Wednesday, 8 June 2016

By John Walshe (Evening Echo, 07/06/2016)

This year Midleton Athletic Club is celebrating its 50th year in existence and a number of celebratory events are planned leading up to the actual anniversary date in October next.

The club is now one of the largest in Munster with almost 200 adult members, in addition to a thriving juvenile section. Each Monday night the seniors are put through their paces at the local Cricket Field under the guidance of former Irish champion Donie Walsh.

But it’s highly unlikely that the current crop of athletes are aware that this venue, owned by Midleton College, was the setting for many open sports meeting in the past, some indeed graced with the presence of Olympic representatives such as Walsh himself.

It was all of 48 years ago that the first sports meeting since 1931 took place in the town. It was held on Sunday May 19, 1968, and was one of the first ventures of the young club. The energetic organising committee was led by Fr Barry, CC, who already had experience in the running of sports meeting having been a member of the famous Banteer Sports committee for a number of years.

Secretary of the Midleton club at the time was Jim Leahy who had won an All-Ireland colleges three-mile title five years before. Chairman and one of the club’s founders was Dungourney man Paddy Hartnett, a well-know sprinter in his youth. Paddy would go on to play a pivotal role in the development of the Midleton club and also at county level where he served as Cork Co Board Chairman for a number of years.

Paddy’s family of six all achieved success at various grades in athletics with two of his sons, John and Pat, also figuring with Cork at senior hurling level. In addition, John won the Irish senior pole vault title in 1980 and the traditional is now being maintained for another generation as his son, Paul, was the recent winner of the minor boys 800m at the South Munster Schools.

Open sports at the time consisted mainly of handicap events along with cycling races which always provided the large attendance with plenty of thrills and spills. Usually, one county championship would be allocated to each meeting and Midleton were fortunate enough to be awarded one of the prime titles, the 5,000m Cork Co Championship.

In what would be the first of many titles on the track, victory went to 21-year-old John Buckley from the St Finbarr’s club. Showing no ill-affects from a three-mile race in Dublin the previous day which he had won in 14:09.2, Buckley moved away from early pacemaker Jackie O’Callaghan (Leevale) after one mile to finish strongly in a time of 15:02.4 with Richard Crowley of St Finbarr’s coming through to take second ahead of Denis Buckley, brother of the winner.

Expected to mount a strong challenge to Buckley was the afore-mentioned Donie Walsh but the young Leevale athlete had just recovered from a bout of measles and had to settle for fifth. Later in the afternoon Buckley returned to win the one mile scratch in 4:33.0 with O’Callaghan second and Crowley third.

John Buckley – who 23 years later would win three world masters’ titles – was in exceptional form at the time and a week or so before the Midleton meet had run a personal best of 14:47.6 for 5000m when finishing second to Tom O’Riordan of Donore (who recorded 14:39.1) on the grass track at the Mardyke.

Incidentally, at that fixture in Santry Stadium where Buckley won the three-mile, there was another Cork success when Dick Hodgins of Leevale (who sadly passed away last March) won the 10-mile BLE Championship in a time of 49:49.8, the second fastest by an Irishman for the event which comprised of 40 laps of the cinder track.

Other results from that Midleton Sports which attracted a huge crowd in perfect weather conditions included a 220 yards win for Margaret Murphy who also finished second in the 100 yards handicap behind Sara Lockwood from Leevale. Four years later, Murphy from Ovens would go on to represent Ireland in the 100m hurdles at the Munich Olympics.

Bernard Walley from Ballymore-Cobh won the men’s furlong and finished second (off three yards) in the 100 yards. Former college’s star, Kieran O’Donovan of Leevale, had a double, hitting the tape first in both the 440 yards and 880 yards and tied with Buckley for the Cappoquin Bacon Perpetual Cup for best all-round athlete.

Triple jump record holder Sean O’Dwyer won the long jump with leap of 22 feet and three inches (6.78m) ahead of Cyril O’Regan from Waterford and O’Dwyer also finished second in the high jump to Pat O’Shea (Millstreet) who cleared five feet and six inches (1.67m).

In the cycling events, the legendary Frank O’Sullivan from Fermoy won both the one mile handicap and five miles, the latter ahead of Patsy Crowley from Blarney.

The facilities and condition of the track at the Cricket Field came in for favourable comment and the success of that first Midleton Open Sports saw it become an established fixture on a May Sunday for the following three years.

Then, with the arrival of Fr Liam Kelleher in the town, the track and field event began to take on more of an international flavour with the addition of many new innovations but that, as they say, is a story for another day.