Life could have been so different for the area’s most renowned political figure. Had Seamus Kirk been born a stone’s throw up the road he’d have been a Monaghan man. (Pic: Arthur Kinahan)
Life could have been so different for the area’s most renowned political figure. Had Seamus Kirk been born a stone’s throw up the road he’d have been a Monaghan man. Only for the horrific leg break he suffered while playing for Louth he may have become one of the county’s greats. Had it not been for his football career ending prematurely he may never have entered politics.
Not that he’s rueful of the path not taken. A public representative at local and national level consistently over a 42-year period is a unique feat. His decision to retire by his own admission is a testimony to a fabulous career which saw him scale the height of the Irish political landscape, becoming Ceann Comhairle and continuing to attract major support amid Fianna Fáil’s near-death experience.
Party affiliation can often cloud a person’s judgement of a peer, though Kirk is a perfect gentleman and having served in Dáil Eireann for 34 successive years, it’s evident that the man’s soft touch came across in both a personal and professional sense. Like so many others of his generation, he arose from humble beginnings and so his natural modesty and genuity shaded every decision he made thereafter.
“I grew up and went to school at the Christian Brothers in the 1950s and into the 1960s,” Kirk tells The Democrat, of his upbringing in testing times.
“They were difficult times economically; it was a backward country that way and there was a lot of emigration. So many people who should have been at home in Ireland had to emigrate.
“My father was the youngest of eight in his family, but the eldest brother, also called Seamus, he never met him because he’d emigrated before my father was born. That built up, for me, a mental picture of the impact emigration had on Irish families.”
Elected to the local authority before his 30th birthday, in 1974, filling the party ticket in the Dundalk Rural constituency, it was a major breakthrough which at the time didn’t seem all that significant.
He had been through a rough patch since his horrific football injury of two years earlier. Working with his father, John, on their farm along the Louth/Monaghan divide, he was crippled, a state which isn’t entirely conducive to settling a mortgage on land which the family had recently purchased.
“I was on crutches and became immobilised,” he recalls. “I wasn’t able to do anything and the boredom and frustration of it all was a bit of a problem. Years on crutches is a challenge for somebody in their 20s who had been leading an active life prior.”
Advancements in orthopaedic treatment have allowed for sports stars with breaks as serious as Kirk’s to recover. Laois’ forward Brian ‘Beano’ McDonald “got smashed like that, but he came back and played”, while Ireland soccer captain Seamus Coleman endured “the same type of injury, a fairly horrific injury”. Yet the Donegal native remains a prominent member of both the Everton and international folds.
“It goes to show you orthopaedics have moved on so much since the ’70s.”
DOWN HE GOES
His tibia and fibula were broken in a National League game against Down in 1972. Having caught a ball and cleared his lines, following its flight, a stray boot buckled Kirk, ending his playing career at a time where it may have taken off.
“It was just one of these things where accidents happen in sport, but it had profound implications,” he adds.
“My whole leg was smashed and it was excruciating pain, lying on the ground of a winter’s day. Nobody said that that was that for myself and football, but I think it was fairly obvious. I was taken into the Lourdes Hospital and there were no orthopaedic specialists there at that time.
“It was a bad break, the leg was falling off really and the surgeon said it was going to be a long haul, but I didn’t think it was going to be years, I thought it’d be months.”
He concedes, though, that that fateful clash shaped his existence in a palpable way. Having hobbled down the aisle to marry his wife, Mary, in ’74, he also campaigned for election while on crutches in what was potentially his first shrewd political move.
“Some people said I’d get the sympathy vote,” he utters, laughing.
Whether he did or not is irrelevant really. Though it’s possibly a tad disingenuous to say his football retirement was a good thing for him personally. After all, he was a Louth minor for two years in the early 1960s, having played to a decent standard all through his school days, firstly at Drumsinnot were the Woods, Lennons and Mulhollands, who would go on to backbone Naomh Malachi and Kilkerley Emmets teams for decades, passed through at the same time.
Within the Inniskeen area, the border outfit would play other schools in the region and Kirk remembers opposing Armagh and Crossmaglen Rangers great Tom McCreesh, among others who would progress to have great careers.
He came on to the St. Bride’s team in the early part of the decade, originally at corner-forward before progressing into more of a central player, and in 1961, while still being tutored in Dundalk, he was at midfield for the Knockbridge men in their junior championship final defeat by Glyde Rangers.
Regardless, Kirk moved from minor into the county’s U21 ranks and in 1966, was named as a substitute for Louth’s championship opener against Longford, the National League holders. That same year he would win a Leinster junior medal with The Reds. Louth GAA, at the time, was competitive on a national scale.
“The 60s for the GAA in Louth, things were strong and Louth was playing in Division One of the National League.
“In 1966, Longford won the National League and Louth beat them in the first round of the senior championship in Navan; Longford were after beating Galway, the All-Ireland champions for the two years previously, in the league final.
“In 1967, Louth drew with Meath, who were also All-Ireland champions, in the National League in Drogheda. And the following year, 1968, they drew with All-Ireland champions Down in the National League in Drogheda.
