Jack Heaslip was one of the gatekeepers — one of the last of a breed that they don’t make anymore writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh who pays tribute to the Kilkenny-born businessman and GAA man who became more of an Ennis Townie than the born and bred Townies themselves.
YOU mightn’t want anything in the shop, but you still went in. To say hello, to talk, or more importantly to listen to some of the nuggets of history that went from Clare to Kilkenny and back again. Many times over. And, they were always nuggets.
It could be about Jack’s journey from one shop in Knocktopher in rural Kilkenny to another shop in urban Ennis. It could be about the Kilkenny footballers — yes the Kilkenny footballers that came from his parish and won Leinster senior championships for Kilkenny and county championships for Knocktopher in the early 1900s.
Captain Dick Holohan, Jimmy Cody and Dick Dalton were the Knocktopher men he’d tell you about that were all on Kilkenny’s side that won the 1911Leinster football title.
He was fiercely proud of those, just as he was proud of Kilkenny hurlers and the names of the local men that won All-Irelands would trip easily from this tongue — from American-born Pat ‘Dexter’ Aylward who flew the Knocktopher flag on the 1922 winning team through to captain Richie Reid and TJ Reid on the team that contested this year’s final.
It could be about Clare hurling and the bond he said was with Kilkenny that stretched back long before he came to Ennis to work, set up home and stayed for 70 years.
He’d tell you with no little pride that it was Kilkenny that came to Ennis for the opening of Cusack Park in 1936, after county secretary Michael Hennessy drove down there at the 11th hour and asked them to make the journey the following day; he’d tell you how his brother Denis, who was an All-Ireland winner on the double was later on Kilkenny teams that also came to Ennis and Cusack Park.
He’d tell you about the banter with his great friends Barry Smythe and Declan Coote, who soldiered with his sons Sean and Francis on championship-winning teams, and meeting up with them along with another great friend Bishop Willie Walsh.
But most of all, whatever Jack said, you were always the better for it and glad you went in and had a few minutes with an Ennis and Éire Óg institution, who seemed to say everything with a smile.
Jack’s passion and interest in the GAA can be traced back to his formative years in Knocktopher, with a gem to be found in the precious ‘Schools Collection’ gathered by the Folklore Commission of Ireland in the early 1930s providing a wonderful window into his love of the games.
Jack was just a boy then, but the GAA ran deep in his family as collector Mary Therese Heaslip proved when gathering stories and writing them down about hurling and football matches in Knocktopher and beyond that now preserved in the Folklore Commission’s oral history archive.
“A great match was played between Kells and Ballyhale and great interest was taken in their meeting,” wrote Mary Therese. “Some of the matches are recorded in song. Pigeons were brought to the football field to fly home with the news of the winning team.
“The number of players on each team were twenty-one. Famous teams were Kilmacow, Mooncoin, and Knocktopher. Cross-country football was played by men picked from one side of a river that ran through the country against the other. The winners were the side that brought the ball home,” she added.
With heritage and history like that in Jack’s lineage, it’s no wonder that when he held court on O’Connell Street, whether behind the shop counter or in the sitting room of the house behind the shop, it was always a privilege.
He talked about games and old games like they were yesterday. Like his first All-Ireland in 1945 — Kilkenny lost to Tipperary that day when a Clareman, who learned about the rag-trade across the road from Jack on O’Connell Street in the Cash Company, Mick Murphy from Kilmaley, played his part for the blue and gold.
“We had to go to the match by train,” he recalled. It was harder to get a train ticket than it was to get an All-Ireland ticket. A team of old men beat us. We were depending on Jim Langton, Jack Mulcahy and Jimmy Walsh that time, but we came back to win plenty All-Irelands.”
Jack took extra-special pride in the All-Ireland men that came from around Knocktopher that’s in the parish of Ballyhale. The parish that produced the storied Fennelly clan that straddled many different generations of All-Ireland winners — Frank Cummins, Henry Shefflin, Richie Reid Snr and Jnr, TJ Reid, James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick and many more.
“Cha’s grandfather was a great player,” he recalled. “John Fitzpatrick played in the ‘30s. Then you had Jimmy Walsh and Jimmy Kelly who were on the team that won in ’47, while my brother Denis was on the teams of ’57 and ’63. He had a good run of it with the team.”
