Sporting tradition in Offaly is both long and varied. Myth and legend from times long past, as well as unprecedented successes in more recent years, are testimony to a county where sport plays a vital role in community life. As in virtually every other county in Ireland, the recent sporting past has been dominated by the G.A.A. Every parish has at least one club within its boundaries and the G.A.A. is easily the most prominent organisation in the county.
Yet, the sporting past of Offaly is far more diverse than a mere record of G.A.A. activities. Boxing and athletics, tennis and golf, rugby and soccer, and a host of other sports, have all been long-established in the area and draw a steady and loyal following.
Almost every parish has made its own unique contribution to the sporting life of the county. Sportsmen and women in a wide range of different disciplines have completed nationally, as well as internationally, and their various sports have ensured that enthusiasts in the county can involve themselves in a great variety of activities. Invariably, these sports have played a supporting role to the G.A.A. whose establishment in 1884 regularised games that had been played in the county for many centuries.
Most areas in the county hold their own legends of battles in football and hurling against neighbouring townlands or villages. These legends tell of the entire male population of two areas playing a game with few set rules and an even less well-defined playing area. As a central county, Offaly also played host to famous inter-county matches. One such match in 1773 saw Tipperary play Galway in Banagher before a crowd of 10,000 with the victorious Tipperary team claiming 1000 guineas in prize-money and the two teams then proceeded to share two barrels of porter between them.
On a more local level, a record survives of a hurling match between the men from the Stoney Estate in Kilcormac and the Manifold Estate in Cadamstown dating from pre-G.A.A. days with the game being played across country, the sliothar being made of wood and the hurls similar to the shape of hockey sticks. One such stick, dating from as far back as 1826 was found in Doon.
Given that the county had such a long tradition in native games it was inevitable that Offaly should be intimately involved in the setting up of the G.A.A. by Michael Cusack in 1884. Clara-man P. J. White was one of the leading figures in the G.A.A. and his Clara club was the second ever to be affiliated to the G.A.A. (after Cusack's own Metropolitan Club in Dublin).
Offaly's prominent role in G.A.A. history was further secured when the first ever All-Ireland Hurling Final, between Meelick from Galway and Thurles from Tipperary was played at Birr during Easter 1888. Included on the Meelick team was Lusmagh-man John Coolahan.
From the mid-1890's club football and hurling produced many memorable teams and matches, and the number of clubs grew yearly. However, it was not until the 1920s that the county began to enjoy any measure of success on a national level. Despite having competed in the Leinster Championships from the mid-1890's (with the exception of 1921 when Offaly was unable to field a team due to the involvement of players in the War of Independence) the only successes were in the junior hurling championships in 1915 and 1922. The junior hurlers also went on to enjoy All-Ireland success in 1923 and 1929.
In 1934 Eamonn De Valera officially opened O'Connor Park in Tullamore and then in 1935 the county won the Leinster Junior Football Title. Steady progression in football over the next two decades saw the capture of the county's first Leinster minor title in 1947, with the O'Byrne Cup following in 1954.
It was only in the 1960s that the county began to enjoy a run of victories which erased the bitter memories of painful defeat. 1960 saw the winning of the first Leinster Senior football championship with a one point defeat of Louth; and the following year saw the county reach its first All-Ireland Final only to lose by a similar one point margin to Down. In 1964 the county took its first ever All-Ireland minor title, yet the senior title again proved elusive with defeat by Kerry in 1969.
Then after being the nearly-men of the sixties, the long-awaited first senior successes came with back-to-back wins over Galway and Kerry in 1971 and 1972, respectively. Offaly was now being accepted as a major force on a national scale, yet even these first successes were somewhat overshadowed by the glory days of the early eighties.
It was this decade which saw Offaly confirmed as one of the premier G.A.A. counties, enjoying unprecedented success in both football and hurling. Dismissed for almost a decade as one of the hurling's permanent "weaker" counties. Offaly shocked hurling pundits everywhere to defeat Kilkenny by one point in the 1980 Leinster Final, before being defeated by Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final. Then the following year, the counties' hurlers retained the Leinster title before defeating Galway to record an historic and almost unimaginable victory and in doing so they became the first county to break the traditionalists stranglehold on the game in over 6 decades.
