raised its ugly head.” No line ever made laugh as much.
Not before. And not since.