Where were you when Kennedy was shot?

By Ralph O’Gorman
Extended version of article published in Galway Independent Feb 23rd 2012

The western world, probably the whole world was silenced when word filtered through that the thirty-fifth President of the United States of America John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot dead in the city of Dallas Texas on Friday 22 November 1963. Kennedy, the catholic president with the Irish name and Irish heritage was only 46 years and 6 months. Those of us old enough will never forget.

Galway was particularly touched as the man known as JFK had visited Galway some four months earlier. Kennedy’s helicopter landed on the halfway line of the Sportsground and the City Mayor Alderman P.D. Ryan, a Galwegian RFC stalwart formally welcomed him to the city.

A day earlier on Thursday the 21 November 1963 the Galwegians RFC (why was it always called Galwegian FC) new clubhouse and extensive grounds that included the site of Flannery’s Hotel and a full pitch at the rear of the clubhouse were officially opened (as was and still is customary) by the IRFU President of the day. Mr. Tommy O’Reilly from the Leinster Branch did the honours. Sorry now, the new clubhouse was not new, it was old, very old, with a preservation order that has caused headaches to Galwegian administrators, planners and dreamers ever since.

It was a significant, memorable and historic occasion for the club, for rugby, for Galway, for Connacht. It was the first development of its type in Connacht and one of the first in the country. Wegians were always leaders and trailblazers. The blues, light blues perhaps or was it sky blues were settling into a new phase after the unprecedented achievement of winning five consecutive Connacht Senior Cup and Leagues.

And the audacious initiative of inviting Racing Club de France (twice), the Wolfhounds and (here’s a bit of style) Group Captain Walker’s XV among many others to the Sportsground. The latter game never to be forgotten for the crash tackle by Dickie Roche on Tony O’Reilly, near side, Bohermore end, and of course by the ankles, unforgettable! O’Reilly did well to get up and carry on as even the very settled residents over the wall on the far side shuddered on impact.

The opening of the new facilities was quite a do and the party could well have continued until the following day while other historic events took place in Dallas. So to hear of the world tragedy while at the opening of Glenina was quite possible. It was a time of great freedom with no breathalysers or road blocks and if you could negotiate the car out between the pillars of the gate it really was plain sailing after that.

It was a great day to have the official opening of Glenina. It was a Thursday, half day in Galway, and earlier that day Connacht walloped Ulster in the Sportsground. Connacht won 13/3 scoring three tries, Eamon McGuire with two and Brian Siggins with one. Larry Cheevers kicked two conversions. Ken Armstrong kicked a penalty in reply. Sure the sums add up, three points for a try, keep up, will ya. Ten of the team played their rugby in Galway; Noel Carpenter (15), Johnny Dooley (13), Billy Glynn (11) and Tony O’Sullivan (8) with Galwegians, Henry Blake (14), Steve Cunningham (10), Mick Molloy (5), Eamon McGuire (7) and Larry Cheevers (6) with College, and Don Armstrong (9) of Corinthians made up the city ten. Brian Siggins (12) was with Trinity, PJ Dwyer 1, (UCD), Locky Butler 2, (Blackrock), Ray MacLoughlin 3, (Gosforth) and Mick Leahy 4, (UCC) made up the fifteen. Great day, good times.

Glenina proved to be the best port of call for Saturday night action. A new word called ‘disco’ was used. The place heaved, social life thrived and the club made money. In fairness a few love stories began as well. But there were difficulties; the student and young people generally could have walked to Seapoint and to the Talk of the Town on the Headford Road but getting to Glenina was a different kettle of fish altogether. It was essential to get a taxi.

You see that time Glenina was way out of town, even past Renmore! Going home was different, a taxi could be a Godsend but more expense! If she would walk down the line with you, well then, as the thinking rugby man might say you created options. It was a time when Galway was safe and so was the line. Good times.

All the staff on duty at the disco were club members, blazers, suits, players, the lot. All exercising the same ethos that allowed so many to pick the stones off the new pitch to make it playable. Sully, Dooley, Guerin, so many, Jack Deacy, Chris Crowley, Gerry Dodd, Mick O’Mahony, so many more picked the stones off the main pitch. It was a club of ambition, vision and generosity that continues to the present day. It had the ethic, the gene, the bit that matters. Leaders, trailblazers.

