Páirc ui Mhordha
A HISTORY OF PAIRC UI MHORDHA
by Teddy Fennelly
Pairc ui Mhordha's significant role in the history of Laois GAA
Pairc ui Mhordha has played a significant part in the history of the GAA at county, provincial and national level. It is here every year for over one hundred years that county champions are made in all grades of hurling and football. Crowds have flocked here to witness major games in championship, league and railway cup competitions, games that have shaped the rich history of the GAA.
This is a hallowed stadium where dreams have come true and others shattered, providing epic encounters and a constant supply of food for the statisticians. The origins of the county grounds are shrouded in a little bit of mystery. It is recorded that the first county football final was played at Maryborough in 1888 (20 May: Ballinakill 0-7; Knock 0-0). Permission for use of the field was given by town clerk, George Vanston.
The first inter-county game played in Maryborough took place three weeks later, on 10 June when the Kilkenny representatives, Mooncoin defeated the Laois side led by Rathdowney by 1-2 to 0-2. Whether this was the same site as that at which the county grounds are located cannot be verified but it is known that in 1908 the Gaelic grounds were acquired by the local Maryborough GAA Club. The man behind the acquisition was local curate, Rev J. J. Kearney.
Rev Kearney promoted gaelic games at every opportunity and helped popularise the games among the local youth and organised Leix and Ossory school leagues. He became county chairman in 1910 and during his term over the following decade or so the county experienced unprecedented success.
This was particularly the case in hurling for after unsuccessfully contesting the All-Ireland final in 1914, Laois (then known as Leix) won the title for the first and only time a year later led by team captain, John Finlay from champion Club, Ballygeehan. Fr Kearney took a personal interest in the players, in their welfare and in their training and brought on board the legendary Kilkenny hurler of the period "drug" Walsh as trainer.
The victory of the Laois hurlers in 1915 did not, therefore, happen by chance. it was brought about by inspired leadership and the harnessing of the prolific talent available. The Gaelic Grounds hosted numerous Leinster Championship games and it was Fr Kearney's ambition to make it one of the leading venues in the provinces. But the playing field was still in private hands.
The Rev Chairman negotiated a handover of title to the GAA. From my research in the registry of deeds I discovered that the legal transfer took place in 1919 to GAA ownership. The purchase price is not recorded.
Under a title deed sealed in 1917 the land comprising of 21 acres, which was one part of a number of parcels of land in which Luke P. Moore, who lived in the USA, John Moore and others had an interest and were signed over to Joseph P. Bannan on his marriage to Margaret E. Moore, a sister of the aforementioned gentlemen of the same name. Two years later Joseph Bannan, then titled as the "beneficial owner" transferred on a little over 6 acres of the land "and buildings there on" to James Miller, a victualler, from Mountrath, as trustee for the GAA. Mr Miller was a former treasurer of Laois GAA and was then a representative from the Leinster to Central Councils.
The title was registered on 30 October 1919. James Miller was father of Liam Miller, who became one of the best-known and respected publisher of books of Irish interest with literary or artistic merit, whose son, also named Liam, became one of the top executives at RTE. The Nationalist and Leinster Times of 29 November 1919 reported on the story: "Possession of the newly purchased GAA grounds at Maryborough has been recently taken over by the trustees and the public who patronise the fixtures there may now look forward with pleasurable anticipation to the conversion of the place into a provincial park, which will be the venue of many important matches in future. of course, a considerable outlay will be required to erect a suitable stand and enclosure around the playing pitch, the pre sent structures being in very bad condition in fact they have almost completely disappeared. It is expected that for this purpose financial help will be forthcoming from the Leinster Council, who may also be relied upon to provide some big gates by fixing inter county contests at Maryborough."
One of first county's to purchase own grounds
Laois GAA was one of the first counties to purchase its own county grounds, clinching the deal only six years after the purchase of Croke Park as GAA headquarters. Laois has also the distinction of being one of the first counties to vest their land in the GAA. This "declaration of trust" related activities or other events approved by GAA authoritie s. The seals were affixed in April 1948 and the signatorie s were Padraic o Caoimh, the general secretary of the GAA, Riobard O Caoimh (Bob O'Keeffe) and Lorcan Bradaigh, Laois chairman. The document was witnessed by another well-known gaa personality, Sean O Siochain, later to become first full-time general secretary of the association.
The land on which Pairc ui Mhordha stands was known to many old-timers as "Cushen's Field". A family of this name lived adjacent to the Park and owned land in the vicinity but the titles to the actual site do not support the Cushen connection. Yet the traditional association of the name with the land and the area is undoubtedly merited even if its origins have been lost to present generations.
