Sporting the colours
THE limelight never bothered John Regan from Kiltimagh. One day when John was in national school, an inspector called and asked the children what they would like to be when they grew up. Back then, quite a few said they would like to be priests. But John Regan, even at that stage, had greater ambitions. “I want to be the Pope!” he said.
About 20 years ago, I recall talking to John about issues relating to fame and recognition and he told me that some day Eamonn Andrews, who at the time hosted the popular ‘This Is Your Life’ series on BBC, would one day arrive at Knock Airport and travel to Kiltimagh, stand at his door and, with the famous red book in his hand, proclaim . . . ‘and tonight, John Regan, This Is Your Life’. Added John: “And John Regan will say to him …. ‘and not before time, Eamonn Andrews!’.”
The legendary Mayo supporter, who has been involved in the hairdressing business in Kiltimagh since 1978, and who often refers to himself as ‘John Regan’ rather than ‘I’, has seen things from many sides in what has been a colourful life all through the years.
As a teenager, he left Kiltimagh in 1965 and spent 13 years in England. The first six months found him in Aldershot, about 40 miles from London, where he served as a fitter’s mate in a power station. For the next 12 years, London was his home.
“I worked in the McVities factory for a while and later spent a good many years in Expandites hardware where I made many friends. I stayed with my uncle John Doyle and his family. Twice a year, every summer and Christmas, I came back to Kiltimagh.
“One time, I drove from London to Holyhead and then Dublin down to Kiltimagh and soon after arriving home we set off for O’Connor’s Bakery Dance in Ballinrobe with Mike Walsh and a gang of them. We loved the dances in those years.
“The Galtymore was the big one in London. But we went to them all. There was the Bamba in Kilburn High Road near Quex Road where we used to go to church. The Hibernian in Fulham was another. The Gresham was known for the nurses’ night out on Mondays. Yes, we had good fun there too. And there were loads more places too, like the National, the 32 Club, the Blarney and one in New Eltham.
“These clubs were like home away from home. All the big names from Ireland played here. We had Big Tom, Margo, Brendan Bowyer, Brendan O’Brien, Joe Mac and the Dixies, Eileen Reid, Jim Farley and Terry Mahon, Roly Daniels, Johnny McEvoy. There wasn’t a band that came to London that we didn’t go out to see as long as we had the money. Drink or no drink, there was still work to go to the next day, and it was often very late after a night’s craic and fun, but we had the best of times.
“We met them from all the counties, Clare, Kerry, Donegal, Galway, they were all very united. It was a great time to live through, innocent in many ways, no such thing as drugs like there are now. We enjoyed ourselves. Lads like Tom and Pat O’Brien from Cloonmore and all the gang from around here. Yes, John Regan had a good old time in London.”
While John was a pioneer leaving Kiltimagh in the mid-1960s, things changed over yonder. “I remember being with some Wexford lads one night and they said ‘Jays, John, you’re on the orange, why don’t you try a pint’. And I did and I had three that night. But I was never much of a pint drinker. Shorts I was on. Southern Comfort we finished up with, yes indeed, beautiful drink and very easy to take but the next day you might know about it!
“I had about ten years of good drinking and enjoyed them all before I joined the pioneers again. Looking back, I think the pioneer movement was great for discipline. I haven’t drank now for close on 30 years.”
All of the back and over between London and Kiltimagh began to focus John’s thoughts in a fresh direction.
“All of a sudden, I thought some time I might like to go back home and it would be nice to have some job so that you wouldn’t have to go looking for work. My uncle’s wife Ellen, who is still in London, used to get The Kerryman and I read an article about a lad who was involved in the hairdressing business in Kerry and doing very well. I decided to attend an evening course in hairdressing at the Morris Private School in the area and I did this for two-and-a-half years. We used to socialise in the Globe pub, run by Kiltimagh native John Carney, a brother of Michael out there in Thornhill.
“On one visit home to Kiltimagh, my brother Michael said to me, ‘John, you’re forever pulling the cases from under the bed’. That hit me like a ton of bricks. And I thought, ‘yeah, you’re right Michael Regan’, and he said ‘you like it here and the people like you and you like them’. I decided just like that to return and I gave them all an awful land when I told them all that John Regan was coming home to live in Kiltimagh again. That was in 1978 when Mayo won the All-Ireland minor final and Big Tom Byrne from town got those two mighty goals. And I’m here, thank God, every since. I never regretted that move. I regret very little in my life. I enjoyed my time in London but there’s no place like home.”
While in England, John immersed himself in sport. It was during that time that he nurtured his special affinity with Manchester United. “Yes, John Regan has a great love for United. The year that Frank O’Farrell was manager, I went to every single one of their league matches, home and away. I was living down in London so it meant a lot of travel. I turned down three weddings that year so as not to miss a match.”
At the height of the Irish soccer team’s exploits in Germany and Italy in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, John was there to lend his support. “We had some craic on those trips. Kieran ‘Space’ Heneghan, God rest him, Har Donoghue, Mark Diamond and all the rest of the Kiltimagh group, we lived it up. Late nights and parties and singing. The Germans and Italians didn’t know what hit them.”
Over the years, John met a host of the top players who featured with Manchester United as well as many other big names from the sporting scene such as boxers Floyd Patterson, Henry Cooper and Joe Bugner. Like many, he had a special ‘grá’ for George Best.