Wegians were certainly one of the best teams in the country and were top of the invitation list for what were called Senior Friendlies, the life blood of the game in the country at the time. If only there was an All Ireland League or Bateman Cup at the time! International honours came thick and fast, Dickie Roche, Brendan Guerin, Charlie Lydon, Tony O’Sullivan and Johnny Dooley all played for Ireland.

Sean Calleary and Seamus McEvoy got Irish trials and sat on benches, well actually they sat in the stand fully dressed. It was the time prior to substitutes or replacements being used. Sean MacHale was capped later as a prop forward but he never played as a prop forward for Wegians while Joe Tyrell or Seamus McEvoy were around. He normally played wing forward. It was a time when one was capped or not capped, no in betweens, no A caps, no B caps, no Irish wolfhounds, no Under 25, 21 or 20, no under this or that. It was a time when Mick Casserly was hardly out of school, Eric Elwood wasn’t even born and neither were Gavin Duffy or John Muldoon.

Wegians ran the best Seven a Sides in the country, the Blake Sevens called after another esteemed servant of the club and long time president (1931/57) Henry St. J. Blake. The best teams queued to be admitted to the Easter Monday festival. The winners list that includes Lansdowne, Ballymena, Terenure, QUB, CIYMS, St.Marys, Cork Con, Garryowen, Old Cresent, Instonians, Bective, Loughborough and NIFC tells its own tale. The Sevens packed the Sportsground and later Glenina.

The first Glynn Cup was played in 1959 to honour the untimely death of IRFU President Johnny Glynn. The annual match with Corinthians took pride of place on the biggest day for sport in Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day and the Sportsground was full for that too. Remember the team S. Calleary, R. Roche, J. Dooley, R. Coen (capt), J. Callanan, B. O’Byrne, D. Heaslip, J. Tyrell, D. Lovett, S. McEvoy, B. Guerin, T. Reynolds, N. Corcoran, S. MacHale and T. O’Sullivan. The fixture ran its course until 1996 and happily is revived in the last few years in a new and imaginative format.

So many club members served the Connacht Branch in many capacities, served as Presidents too and six clubmen served as IRFU Presidents, HJ Anderson, JJ Glynn, CP Crowley, JJ Moore, RM Deacy and DM Crowley. WB Glynn will be clearing his throat this time next year. Has any club in the country provided seven Presidents of the Union? Doubt it very much. Leaders, trailblazers.

Twenty five years after Glenina was opened the club decided to name the grounds and clubhouse after the one who primarily made it all happen, the legendary Chris Crowley. It was the 1988/89 season and Shane O’Mahony was president. What ever took the club so long? Still, the pleasure of reading Crowley Park in the fixture list of the All Ireland League on the sports pages is satisfying to this day. It allowed Chris Crowley to join that élite group of sportsmen who have been honoured with sporting facilities called after them while still alive. One is reminded of Jimmy Cranny the swimming advocate and the Cranny Pool in Leisureland, the footballing Terrible Twins and the Purcell and Stockwell Road in Tuam, Jimmy O’Sullivan the larger than life character and O’Sullivan Park in Mervue, Tony Corcoran the UCG Soccer legend and the Tony Corcoran pitch in Dangan and of course Johnny Creaven and Creaven House, the home of the Galway Judo Club at the Claddagh Basin.

And then at the end of the 2006/07 season the deal of all deals was struck. Sixty fives homes would be built in Crowley Park and the club would move to Brownsville beside the Glenlo Abbey Hotel on the Moycullen Road. There, Wegians would enjoy seven state of the art flood-lit and astro pitches on a 30 acre site. And buckets of shillings to build the devil and all facilities. All visiting teams from Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Belfast would have no problem finding the new grounds, just follow the new bridge over the River Corrib. You’ll easily recognise the new grounds as the visiting clubs will be very familiar with the main gate. You see, another visionary from the Crowley household Peter Crowley bought the Lansdowne Road gate before Aviva changed Irish rugby. Then the Celtic Tiger ended up in the sin bin.

So the Galwegians home will continue to be Crowley Park for the foreseeable future. And sure has it not served the game well? Does it not have a strong emotional attachment for so many? Has it not served club and Connacht in so many different ways? Does it not honour one of the great visionaries of our time? And anyway we’ll always remember when it opened, the day JFK was shot, give or take.

Ralph O’Gorman has broadcasted and written extensively about Connacht rugby over an extended period. He was present on the evening Crowley Park was opened 48 years ago and with the other juveniles/minors who acted as car park attendants was given biscuits and minerals from Chris Crowley for services rendered on the historic night.