Perhaps even more intriguing is the view held by Portlaoise publican, Jimmy Fitzpatrick, whose pub, The Square Bar, has been a mecca for GAA fans from the town and visitors alike for many many years. He can claim many generations of his family before him in business in Portlaoise and has been handed down verbally many aspects of the town's history over the past century and more. He feels certain that Pairc ui Mhordha, or O'Moore Park as it is more widely known, was Moore Park in the early days, not called after the great clan and chieftains that ruled the Laois of old but after the Moore family, who lived at Market square like Jimmy, and who held title to the land be fore it became the property of Laois GAA.
Former county chairman, Sean Ramsbottom, recalls that the county grounds were indeed known as Moore Park in his younger days. The deeds appear to support the Moore connection even if it was not in their ownership at the time of the transfer of the lands to the GAA. indeed the Moore connection goes back much further than 1919 because a huge tract of lands in the are a, known as Clonminan and in neighbouring town lands was owned in the days of the landlords by the Moore s who live d at Rossleighan House, on the Portlaoise to Mountmellick road, a minor branch of the more influential Moores of Cremorgan.
As the 19th century came to a close a series of land acts enabled tenants on the big estates to buy the land they had rented, sometimes for many generations at exorbitant rents. In this way most of the big estates were divided among local farmers at affordable prices. Speculation on the origins of the Cushen or Moore connection may continue but some other name s will also be closely associated with its beginnings and development as a leading venue. Nicholas Fortune, who owned shop and newsagency on Main street, and a prominent official of the Maryborough club at the time, is a name intertwined with Fr Kearney and the land acquisition for the GAA. County officials who were involved then or some ye ars later includ- ed long-time county gaa secretary, John Drennan, Bob O'Keeffe, 1915 stalwart later to become President of the Leinster Council and GAA President, Lar (Lorcan) Brady, Laois County Chairman for forty years, Paddy Campion, Pete Daly, MP Collier, Jack Delaney Snr., EP (Ned) Tarrant and Sean Barrett.
Managed by "Field Committee"
After its purchase, Pairc ui Mhordha was managed by a "Field committee". In a report in The Nationalist in February 1925 it was noted that a "good deal of improvements had been made to the Park during the year" and that the "bank balance had been reduced". A member of the committee, Sean Barrett, who wrote for local newspapers under the pseudonym of "Sean Nós", asked that the county board take charge of the grounds and be responsible for its upkeep. But his suggestion was not acted upon.
A report in the nationalist of 8 January 1927 gives an update on the work of the committee: "a meeting of the committee in charge of the county grounds was held in Portlaoise last weekend. Among those present were: Messrs L. Brady, TD, R. O'Keeffe, Treasurer, E.P. Tarrant, V.P., J. Delaney, N. Fortune and J. Bannan. "Mr. O'Keeffe submitted a statement of accounts for the year which showed that a substantial sum had been expended in carrying out the very necessary improvements. The response to the appeal for subscriptions was not as generous as the committee had hoped, and I understand that an opportunity will be given the public to see how the traders subscribed."
The committee were of the opinion that further necessary improvements should be carried out and they made arrangements accordingly. When those are completed the County Grounds in Portlaoighise will be second to none in Ireland. The best thank s of all Gaels is due to the energetic committee for their great efforts to make the "field"worthy of the Gaels.".
When the grounds were registered in 1919 it was in the name of James Miller, a prominent official, but the GAA interest was not specifically mentioned in the document. This was rectified in 1933 when the ownership was transferred from James Miller's name to trustees, Lar Brady(Leix GAA), Robert O ‘Keeffe (Leinster Council) and Patrick J. O'Keeffe, Croke House, Clonliffe road (Central Council).
By 1934, the GAA golden Jubilee year, the county grounds had established itself as a model for others to follow. One writer of the day had this to say, "This example set by Leix has been followed by almost every county in Ireland and the result has been much prestige and much gain to the association."
At the County convention in 1934, Treasurer, Bob O'Keeffe, who was to become President of the GAA in the following year, brought forward a proposal to build a new stand at the county grounds at a cost of £2,000 and it was decided in principle to go ahead with the project.
New earthen banks were constructed during the year to house the anticipated large crowds for the Leinster hurling finals staged there in July. Within a few years a new galvanised covered stand with steel supports and wooden seats was erected by local firm, Kellys the Foundry.
Although by today's standards it would seem primitive, for the time it was a wonderful step forward and a mould breaker in spectator expectations of the period. it could seat almost two thousand people and gave a good view of proceedings. There was wooden seating within a steel structure with steps of two feet or so between the rows, through which the wind invariably whistled requiring patrons to be well protected from the elements, particularly on the cooler days.