“I got a photo taken with him the time we were over with the Kiltimagh GAA Club in the 1980s. All the lads were in the hotel having the craic and Henry Kelly came in and said ‘ye’ll never guess who is outside?’ and I said ‘who, Henry?’ and he said ‘George Best’. And I said back to him ‘Yes, and Denis Law and Bobby Charlton too, I suppose. Tell them John Regan told them to come in’!”
‘“Ah now, John, be serious,’ said Henry, ‘I’ve got his autograph. He’s out there alright’. Well, John Regan didn’t want to be caught out so I got a few of the Kiltimagh lads to come out with me and sure enough he was there. Joseph Mulhern, God rest him, got the camera and took the photos. I have one to this day.”
Here at home, it is John’s passion for Mayo that has made him one of our best-known supporters around the country. In the early 1980s, John thumbed from Kiltimagh all the way to Dublin to support the Mayo hurlers in a Division 3 or 4 league final against Louth. “I arrived in Croke Park with about eight minutes left in the game. The Henrys and Johnny Cunnane from Tooreen were on that team. But that’s John Regan for you. Whoever wears the red and green jersey of Mayo gets his support.
“Yes indeed, Mayo is deeply-bred in John Regan. I hope to live to see the day Mayo will bring the Sam Maguire back to Mayo. Maybe this year. I am a fanatical supporter with a capital ‘F’. Even when in London, we would travel back from Holyhead for some of the games. I remember coming home for the All-Ireland semi-final in 1967 when Meath with Pat Red Collier defeated us in Croke Park. We had players like John Morley and Joe Langan, God rest them, and so many more great characters. We caught the boat back to England after the game.
“I have great admiration for the lads who give so much commitment. Yes, it is disappointing when they lose but we must realise how disappointing it is for the players who put in such effort. All the hard slogging in all kinds of weather. I have more admiration for the lads that play for no pay than for those who do in other sports. They give people so much enjoyment.
“You are always looking forward to the next game. When the All-Ireland was over in Croke Park in September, John Regan was looking forward to the FBD League in January and can hardly wait to get back on the road again.
“Jack Mahon once told me I was wearing the county jersey before it was the fashion for people of my age to do so. I would have loved to have sported the Mayo jersey at some level. I have the best of friends in many other counties. I have a special ‘grá’ for Sligo because my dad was from there. I have a great liking for the Dubs too. They are great characters. I really wouldn’t be against anyone. As Mrs Johnson [Kiltimagh], God rest her, used always say to me, ‘sure it’s only a game’.
“I love the hurling too. The most team I would like to see win the All-Ireland in recent years is Waterford. I wouldn’t mind seeing Clare win another title either. I remember many of the great hurling names from back the years like John and Jimmy Doyle, Theo English and Babs Keating of Tipperary, the Rackards of Wexford, Christy Ring and Paddy Barry of Cork, Art Foley from Wexford, Ollie Walsh from Kilkenny was a big favourite, Ned Power, Philly Grimes, Tom Cheasty, Seamus Power, Frankie Walsh and all the great Waterford hurlers of another era.
“We have to mention the Mayo girls. They have been brilliant and I’ve been to all their All-Ireland finals in Croke Park. They have given great commitment and Cora [Staunton], Denise [Horan], Diane [O’Hora] and Sinead [Costello], Claire [Egan], the Heffernans, the McGings and Orla Casby, and all the rest, all great players. All lovely girls, now John Regan take it easy, don’t overdo it!”
Away from sport, which is at the heart of John’s life, there were a few memorable weeks back in 1981. “Oh yes, I stood for the General Election and got 451 votes. Over 200 people in Kiltimagh voted for me. Some of the lads around town put me forward and it was no harm to bring attention to Kiltimagh at the time. Sure we had great fun.”
On the Sunday before the election, John got a chair, put it in the middle of Main Street in Kiltimagh, and addressed the multitude in what was the biggest after-Mass election speech in the town for years. “We stopped the whole town that morning. I was offered the mike by my good friend Sean Flanagan (FF) and I said, ‘thanks, Sean, but John Regan is capable of saying what he has to say without the aid of a mike’. I got such a land, I could not believe there was such a crowd around listening to me. The Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael candidates had to abandon their speeches outside the church as all the crowd blocked the road and the footpath to hear me.
“After the count in Swinford, I addressed the gathering and thanked those who voted for me and commiserated with all who didn’t vote for me. I sang for them ‘John Regan for the Dáil’ and we nearly brought the place down. Yes indeed, John Regan would have brought some glamour to Dáil Éireann.”
A few years ago, John was my featured guest on a Sunday night Late Show on Mid West Radio. Hundreds of calls poured in from all over the region wishing him well. Such was John’s flow of talk that we ran three quarters of an hour over time. Despite trying to wrap up the show on a number of occasions, John found a new gear each time and famously told me … ‘well, Michael Commins, it’s not every night you have John Regan as a guest on the show’!
As a new year dawns, hope springs eternal in John’s heart once more. The call of the road and the green pitches around the country must be answered again. In hostelries on the way home from Mayo games, John will again render his theme song, ‘There’s divil the town in Ireland like the town of Kiltimagh’.
As he says himself: “John Regan loves his sport. I know so many of the footballers from Willie Casey in the 1950s to Joe Corcoran in the 60s and Willie Joe and all the others. I could name hundreds of them. It’s still the same buzz. It’s worse I’ve got as I’m getting older. When John Regan goes, God bless him, I don’t know who will take his place!”
You’re right there, John Regan!