These victories were paralleled by the senior footballers who returned from 7 years out of the honours to win three Leinster titles in a row between 1980 and 1982. Their re-emergence coincided with the famous Kerry five-in-a-row team playing at their peak, and after narrow defeats in 1980 and 1981, they recorded another upset by defeating Kerry in 1982 with a late Seamus Dary goal in what was arguably the best All-Ireland Final of the decade.
Subsequently, the footballers slipped from the limelight, yet the hurlers remained centre-stage. They contested every Leinster final of the 'eighties and won six of them. They appeared in the centenary All-Ireland Final only to be defeated by Cork and then in 1985 captured the county's second hurling title on defeating Galway by 2 points. Further honours were won with a Leinster title in 1990, and the county's only league success in 1991.
The future of hurling and football in the county was cemented with minor hurling All-Irelands being won in 1987 and 1989; with the capture of three Under 21 Leinster hurling titles between 1989 and 1992; with All-Irland Under 21 football honours in 1988; and with Leinster minor football success in 1989.
On the whole the prospects for further success looks decidedly bright, while recent victories have been a just reward for persistence through years of failure. In the process has set a wonderful example to other counties with little tradition of success.
Although Offaly had to wait decades for its first successes in senior football and hurling, the county's Ladies football team enjoyed instant success. The Offaly Ladies Football Association was established in 1973 and when the first ever Ladies Football All-Ireland Championship was held in 1974, Offaly reached the final only to be defeated by Tipperary. The county went on to win 9 Leinster titles in a row between 1974 and 1982. In 1979 they exacted revenge on Tipperary by defeating them in a replay by 3-6 to 1-6 to win Offaly's first ever Ladies All-Ireland title - a feat which was repeated in 1981.
The earliest records of camogie in Offaly are from the 1930s when there were clubs in Mucklagh, Ballycommon, Ballycumber, Tullamore, Killoughey, Rahan, Lusmagh, Drumcullen and Kinnitty. In the mid-1930s Offaly reached the Leinster Final only to be defeated by Wexford by one point. After World War II, the game declined in the county and it was largely through the efforts of Clare-born Mary O'Brien that camogie was re-established in Offaly in the 1970's. From 1973-79 Tullamore was the only club in the county and as a result was allowed to play in the Laois Championship which it won in the first year of entering. By 1879 clubs had been formed in Birr, Drumcullen, Clara and Kilcormac so the Offaly Camogie County Board was reformed and in 1980 senior, junior and minor championships were played. Although the county has enjoyed little success in provincial championships the emergence of clubs in Coolderry, Shinrone, Lusmagh, Kinnitty, Killeigh, Banagher and Ballycommon has ensured that the game remains on a sure footing in Offaly.
Although the G.A.A. definitely enjoys the highest profile of all the sporting organisations in the county, many other sports also retain a rich tradition in the area - and none more so than athletics. Legends tell of foot-races held in the Slieve Bloom Mountains for members of the Fianna, while more contemporary records exist of sports meetings in such areas as Charleville Estate from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
By the early years of the last century these meetings had evolved into annual events, run in conjunction with the Harvest Home Festival. Amongst the events, which were organised by the Earls of Charleville were footraces for men and women, sack races, donkey races and an account from 1838 recalled a shaved pig race during which "the pig from previous training being in excellent wind had a long run and was eventually captured by Laurence Hanlon".
In the 1840s these meetings lapsed and were not revived until the 1880s when they were held in Spollanstown. Throughout this decade the country was immersed in political and agrarian strife, and it was inevitable that sport should be drawn into the conflict. A campaign in Tullamore to prevent the Earl of Charleville from patrionising the annual sportsday eventually resulted in the establishment of the Tullamor Amateur Athletic Club who commenced their annual sports in 1884. At this stage Killeigh Sports had been inaugurated on August Monday 1879, and throughout the county events were organised by the G.A.A. which in its earliest years was primarily an athletics concern.
It was not until the 1950s, however, that athletics in Offaly began to develop on an unprecedented scale. In 1950, a Kilcormac-man Jack Cox, became the first local man to win the National Marathon Championships, while progressive clubs developed across the county from Ferbane and Belmont to Edenderry. And then the most significant move in local athletics circles came on November 13th 1953 when 9 men met in Tullamore and formed the Tullamore Harriers.