It survived for over six decades though and served the county well until finally being replaced by the current modern structure opened in 2002. The major facelifts at Pairc ui Mhordha seem to coincide with the times when the county teams were performing well on the inter-county scene. The improvements carried out in the 1930s, a period of great economic depression at home and worldwide, coincided with the golden period of Laois football during which the county won three leinster senior titles on the trot, led by the mighty Delaney clan from Stradbally and "boy Wonder", from Graiguecullen, Tommy Murphy.
Similarly further major improvements were carried out during the 1960s, 1980s and around the Millennium year, all periods of relative buoyancy for our games at provincial and national level.
An official publication in 1945 stated, "O'Moore Park was first purchased by the Association through the foresight of Laois officials who not only guaranteed all the monies for its purchase but also for its entire development. It can claim the best seating stand in any provincial venue and it is equipped to hold any game except an All-Ireland Final. And it certainly did.
Situated crucially at the crossroads of Ireland the venue has hosted games of huge importance, including Railway Cup and National League games featuring some of the heroes of the day and hurling and football immortals. Championship matches included some memorable Leinster semi-finals and finals.
Many of these inter-county championship clashes involving Dublin, Offaly, Kildare and Kilkenny fully tested the capacity of the grounds but the venue invariably passed the tests with flying colours.
Improvements were made to the dressing-rooms situated beneath the old stand during the early 1950s. Jack Conroy took over as chairman in 1964 and later in the decade became chairman of the Leinster Council. During the decade, terraces were added and there were further improvements to the banks, dressing rooms and toilets and turnstiles were erected in the years following but by the late 1970s Pairc ui Mhordha was a crumbling stadium with a poor playing surface that had not kept up with the times.
Other venues in the province s were now leading the way and the Laois county grounds had well and truly lost its status as the finest venue in Leinster outside Croke Park.
The old entrance to O Moore Park
Sean Ramsbottom, who replaced Tom Cushen as Chairman in 1973, remembers how it was. "oh it was a very poor quality pitch at that time and the whole surrounds were very primitive, dressing-rooms and everything else. Very primitive. it was an ambition of mine from long before I became chairman, if I ever got into power, if I ever got into a position of doing something about it, that it would be one of the first things I'd attack. The first dressing-rooms of any note that went in there were in my time, in the late 1970s. But that was only a temporary job. To bring the Park up to acceptable standards required a major facelift."
The discussion to restore O'Moore Park as a leading provincial venue started in 1979. "Con Murphy was President. He and Seán O'Siochan visited Portlaoise and met Billy Brennan, Tom Cushen and myself. I was anxious to get something going, to try and bring the place in line with some of the other venue s I used to visit at the time. I remember well words of encouragement from the President and Sean O'Siochan to a lesser extent. Con said, ‘start it in your time and as soon as you can because if a new chairman comes in it will take some time for him to settle and it might never start'. He promised that he would ensure that Croke Park would back the project."
At a special meeting of clubs and the county board in October 1980 the details of the grand scheme were announced. O'Moore Park was to be close d during the reconstruction period of three years and reopened very appropriately in the centenary year, 1984.
A new pitch was to be laid, terracing was to be provided on the side facing the stand and at either end. The stand and dressing- rooms were to be improved, there was to be new concrete seating along the sidelines, new toilets in the embankment are as and draining provided for surface-water. It was to be the biggest project undertaken in Laois GAA history and it was estimated to cost €200,000. In today's money one could multiply that figure by ten times and more.
The development was to be financed by contributions from the clubs amounting to £50,000 by way of levy, the Leinster Council were committed to a contribution of £50,000, Croke Park promised a further £25,000 and the remainder was to be got from the sale of land owned by Laois GAA adjacent to the county grounds to Portlaoise GAA club.
This back land was acquired in 1963, when with Lar Brady in his 39th year as county chairman, the county board, purchased two fields at the rear of Pairc ui Mhordha, from another lo cal farm er, Har Jestin, Coote Street. Har's father, Tho mas, had acquired the fields from a land commission divide in 1935 and Har inherited them on his father's death in 1953. This was a fortuitous purchase because the funds realised from its subsequent sale to Portlaoise GAA club proved a vital part of the funding needed to undertake the massive development programme of the 1980s.
As the redevelopment progressed, however, it became increasingly apparent that the project was costing much more to complete that had been originally estimated. This was due to rising costs and rampant inflation. a financial crisis was averted by the formation of a special fundraising committee in 1983 under the chairmanship of former football star, Bobby Miller, now sadly prematurely deceased. Mountrath native, Paddy Morrin was Secretary and joint Treasurers were the then County Secretary, Michael Carroll, and the manager of the AIB Portlaoise, John Wallace, "a great GAA fan and supporter", as Sean Ramsbottom remembers him.