Jack was at those All-Ireland wins, with the ’57 win over Waterford being a stand-out as Denis played his part at right-half-forward when contributing a couple of points to the win over Waterford.
“It was touch and go until the last minute and we just held on,” he recalled.
“We got a goal from Nicky Kennedy near the end that we needed and we got the win, just as we did against them again in ’63 after they beat us in ’59 after a replay.
“Denis was fouled seven times in ’63 and Eddie Keher converted all the seven frees. Keher scored 13 or 14 points and Denis got no score. He was fouled every time. He was murdered every time he got the ball. That All-Ireland sticks out in my memory more than any,” he added.
Within a year Jack was a Clare selector — a time that coincided with the county having its best team since the mid-1950s as the county finally picked up the pieces after the disappointment of losing the 1955 Munster final.
“I’m half a Clareman,” he’d say of his time as a Clare selector, “but I’m still a Kilkenny man, won’t forget it and would never be allowed forget it. When I was a selector with Clare in the sixties they played three great games against Kilkenny in the league semi-final in Thurles in ’68.
“My brother, Fr Anthony, was president of the Kilkenny Association in Dublin at the time so there was plenty of slagging.
“We should have won the second game, Pat Henchy had a chance to win it with a free near the end, but it went wide. ‘Chew’ Leahy was always around the Kilkenny team that time and he wouldn’t have been slow on the line in roaring to the Clare lads ‘look you have a Kilkenny man there with you’,” he added.
Before being a selector with Clare, Jack had served his time in the same capacity with Éire Óg senior teams, after becoming an Éire Óg man the very first day he came to town in 1952 when he was taking up a job with Shanahan’s Wholesale, before opening up his shop of 34 O’Connell Street in 1956.
“I was driving past the Fair Green, having come from Kilkenny,” he told me earlier this year, “and I saw a few lads hurling on the field. I had my hurley in the van, so I stopped and I started hurling with them. It was Gerry and Jimmy Cronin,” he added.
The rest is Éire Óg history — the club that was formed that same year in 1952 just across the road where Jack picked ball with the Cronins that first day after a series of meetings that took place in Paddy Duggan’s and the O’Donnells’ house, both of which were on Steele’s Terrace.
The Cronins were driving forces in Éire Óg’s senior championship wins in 1956 and ’57, with Gerry the captain for the club’s historic first win, while Jack played alongside them on Éire Óg and Turnpike teams in these years as he became a great stalwart of the GAA in Ennis.
He was an Éire Óg man for 70 years, having first become a member in 1953 — serving as a player and selector, executive committee member, sponsor of the Ennis Town League, a taxi-driver when he’d unload the van and pack it with juveniles and leaving form O’Connell Square he’d bring them to wherever the game was played; a club vice-chairman and president, as well as being a great supporter. Always.
He was a selector on the Éire Óg team that won the senior championship in 1966, while he was also there in 1980 when the Éire Óg Dals bridged a 14-year gap and won the Canon Hamilton Cup once more and in 1982 he was there again when victory was the Townies’ after a replay. Then he was club president when the senior title last came to the capital in 1990.
Another lair of pride was added to the club successes for Jack when sons Sean and Francis were part of those 1980 and ’82 winning outfits, while Seán added a third medal.
Meanwhile, his unstinting loyalty to the club followed all the way through to being his grandson, Aaron Fitzgerald’s biggest supporter when he did so much to inspire Éire Óg’s senior football success last year and in his 97th year was looking forward to the coming weeks to see if more county senior titles could come the Townies’ way.
He was there for Éire Óg, always, with one game more than any other capturing this 70-year commitment to the club. It was 13 August 1988 and the Éire Óg Junior B hurlers were playing a championship game against Corofin in Ruan.
“The Ennismen had just 14 players,” reported The Clare Champion, “and the rule book states that a team must have 15 for the second half. Well-known businessman and club president Jack Heaslip lined out. Popular Jack answered the call and came in at corner-forward”.
It didn’t matter that Éire Óg lost the game — what mattered was that Jack Heaslip answered the call.
He answered that call for 70 years, from that very first day he pucked call on the Fair Green.