As Kilmaine GAA club celebrates its 80th anniversary, Oliver Walsh talks about why the club is such a big part of his life
TIME flies when you’re talking to Oliver Walsh about Kilmaine GAA club.
He’s been wearing the famous green and red colours since he was 12-years of age and has shed more blood, sweat and tears than he cares to remember down through the decades in pursuit of honour, glory and precious county titles.
He shakes his head as he recalls the broken cheek-bones, knee operations, ankle injuries and damaged shoulder that serve as reminders of his time doing battle for the Kilmaine cause.
But it was all worth it for days like the 1992 County Final win against Aghamore, the O’Mara Cup success two years later, and representing Kilmaine through thick and thin.
“I think I’d be remembered as a player who left it all out on the field,” he says. “I didn’t pull out of stuff. And I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Oliver’s adult playing career with Kilmaine spanned 21 years, beginning and ending in the famous South Mayo Junior championship.
He was 15 when Bill Loughlin (who would become his father-in-law many years later) called to the Walsh household in Rathgranagher one Sunday and brought him to Hollymount for a match against Ballinrobe. Young Oliver scored 1-1 and never looked back.
“I remember thinking at the time, ‘It doesn’t get any better than this!’ he laughs.
That was 1985. Fast forward to 2006 and he’s sitting in Mayo General Hospital with a busted shoulder after a heavy collision in a South Junior game against The Neale.
His playing career has reached the end, but not before his reputation as one of the best forwards that Kilmaine ever produced had been franked by years of excellence.
He was good enough to win a Ted Webb Cup with Mayo, to play minor championship with the county in 1988, and to make Mayo senior squads under both Jack O’Shea and John Maughan in the 1990s. He was a forward of serious substance with style to match, and the temperament to get the job done when the chips were down.
Make no mistake, when he was fit and injury-free, Oliver Walsh stood out from the crowd.
“I’d have no regrets about my own performances or my own preparation,” he says when you ask him to reflect on his time as a Kilmaine footballer.
“But I regret that as a team we lost too many finals.
“There’s a lot of clubs out there who don’t even get to County Finals and, on the law of averages, you’re going to be disappointed more times than you’re celebrating.
“But we lost a lot of those County Finals by a point and that’s really disappointing that we didn’t get over the line.
“I was manager in 2013 when we lost to Kiltane and they were a far superior team, so we had no excuses. We prepared well and I was really impressed by that team and how they worked.
“But I won’t tell a lie, losing all those County Finals over the years probably has held back the club. Because it means there are always second or third opinions out there, there are always doubts.
“If you win one or two more of them, then you have the recipe for success.
“But whether we won more county titles or not, I’d still have the same connection with the Kilmaine club regardless. It’s still my club.”
Not a lot of people probably know this but in the beginning (for one year only), Garrymore was Oliver Walsh’s club. The man himself takes up the story.
“I actually started playing football in Garrymore at under-12s. I played against Kilmaine one day and I remember Davy Fitz’ had a pair of yellow socks up to his knees. Tom Butler was a big man that time too.
“Peadar Higgins used to collect myself and my brother Colm and brings us down to Garrymore.
“My two brothers, Austin and Brendan, were in England at the time but they came home that Christmas, heard about this, and said, ‘There’ll be no more of that!’
“So my Garrymore career only lasted one year and, believe it or not, but Kilmaine actually won the county under-12s that year!
“I played under-12 with Kilmaine the following year but we had no luck.
“My own career really took off when I was under-16. Willie McHugh and Mike Burke were managing the team and there was a big effort put in.”
Memories of those early days come flooding back easily as the conversation flows.
“Coming from Walsh’s field, where there were no facilities at all, the people involved in the club showed great foresight to build a new pitch in the mid 1980s,” explains Oliver.
“That really was the start of the club for my generation.
“I remember togging out in Walsh’s field, beside the canal, with cows eating your shirt” he laughs. “But it was when we got down to the pitch on the Ballinrobe Road that I remember playing games and getting started properly with the club.
“My earliest memory of Kilmaine GAA club would be going back to watch the Gortjordan 7s and seeing Joe McGrath and Mike Burke and those lads,” he continues.
“Joe was flying that time. I remember him one day scoring a goal when he hit a shot from 20 yards, it hit the post, hit the keeper who was diving full length, and went in.
It was Roy of the Rovers stuff. That was the first time I remember watching my heroes.
“Mick Donnellan was a great back, up and down the field. Mike Burke had lovely silky skills and you’d be kind of moulding yourself on that. Mark Butler was there too, and Joe McGrath. He was carrying that team really in terms of finishing.
“Mike Burke was very calm on the field, a really clever footballer. But Joe was a cut above everyone in Mayo really on his day. You could put any kind of ball into him.”
It wasn’t long until Oliver Walsh was playing in County Finals with those heroes.
But first he helped himself to a London Intermediate championship medal with Clarets in 1989, the same year that Kilmaine were winning a Mayo Junior title.
BY 1991 he was back on home ground, and left heartbroken by a County Final loss to Achill. He and his team-mates vowed to come back the following season and win it.
“In ‘92 Bob Brennan was over us, and we put in a great pre-season down in Claremorris in the gym, something that very few junior teams were doing. So we had very little injuries, that’s the one thing that sticks out in my mind — our preparation.
