WHEN a group of nine young men, mainly in their 20s at the time, gathered in William Street in Tullamore on a Winter’s November night in 1953 to form a new athletics club, they could hardly have envisaged the pivotal role it would play in all facets of life, not only in the town but the wider midlands.
Invited by Eddie, known as Tobin, Clarke into the warmth of Clarke’s Hairdressers, where one of the founders and a future long serving chairman Noel Gowran worked, the formation of Tullamore Harriers was a somewhat controversial move at that time.
There was an athletics club in existence in the town, Columban, and they resisted the attempts to form a new club in competition with them. It meant that it took the casting vote of the chairman, Br Kenny, an Oblate in Daingean Reformatory, to bring Tullamore Harriers into existence when they sought permission to affiliate at a meeting of the Offaly Athletics County Board – most of the founding members worked in Salts at that time and they essentially sought permission to change the name of Salts Athletics Club, which was confined to factory workers, to Tullamore Harriers, which could take in membership from the general public.
By the end of the 1950s, Columban Athletics Club was gone off the map and Tullamore Harriers was the sole provider of athletics in the town.
Their early years were occasionally fractious and controversial but a powerful foundation was also built. Their initial training base was GAA headquarters in O’Connor Park and their first club house was in Offaly Street.
They soon found themselves at loggerheads with the County Board over the transfer of runners from outlying clubs into Tullamore Harriers. One of these, Mick Neville became one of the club’s great athletes and another, Kilbeggan man, Paddy Bastic found himself as the unwitting centre piece in a major 1961 controversy.
The Harriers was suspended for twelve months, later reduced to six, after what went down in folklore as the “Battle of Tallaght” – Bastic had attempted to run for the club in a Leinster cross country championship there even though the County Board had not sanctioned his transfer. There was a general melee as officials tried to pull him out of the race, the Harriers contingent resisted and it all ended up in the board room.
A turbulent decade
That was only the start of a fairly turbulent decade for Tullamore Harriers. The suspension saw the loss of Lynally man Neville to Donore Harriers in Dublin – an international standard runner, he transferred rather than lose a year at his peak and he went on to run in the 1962 International Cross Country Championship, the predecessor of the modern World event, before returning to the Harriers as a veteran in the 1980s.
Athletically, Tullamore Harriers brought great glory to the town. The club has produced an Olympian, Pauline Curley, a near Olympian in Gordon Kennedy (he travelled to the 2000 Games as part of the 4 x 400m squad but didn’t get to run), six senior national Track and Field champions, Curley, Noel Gowran, Mick Neville, John O’Toole, Gordon Kennedy and Eoin Hannon and four national indoor champions, Curley again, Eoin Hannon, Cormac Troy and Ann Marie Larkin (now McGlynn).
It has been the home to some ferociously tough competitors, athletes renowned and feared throughout the country. International competitors at all levels and the biggest athletics club in Offaly, with competitors from all over the county and neighbouring counties gravitating to its doors – indeed for several years, it was the chief organiser of athletics in Offaly as there were either a scarcity of other clubs or they were very small.
Yet for many people in Tullamore and much further afield, they have only vague awareness of the athletics prowess of the club. Their association with Tullamore Harriers is as an entertainment venue par excellence. It was the venue where so many young people got initiated into a more adult side of life, sampling their first alcoholic drink or enjoying their first interaction with the opposite sex and it provided tremendous fun and entertainment for older age groups with their bands and dances.
This was a role that the founding fathers could not have envisaged back in 1953 but it was their actions that saw it emerged. The first chairman was John Dowling, of GAA fame and the other founding members were: Paddy Larkin, Noel Gowran, Mick McDermott, Brendan McDermott, Noel Houlihan, Andrew Lowbridge, Billy Dowling and Larry Fox – Billy Dowling is the only surviving founding member.
Three men in particular permeate the story of Tullamore Harriers like no other. Paddy Larkin was secretary from 1953 until shortly before his death in 2006, Brendan O’Shea came on board in 1954 and was treasurer from then until 2008 and Noel Gowran was chairman from 1970 to 2008.