Although the Leinster Council had stumped up twice the amount they had originally agreed, there was still an estimated shortfall of £300,000. Among the fund-raising efforts undertaken was a major draw limited to 2,000 members. Tickets were £100 each and there was £50,000 in prize money. The draw realised its target figure of £150,000 profit which went a long way to solving the financial problem.
New Stadium unveiled in Centenary Year
The 1983 Pairc Ui Mhorda Fund Raising Committee, (l to r) Eamonn Whelan, John Dowling, then President of the Leinster Council,
Michael Carroll, Paddy Morrin (Sec), John Wallace, Manager AIB, Portlaoise, Paddy Bugg y, President of the GAA, Sean
Ramsbottom, Mick McCormack, Bobby Miller (Chairman), Tom Fleming, Noel Peacock, with Bill Delaney and Jim Kavanagh
in front. At the front is a scale model of the then "new" Pairc Ui Mhordha.
The new stadium was unveiled for the county finals of 1984 and was officially opened two years later by the then President of the GAA, Paddy Buggy. Kerry were invited to play the brand new national league champions, Laois, to mark the occasion.
In what was generally regarded as one of the finest displays ever by a Laois football side, the home team looked like All-Ireland material by sweeping aside the mighty Kingdom challenge. But that was as good as it got. History records that a few weeks later Laois slumped to a shock first-round defeat to Wicklow in Aughrim while Kerry, under the man himself, Mick O'Dwyer, went on to win Sam. Almost two decades later Micko managed the O'Moore county to their first Leinster senior football title in 57 years in 2003. Much more was promised from the side bolstered by recruits from three All-Ireland winning minors sides. But that too, unfortunately, was as good as it got!
All during the early years of the 1980s hurling experienced a golden resurgence in the county and contested the final of the major tournament organised for that year failing to cork, who later added the Centenary All-Ireland. On their way to the final Laois played outstanding hurling during this campaign and in a series of league campaigns took many notable scalps.
Yet fortune conspired against the team winning titles. In the famous Leinster semi-final clash of 1981, Offaly scored the goal that never was to pip the O'Moores by a whisker and they went on to win Leinster and All-Ireland titles that year. Yes, the 1980s was a roller-coaster of a decade for Laois.
The teams were once again competing with the best and O'Moore Park, or Pairc ui Mhordha as it was now being promoted was restored as the top Leinster venue outside Croke Park. While it was boasted that the renovated stadium would be able to host a crowd of 50,000, this proved to be a bit ambitious. Yet it could comfortably cater for half that amount and even as much as 35,000 in a squeeze and this has enable d the venue to be used to host many major games, short of Leinster or All-Ireland senior finals.
The new stand
The old Stand as it was being demolished
The next major development at the county grounds was the erection of the new stand within the past decade. This is a state of the art structure which can seat 6,000 patrons. There is a good view of the pitch from e very part of the Stand which is also a practical structure with four spacious dressing-rooms and lots of other useful space underneath.
Secretary at the time was Liam O'Neill, who along with chairman, Dick Miller, set him self the task of getting the county finances back on a strong footing and finding ways of funding this massive outlay. The building commenced in the year 2000 and the official opening took place two years later. it cost €1.75 million with the national lottery providing €600,000, the Leinster Council €500,000 and Croke Park €125,000. The balance was funded by a loan of €500,000 and €40,000 cash from Laois County Board.
The chairman of the stand development committee was Portlaoise man, John Hanniffy, while secretary was the late Murt O'Donnell from Borris-in-Ossory. Liam O'Neill has gone on record in his words of glowing praise for the work particularly of John Hanniffy and of the contribution of the builder, Bill Mcevoy, who stuck to his original price despite having to wait almost three years for the County Board to finally organise the funds required. "I would re-gard bill Mcevoy as one of the great heroe s of laois gaa", said Liam.
While Pairc ui Mhordha has been managed by the County Board or by special committees selected by the board since its acquisition, successive caretakers have had the responsibility of maintaining it on a day to day basis. One of the early caretakers was Ben Watson and later came Martin Delaney, from Green Mill lane, Portlaoise.
Then, in the 1950s, the role was assumed by Paddy Moore, who lived quite near the Park at Abbeyleix road (another strong Moore connection!). Next came Billy Breen, who was followed by another local man, Peter Carroll. The current caretaker is Colm McEvoy, from Timahoe, a former intercounty footballer with Laois in fact.
The county has been fortunate to have had such a succession of excellent caretakers who have all taken a personal interest in ensuring that the grounds were in tip top shape.