“We coasted games that year. David Loughlin, Michael John Mullin, Joe McGrath and myself were putting up huge scores, and we won a scrappy enough final against Aghamore down in Ballyhaunis.
“I remember feeling so proud when we won it and how special coming back to Kilmaine was. “You’re craving to get that back to the village again, that feeling of winning a county title, no matter what level it is.
“Just the hanging out of the cars, seeing people everywhere, the two or three days afterwards. “We came back to Murphy’s and we’d be up in Maloney’s.
“Bill Loughlin made sure there was a trailer organised. He was always great for that. That was a really special win.”
Oliver’s form with Kilmaine didn’t go unnoticed by the new Mayo manager, Jack O’Shea, either at the end of that 1992 season. And so he was called into Mayo’s squad for the National League campaign, an experience that he looks back on with mixed emotions.
“Joe Callaghan was our County Board rep at the time and he was down collecting something from John Prenty [then-County Secretary], and John said to Joe: ‘Tell Oliver Walsh he’s in the Mayo squad when you go home’.
“Joe couldn’t wait to call to the door. It was unbelievable news.
“I had confidence in my own ability but it was still going to be a big step-up, and I’d always have worried about my pace. I never had that much pace compared to other players so you always had to be very fit to compensate for that.
“Looking back now, the training regime with Mayo that time was criminal, silly really. It was 20 laps stuff. We didn’t kick a ball. It was gruelling.
“We went through more than half the league that year without kicking a ball.
I got a shoulder injury towards the end of the league and didn’t make the championship cut.
“That was disappointing because I still thought that I’d have been able to show what I could really do on a summer’s day, once the ground had firmed up.
“It was a great thrill to play with Mayo, but I don’t know at that age did I appreciate it.
“I was brought in again then for John Maughan’s first training session in 1995, behind the stand in Castlebar,” he recalls. “We were doing laps, I was fairly fit, and then we started doing criss-cross drills with very poor lights.
“I ended up running into the hardest guy on the pitch, Colm McManamon, and ended up with a broken cheekbone in a few places. I was gone. I didn’t know where I was.
“That was really disappointing because Maughan brought that team on, and the following September I was sitting in the Hogan Stand watching them in the All-Ireland.
“I’d love to have played in Croke Park, I was togged there as a sub against Dublin for a league game alright under Jacko but I never got on. I’d have given anything to have got on.”
Ironically, what Oliver Walsh craved with the Mayo seniors he got with Billy Fitzpatrick’s Mayo juniors — championship football and All-Ireland medals in both 1995 and 1997.
To this day they remain among the highlights of his time as a footballer.
“In ’95 Mark Butler was captain, and myself and David [Loughlin] were there from Kilmaine too which was great. We beat London in the All-Ireland Final.
“But 1997 was brilliant, we beat Kerry in the final.
“That was probably one of the highlights of my career, that and winning a county title with Kilmaine in ’92. To win an All-Ireland against Kerry and play fairly well was special.”
“Another highlight for a lot of us in Kilmaine was in 1999 when there were ten of us involved with the South Mayo team under Declan Ronaldson in the senior championship.
“To get a chance as junior players to play in the senior championship was great, and we only ended up losing the semi-final to Ballina by a point.
“That actually would be a real regret for me looking back, losing to that last minute free.”
It’s easy to see what playing for Kilmaine and Mayo meant to Oliver Walsh, but his family and his friendships are also two subjects that crop up again and again.
He smiles to himself as he remembers travelling to matches all across Mayo with his brother Colm, cousin Michael John Mullin and close friend (and future brother-in-law) David Loughlin. The craic and the camaraderie and the strong bond that was built between various groups of Kilmaine footballers and managers over the years were what kept everyone’s spirits up when the going got tough.
“Kilmaine has always struggled to get to the top, never having enough good players to quite get to the top, but we still had enough fighters to make the best of Junior and Intermediate,” he explains. “Maybe not everybody has always pulled together, but that in itself makes a club too. There are some great characters in the Kilmaine club as well.”
Now as the club celebrates its 80th anniversary, Oliver Walsh finds himself sitting at the top table again as an officer, alongside his old friend, the chairman, David Loughlin. It is an ideal place from which to see how Kilmaine GAA club looks in 2017.
“The club is in a good place at the moment because there are football people at the helm, people who fought hard for the club and know what it’s like to be in the trenches,” he says.
“We’ve built a new gym, got good sponsors on board in McHale’s, and everything is focussed on football. A club needs guardians, people to safeguard it for the future.
“There are good young footballers coming through and I believe if we nurture them, and encourage them, we’ll have success.
“They need to focus on skill levels, get the skills levels back up. That will bring success on the field. And focus on the underage system.
“Realistic targets for Kilmaine should be to win a Junior or Intermediate title. If you can do that, or be a competitive Intermediate team, then you’re on the right track.
“We want to leave the club in a good place for the next group coming behind us. That’s our intention anyway.”
Nobody can ask for any more than that from somebody who has already given so much to his club. And has so much more still to give.
This article appears in a book to mark the 80th anniversary of Kilmaine GAA club. The book is currently on sale in shops in Kilmaine, Shrule and Ballinrobe.