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A life less ordinary

Sean Rice
Vincent Walsh
ON HOME GROUND East Mayo GAA Board Secretary Vincent Walsh is pictured at Michael Davitt Memorial Park, Swinford.  Pic: Ken Wright

A life less ordinary

Sean RiceSean Rice

HIS love of Gaelic games is underscored by the span of his voluntary service. As secretary of the East Mayo GAA Board for thirty years Vincent Walsh emits no trace of weariness, or lack of passion. Three decades of unceasing generosity have failed to fray his interest or his curiosity.
But the Vincent Walshs of the GAA world are a dying breed.
Who out there today would sit into his car at 8.30 in the morning and drive to the farthest corner of Mayo to coach and motivate school kids, to do it two and sometimes three days a week . . . voluntarily, and at one’s own expense?
Vincent Walsh did. Throughout much of his twenty-five-year term as youth officer of Mayo GAA Board he did it . . . without claiming a penny expenses. And at the end of that quarter of a century of service he was booted out of office.
Vincent won back that job the following year and to his eternal credit held no animosity.  He worked on until the mid nineties, before opting out. But as East Mayo secretary he continues to serve with the unrelenting zeal he exhibited when he first took up the post on December 8, 1976, a job he had not sought, nor for which had he been nominated. “I was not a delegate at convention, but they had difficulty filling the post vacated by Bernie O’Hara and I was proposed by Mick O’Connell. ”
His interest had begun in his home club in Swinford where he learned the basics of the game playing with a small rural group, progressing through the vocational school to minor and junior with the club. His playing days were brought to an abrupt end, however, when he broke a leg in the East Mayo Junior final at Charlestown in 1972.  A brief comeback in 1977 proved fruitless.
By then he had been well established as an able administrator. He became secretary of the club in 1968 and set up Bord na nOg. Together with Owen Roe O’Neill they developed good underage teams, reaching the county U-16 final in 1971 and the latter stages of the same competition over the following couple of years.
Disappointed when the County Board forced a minor semi-final fixture on Swinford in 1973 without several of their best players, he resigned from the GAA, but returned eighteen months later to organise underage players at the request of club treasurer Louis O’Malley. Scarcely had he warmed to the position, however, when he was beaten at club convention for the post of secretary of underage football.
His appointment as county youth officer was made at convention in January 1977. “They had difficulty getting a person to take on the role. I was proposed even though I had not been nominated. I took it on because I was deeply involved in underage football, and I was there for 25 years . . . until losing office in a vote.
“As youth officer I would set off on a Monday morning at 8.30, to schools anywhere in the county, make presentations to the pupils and talk to them on coaching issues. I covered around 100 schools all at my own expense. Never claimed from the county board for any involvement. When Sean Feeney took over as secretary he sent me a cheque for £30, a present, because he knew I was not claiming any expenses.”
There was always a special welcome for Vincent at Behy NS which Fr Peter Quinn attended as a boy, and where the ball with which he won a 1951 All-Ireland medal holds a special place. Many players who have blossomed at county level in recent years would have been budding youngsters during Vincent’s time as youth officer. He recalls presenting a plaque to John Maughan in Crossmolina for being the best U14 player in the club.
He coached Austin Garvin’s minors in free-taking, and as a county under 16 selector travelled to matches to judge players in their club positions, by-passing the School of Excellence because it did not cater for the late developer. He has not hidden his criticism of the School down the years, and he has also spoken out against the effects of drink on young people. In his latest annual report he calls on parents, especially those involved in team managements, to take an interest in clubs beyond the narrow scope of their children’s involvement.
“The shelf life of such people is short. Once a son reaches 14 parents lose interest in the club. “They will come with him and perhaps climb with the team while he is a member, which is not a good idea. I have no problem with parents helping out. My concern is their involvement in team management while their son is on the team.”
Vincent was born in the Liberties . . . “not far from where Brendan Grace was born.” His father died young and because she could not afford to rear him his mother placed him in the care of the Sisters of Charity (St Philomena’s, Stillorgan) at the age of three. He remembers, back to the age of five, his mother coming to see him every Thursday.
At the age of nine he was fostered out to Bridie and John O’Hara of Derryronayne. The train journey from Stillorgan to Ballyhaunis, his first tentative steps onto Mayo soil, the fears of a sensitive child heading for a new life, into the unknown, is seared into the memory. It was January 11, 1957.
You see, the nuns were good to him. “I have major problems trying to contend with the allegations of physical abuse of people in other homes. I never witnessed that at all. I can remember back to when I was five, and how good the nuns were to us. I could never say anything wrong about them. I cannot understand this thing about abuse at orphanages and other institutions. I think it is overdone.”
He lost contact with his mother subsequently, having no great desire to pursue her whereabouts. The O’Haras were good to him. It took him a while to settle in Mayo but he got to enjoy it . . . working on the farm, in their shop in Swinford, making new friends.
“Bridie travelled with me to many places. My foster father, John, was a quieter type of man. He had a great interest in the GAA, and he needed to have because when I was deeply involved in underage football I remember leaving him in the hayfield, or the bog as the case may be, and stealing away on the bicycle when I got his back turned.”
Bridie died of a stroke in 1994. John was also a stroke victim and died in 2000. Vincent cared for the two throughout their illness. Shortly after John’s death Bridie’s sister, Angela, became invalided following a fall, and for the past five years Vincent has been tending to her every need at home. His undivided attention to Bridie, her husband and her sister, reflect the humanity of his character. Each was cared for with uncommon selflessness . . . his gift to them for their kindness to him as their foster child.
“I suppose a lot of people wonder why I am still involved in the GAA and a lot will ask why do I not put Angela into a nursing home. Well I could not imagine that situation ever happening because they were so good to me.”
He does not pester his neighbours to help out, but without them he could not be so deeply involved in the GAA. When he wants them they are there. The local District Hospital and St Attracta’s Nursing Home in Charlestown have also been good to him, accepting Angela on the rare occasions he gets away to a match or to Congress.
“Looking after Angela would be like looking after a young baby. All of her needs have to be attended to. I do have home help for a couple of hours in the morning. The rest of the day and the weekend I have to look after her. I don’t mind doing it. I’d like to look after her as well as I can. When the time comes I can always say that I have done my job, and that I owe nothing to anyone.”
He paid tribute to the County Board officers for taking him to Congress every year, and said he feels good getting away from it all. The fact that he was hospitalised for some time after being hit by a car during one of his visits to Congress in Dublin has in no way diminished his desire to continue this annual retreat. The board also treated him to a trip to London last year for Mayo’s game with London. “It was a great break for me and I met a lot of players that I had as minors in the Seventies in my own club.”
He has served under great county officers, Christy Loftus, Fr Leo Morahan, Sean Feeney, Paddy Basquill and Johnny Mulvey, and said the county was fortunate to have people in office now who run the board in a business-like manner. At East Board level he recalls as dedicated officers the likes of Mick O’Connell, John Ceighton, Mick Higgins etc. High office at county board level is something to which he himself aspires before he leaves the scene for good.

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