The development of the club over the decades was extraordinary when one considers that for much of the years, athletics was very much a minority sport, attracting little of the membership that the major field events, particularly the GAA, enjoyed – it is only in later years that it grew into the mass participation club it is today.
Ultimately, the club is all about running, jumping and throwing but its off track developments have seen it occupy a central place in Irish athletics – its Charleville Road stadium has held the National Senior Track and Field Championships on a couple of occasions and is the annual host of many important national and provincial championships.
From the start, Tullamore Harriers was something of a financial juggernaut. They initially hosted big dances with some of Ireland’s top showbands in venues such as the County Ballroom and then they held a hugely successful week long carnival for several years in the 1950s and ’60s, a very important event on the local entertainment calendar – again with top bands performing and various novelty events and races taking place until the final one in 1972.
All of this helped finance the purchase of nine acres of prime land on the Charleville Road in 1962 for £3,500. A further eight acres was acquired later and their plans for this led to a furious confrontation with local residents and the then Tullamore Urban District Council.
Planning permission was sought for the construction of a stadium with a pavilion and residents objected on the basis that this would be used for hosting dances – they were right in their belief about the purpose of the pavilion. Tullamore Urban District Council sided with them, turning down planning permission on a number of occasions. Opinion was bitterly divided among councillors, there were appeals and public hearings before Minister for Local Government Bobby Molloy gave permission via ministerial decree in 1970.
The new pavilion and tartan track
By 1972, the new pavilion had been built and over the next decade plus, the bulk of the remaining developments took place, with construction of a state of the art tartan track (they were the first members’ owned club to provide a tartan track), club house and stadium, followed by several more important additions in the following years.
The pavilion changed life for the voluntary officers, generating a massive workload far beyond their athletics commitments. It became a hive of activity from 1972 through to its closure in 2010 – at its peak, it hosted bands/ dances each Thursday and Sunday night, Friday was fork supper night where other clubs and organisations ran fundraising benefits and Saturday night, of course was the famous disco. From 1973 until 1992, the club was the host and organisers of the first and very successful Offaly Sports Stars awards.
The workload through the pavilion and the finances generated resulted in a big change to club structures in 1979 with the formation of separate management and athletics committees, though Gowran, Larkin and O’Shea remained on both.
Entertainment capital of the midlands
Throughout the 1990s, Tullamore prided itself as the “entertainment capital of the midlands”, a term championed by retired Tullamore Tribune editor, Geoff Oakley. However, as the decade wore on and especially into the new millennium, life changed. Firstly, the big hotels, the Tullamore Court and Bridge House opened in town, providing a top class alternative venue for dinner dances and soon the Friday night fork supper was a thing of the past.
The Thursday and Sunday night dances bit the dust and into the 2000s, the disco was the “last man standing”! By now, however, there was a plethora of alternative venues all over the town but the Harriers remained the venue of choice for the younger generation. Numbers was not an issue and in fact, it was the opposite as busloads came from all over the midlands, as far away as Ballinasloe, each week.
However, there were problems with court cases arising out of incidents that were generally far outside the Harriers control and the accompanying headlines in local papers attracting publicity that was at odds with the club’s ethos as a healthy outlet for athletic activity among all age groups.
In 2010, the “fat lady” finally sung when gardai objected to the renewal of its licence, Tullamore Harriers withdrew its application and the disco ceased to exist.
A lean and fit era
As often happens, the ending of one era opened up an entirely new one. The mid 2000s on saw an increased awareness in the benefits of physical exercise with couch to 5k programmes, operation transformations etc cropping up all over the place. A huge influx of new members arrived at Tullamore Harriers, many from their mid-30s and older, and life became very different once again.
Tullamore Harriers is no longer a home of just the fiercely competitive athlete. They are still there and ultimately it is all about winning and reaching your potential but for many, the Harriers is a vehicle to get fit and engage in activity that is both physically and mentally rewarding. It means that its days as a host of social events is over and the focus is now primarily on athletics and catering for athletes of all abilities, ages and motives.