Do you ever find yourself wishing you could turn back time? Go back to the way things used to be. I know that could mean 100,000 different things. With me, it would hardly come as a shock that a lot of such thinking pertains to farming. Specifically, to having cattle and/or hay at the back of the house. Yes, a lot more could be added to that list in terms of other places where work was once observed, but for the purposes of what follows hereafter, thoughts are staying close to home.
Right behind home actually. To begin with at least. To be exact, a corner of the meadow nearest our house which was retired from agricultural production and dug out to be transformed into a Long Jump pit. At the time, both of my sisters were heavily involved with Dunboyne Athletic Club. Achieving considerable success along the way too. It can only be assumed that their interest therein was first sown at schools level – as is the case with all sports – but, even though the following knowledge was acquired years after the fact, akin to sports clubs of any kind, there were pillars of Dunboyne AC who nurtured and developed their talents and abilities.
In these situations, one is always weary of naming names as there is always the danger of leaving somebody out. Or, though a more rare occurrence, including somebody who shouldn’t be. So, as tends to be my modus operandi in these situations, I will stick to those that I am certain about. In terms of athletics in Dunboyne, that meant people such as George Hutton, Jack Murray, Tommy McDonnell, Seamus Brady, Noel Leonard, Noel Cunningham and Sean Conroy. Let’s drink to those who are here today and remember those who are gone.
To the profound regret and heartache of many in Dunboyne and much further afield, Sean Conroy became the latest to lay down the baton when called to the starting blocks in the stadium far away. Now, I’m sure every sport in every town in the country – or maybe even the world – the following description could be affixed to somebody, but, whenever I hear the words ‘Dunboyne’ and ‘Athletics’ in the same sentence, Sean Conroy is unquestionably the first name that springs to mind.
That is not, in any way, to detract from the contributions or achievements of others. Just me writing what I know best. An athletic thread has always ran strongly through our family. Albeit in stages. My own late father actually competed for a St Andrew’s AC – which was seemingly based in the Ratoath area in the mid 1940s. And, as was alluded to above, my two sisters competed with quite a bit of success.
Most, if not all of it, was before my time. But even from listening to the stories of yesteryear, Sean’s interest in and influence on the younger athletes in particular was profound. It’s my understanding that it was on his prompt the Long Jump pit was out.
Not to mention what were once the rails of a cattle crush being upcycled into athletics hurdles to facilitate training for the 400M jumps. Aficionados more qualified than this one would attest that Sean was a fine athlete in his own right, yet even from being loosely attuned to matters track and field, whenever I was fortunate to spend time in his company, his passion for underage athletics would illuminate our conversation like a beacon.
He’d say to me “Benny – he always called me Benny for some reason – it’s all about the youth. Without the past you don’t have a present and without it where do you get your future”. If ever the was someone who espoused the old Irish saying ‘Mol an oige agus tiocfhaidh siad’ – which roughly translates as ‘Nurture the young and they’ll come true’ it was Sean Conroy.
And he practiced what he preeched. By way of his two of his own sons, Alan – or Andy as he is known to most of us – and the late Derek being gifted runners in their own right. I’m actually not sure whether Niall, who was my classmate in school, partook in athletics,or his sisters Elaine and Jacinta for that matter, but I know he was a fine footballer back in the day and it’s one of my great regrets that more wasn’t done to encourage him to stay at it.
Andy and Niall are multi-talented lads in that they are also quality musicians. Not surprising, really, given that their dad was also an eloquent skilled writer and, generally, just a fountain of knowledge on a wide variety of topics. Which is why it was no surprise to see Sean accompany Seamus Dunne to visit my father shortly before he died as they were beginning compilation of a club history. Alas they never did get to have the follow up meeting but the two Seans are probably stuck into it above already!
Undoubtedly, my favourite piece of his writing was a piece which appeared in an issue of Dunboyne News in tribute to the late Mattie McGrath, while an equally treasured resident of the Boylan Talks Sport vaults is a tribute to Sean magnificently put together by Jimmy Henry.
Sean’s wife, Judy, is also a very well known figure in our community with generations of us educated in spotless, clean conditions owing to her selfless dedication to the local schools for as long as these wheels have turned. Also, his brothers Anthony and Ray were talented GAA players who were part of the St Peter’s, Dunboyne team which won the Feis Cup in 1958.
In conclusion, though, I am drawn back to what will forever be the central tenets of my memories of Sean – young people and writing. The above photo shows him cutting the tape on Dunboyne AC’s fantastic all weather track what is probably longer ago than it seems.
Note that he is, in the majority, surrounded by juvenile athletes. They mightn’t even have known they were in the presence of greatness, but you can be sure he knew each and every one of them and the events they specialised in. Always observing, always guiding.
Chances are, he will regaled them with the loneliness of the long distance runner, about which he did one of the most beautiful piece of writing that the one seeing eye here had the pleasure of perusing. Whenever our paths crossed, conversation would inevitably wind up back at that very point “Writing, Benny, is a lot like distance running, pace yourself, if you go mad from the gun, you’ll burn yourself out”. Sound advise as ever. Farewell my dear friend.