“That’s the sort of level. Things have dipped a bit since.”
However, with Bride’s, he landed championship glory in 1967 as the men in red earned the junior title by beating St. Kevin’s. It’s the last major grade in which the Knockbridge side have tasted success.
Clearly, GAA was in Kirk’s blood. It had to be. His mother, Brigid, was a brother of Monaghan great Packie Boylan, the man who lifted Inniskeen Grattans’ last senior championship title, in 1948.
“Had I grown up in a house 100 yards up the road, on a sporting front, things could have been so different, playing for the Grattans instead of the Bride’s,” Kirk quips.
The Farney’s loss was certainly their near neighbours’ gain.
Survey The Democrat archives from 2003 and there is an article contained in which he reflects on the friendly banter himself and then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern had engaged in prior to the provincial meeting of Dublin and Louth that year. Gaelic games remained, in spite of his political ties, an intrinsic element of Kirk’s being.
But, for everything he did for the county as both a player and supporter, nothing will top his work, alongside fellow committee members, where Darver Centre of Excellence is concerned. The facility, in all its beauty, is a monument to him and arguably sits as his greatest body of work.
“In 2002, County Board chairman Paddy McMahon (Sean O’Mahony’s) came to me and said things were dire, ‘we’ve no facilities in Louth’,” says Kirk. “I remember saying: ‘Paddy, two questions; what money have you? And, have you a site for a development?’ Answering both questions, he said: ‘We have nothing’. No money or no site.
“A committee was set-up, a bit of an ad-hoc committee, with the late Brendan Carthy involved, to look at what could be done and I drew up a list of 16 sites around the county that might have been suitable, getting the county engineer at the time, Frank Burke, to visit them and see how they’d measure up from a planning point of view.
“We spent a day driving around Louth, from Drogheda to nearly down at the border, looking at different places, but he said none of them were suitable.
“I was at home one night, agonising about it. There was a field or two up along the M52 on the Ardee/Dundalk road and I put a call into a well-known farmer in mid-Louth, who I knew, and said I was looking for 15 or 20 acres of land anywhere between Dundalk and Ardee, or in mid-Louth.
“I told him what I wanted it for and he said he’d had a man in his yard at the time trying to sell him his farm. We approached that family, told them what we needed it for and they were a very good GAA family so they eventually sold us 35 acres of land at Newtowndarver. That was the start of the project.
“From a fundraising point of view, the 2000s were a buying time in the building and construction sector. We set the fundraising underway and got a fair bit of money in, all the while Brendan Carthy did the layout plans; himself and Dennis Williams, the engineer. We spent five or six million on Darver between 2002 and 2010.
“But I remember coming into 2009 and 2010, fundraising was becoming more challenging, and I said we needed to run a countywide lotto. We sat down and did some calculations, reckoning that if we could get 1,500 people into a countywide lotto, we’d make about €180,000-to-€200,000 a year in profit.
“So we went to the courts and got the license to set it up. And then met with the management of the County Board and told them what we wanted to do. They told us, ‘fine, but we’re going to run it’. So the Board took on to run the lottery and unfortunately it was terminated after four or five months.
“The intention was that the lotto would meet the repayments on the borrowing. There was a borrowing of €1 million and it was agreed that we wouldn’t allow the borrowings to exceed that amount at any time - if we had to go beyond that we’d just stop the work until we had some more money in.
“The annual repayments were probably around €70,000 or €80,000 and the intention was that the returns from the lotto would meet those and the subsequent decision to levy the clubs would never have arisen if it had gone ahead.
“We also had a picture that the rest of the money would help with coaching and associated costs. Unfortunately, that didn’t materialise because the lotto didn’t become a fact of life.”
Regret at the process’ handling and how, in the years since, clubs have been strangled by the fee in lieu of the project which Kirk and co had undertaken is tangible. But it’s not the sole disappointment. There are others.
“Brendan Carthy helped to reorganise the Louth Minor Board and had a great structure. He got very good people from around the county involved and the level of activity in the Darver Centre on summer’s evenings was huge; it was utilising to the full extent the facilities that had been hard won and hard fought for.
“Then, the County Board decided to stand down that Minor Board, which was a bad decision, because I think they had plans to develop talent in the county and I’d say if it had been allowed to continue we’d be getting significant benefit from it now. It wasn’t really replaced with a similar, suitable arrangement.
“The Board decided to stand down the Darver committee, which was probably a mistake as well because it had been eight years in place, had done a lot of fundraising and held a lot of contacts around the county.
“It was a disappointment that that happened. After eight years, a lot of people had put in voluntary effort over that period of time and every step of the way had to be approved by different Boards. No decision to invest, expand or develop was taken without the approval of the Board.
“And then the Louth supporters’ club were very supportive too and did tremendous work for GAA in Louth. They contributed towards the cost of establishing the gym in Darver and they weren’t handled well either.”
It was politics, something Kirk was well used to. But it’s hard to think of another incident which has left him with such a sour taste. And there were many…
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