The history of Tullamore Harriers is the classic rags-to-riches story as the club had its initial home in a dilapidated building, before slowing acquiring land so that by 1972 they owned over 17 acres of land and had developed a modern social centre. Within 10 years they had added a new sorts complex, a floodlit tarmacadam training track, a 700 capacity car-park and an international standard running track. At this stage over £800,000 had been spent developing facilities, with the only outside assistance coming from government and local authorities which totalled little more than 5%.
These facilities have enabled the club to produce outstanding athletes who have won scholorships to American Universities, won National Championships and represented Ireland in international meetings. The club has also hosted international, national and provincial championships as well as organising the Blue Riband event of the Road Racing season - The Quinlan Cup.
All of which has ensured that not only does Offaly have athletics facilities on a part with any county in Ireland, but it also produces athletes of the highest standard.
Although it took rugby and soccer quite a time to become firmly established in Offaly, the two sports have become increasingly popular in recent years, with both their playing members and their profile on the increase.
The Irish Rugby Football Union (I.R.F.U.) was founded in 1879, with the first Offaly club to join being Birr in 1887. Edenderry were to join shortly afterwards and although the game was played in Tullamore in the 1860's and 1870's by local families with sons at boarding school in Portarlington and Rahan, it was not until 1937 that a club affiliated to the I.R.F.U.
By the end of World War II all clubs in county - Birr, Tullamore and Edenderry - were experiencing difficulties, but immediately after the war Tullamore had progressed to such an extent that it was able to capture the Towns Cup for the first time. Birr club also reformed after the war and Edenderry followed suit in 1952, yet it was not until Tullamore had progressed to such an extent that it was able to capture the Towns Cup for the first time. Birr club also reformed after the war and Edenderry followed suit in 1952, yet it was not until Tullamore recaptured the Towns Cup in 1960 that the county had any further success. Edenderry enjoyed its first success in the sixties in capturing the Towns Cup twice, while a County Offaly selection reached the final of the Provincial Cup in 1969 and 1970, only to be defeated on both occasions.
From the 1970's, Offaly rugby underwent a remarkable transformation with an unprecedented increase in playing numbers and a continual up-grading of facilities. By the mid-1970's, Tullamore were regularly fielding five adult and five juvenile teams. The club also won the Midland League 6 years in succession and added the Towns Cup in 1976. Edenderry repeated this success in 1983. Throughout the 1980's, rugby continued to grow in the county and this growth has continued into the 1990's.
Organised soccer first came to the county after World War I. Matches were played in Arden, Church Street and Spollanstown and the team was known as Tullamore Rangers and later as Tullamore Hotspurs. Then in 1941 the foundations for the present club were laid with the formation of a committee who set about generating finance and took out a lease on Spollanstown Grounds (which was shared with the local rugby club until 1970).
In 1948 Tullamore gained entrance into the Dublin Sunday Alliance League; in 1952 - 3 they won The Subsidiarity Cup; and then in 1965 they became the first club from outside Dublin to win the Bradmola Cup. Also in 1965, Tullamore gained entry into the League of Ireland "B" Division and in their first season they finished joint runners-up with Shamrock Rovers. The Tullamore club now plays in the Leinster Senior League and throughout the county an expanding number of clubs compete weekly in local and regional leagues.
The popular perception of Cricket in Ireland is of a game played solely by the English or by the upper-classes. Yet in the 1870s and 1880s in Offaly, (and throughout Ireland), cricket was by no means an elitist sport. Instead it was organised at various venues around the county and it is recalled that it was local working people, and not the local gentry who made up the bulk of the players.
By the early 1900s the game had gained such strength the cricket club in Tullamore could afford to erect a pavilion. Other areas which held cricket clubs at various times this century were Ferbane, Birr, Kilcormac, Portarlington, Killeigh and Durrow.
It is widely accepted that tennis was introduced into Ireland in 1878 and within months of the game's arrival the Banagher Kings County West Tennis Club was formed with members of the garrison, church leaders and locals all prominent. By 1879, Kings County and Ormond Tennis Club had been formed in Birr and a year later the game was organised in Tullamore.
Successive waves of expansion and regression saw the game reach Shinrone, Ferbane, Edenderry and other areas - sometimes taking root, other times dying away. Facilities in the clubs of Offaly now rival those of any town in Ireland and the game is increasing in popularity once more.
Now home to 5 golf clubs, situation at Tullamore, Birr, Portarlington, Daingean and Edenderry, Offaly boasts an enviable collection of courses. Golf was first introduced to Offaly in 1866 when Colonel R. A. Craig, on a visit to the local rectory helped "lay out a few holes in a field on the Geashill Road in Tullamore". A 9-hole course and pavilion were erected in Ballykilmurray in 1896 and the club later moved to Screggan before finally settling at its present site at Brookfield in 1925.
By 1893 the Kings County and Ormond Golf Club had a course laid out at Baronne Court, about two miles from Birr. By 1914 it had moved to the Glens and was known as Birr Gold Club. In 1894 a golf club was formed in Banagher, but it disbanded in 1910, the same year that the Edenderry club opened. Another area to provide a temporary home to a golf club was Clara which houses a course from 1918 to 1928. Portarlington Golf Course, in contrast, continues to prosper. Instituted in 1908 on the Warburton Estate in Garryhinch the club latterly expanded from 9 to 18 holes. The most recent of the golf clubs in the area is the course at Daingean which opened in 1991.
Offaly also enjoys a long tradition in boxing. As in many other counties, bare-fisted contents with less than uniform laws were features of fairs, festivals and other gatherings. Similarly, towns and villages had their own traditional meeting-points for boxing matches. One such place was Killeigh where bare-fisted and bare-footed boxers faced each other in "The Boxing Gap".
On a more organised level, Offaly has enjoyed a number of notable triumphs in international boxing. Tullamore-man Willie O'Shea holds pride of place having won an Olympic bronze medal in Light-weight Boxing at Amsterdam in 1928, but it is the Edenderry Club which enjoys the greatest reputation of all the counties clubs.
Founded in 1933 and still going strong, the club's best known boxers were the Brereton brothers, both of whom fought in the Irish jersey throughout the world. Sean Brereton won a silver medal in the European championships, while his brother Martin fought for Ireland in the Olympic Games.
References to Horse Racing in Offaly can be found as early as 1770, while records from the last century tell of race meetings held in Ballykilmurray at least from the 1860s until the 1900s. Known as the Tullamore Steeplechases, they were for many years the highlight of the Tullamore Sporting year. The last recorded race meeting in the area was held in Tinnycross in 1921. Around this time and before, meetings were held in many areas of the county, but all fell into decline as Kilbeggan Racecourse in County Westmeath became the focal point for racing enthusiasts in the midlands after its institution in 1879.
Killeigh proved the breeding ground for one of the most famous greyhounds in that form of racing. Mick The Miller was reared by Martin Brophy and owned by Michael Greene and was trained in a special enclosure in Millbrook. In the late 1920s and early 1930s he was the foremost greyhound in these islands winning every race from the Cesarewitch to the English Derby. So successful was he that he played a part in a film called "Wild Boy" and on his death he was stuffed and presented to The South Kensington Museum in London, where he still stands inside the main entrance.
Despite being a land-locked county, Offaly is fortunate to have access to an excellent variety of waterways which allow large numbers of enthusiasts to participate in a variety of water-sports. Fishing and angling clubs are located from Edenderry to Birr, and are progressively up-grading the facilities available to members and visitors alike.
A variety of other clubs in the area such as the Silver River Kayak Club based in Kilcormac and the Ark Divers which was founded in Tullamore in 1990 offer water sports enthusiasts a further range of activities. In competitive sporting terms, however, none can compare with the Offaly Rowing Club. With limited resources, and a small pool of members, the club has produced competitors who have won National Championships and represented Ireland abroad - to such an extent that its name is now recognised in rowing circles throughout Europe.
Sports History in Offaly has not always been a tale of success. The G.A.A. was over 70 years old before the county began to enjoy any measure of success, while in other sports clubs have been formed only to disband after varied lengths of time. Yet recent years have seen the county finally emerge at the forefront of football and hurling, while the area can also boast a wider range of facilities and opportunities than ever before - facilities while are on a par with most other counties. It is this more than anything else which should ensure that Offaly not only preserves its long sporting tradition but also enriches it.