'The end of an era': Fr O'Leary Memorial Boys Club in Shandon closes its doors for the last time

'The end of an era': Fr O'Leary Memorial Boys Club in Shandon closes its doors for the last time

The Four Faced Liar; Shandon steeple at the Church of St Anne (on left) with the (North) Cathedral of St Mary & St Anne on the right, with the rooftops of the northside of Cork City.

The sound of laughter, the kicking of a football, the serving of a ping pong ball, the saying of prayer, the distribution of catholic papers - all things that could be found at the Fr O’Leary Memorial Boys Club down through the years.

The club, which was founded by the men’s branch of the Legion of Mary in 1934, shut its doors for the last time recently.

A lack of volunteers and fallen numbers of boys attending the club, along with a building that was deemed no longer fit for purpose by the HSE, made for the difficult decision to close the door on the red bricked building at the top of Shandon Street.

The haven of sport and recreation for generations of boys from the northside of the city was named after Fr Patrick O’Leary who was curate in the North Cathedral and Spiritual Director of the club.

After first occupying the Trimbath Lane National School, it was he who secured the premises of the old dispensary on the top of Shandon Street for the club but sadly never witnessed the move to the new location in 1943 due to his death in 1939.

Fr Patrick O’Leary was born in the Parish of Bantry and was ordained in St. Patrick’s College Chapel, Maynooth, Co. Kildare on June 20, 1909. Photo: Shandon Area History Group.
Fr Patrick O’Leary was born in the Parish of Bantry and was ordained in St. Patrick’s College Chapel, Maynooth, Co. Kildare on June 20, 1909. Photo: Shandon Area History Group.

The boys in the club were involved in a range of activities such as table tennis, snooker, billiards, basketball and soccer.

Prayer life was not forgotten as many of the boys became members of the Legion of Mary and carried out charitable works such as visiting homes with papers and magazines.

One of the highlights of the year in the club was the annual holiday to Knockadoon and, later, Harbour View which for many, was their first holiday.

Bernard Spillane who volunteered at the club for 54 years said that the writing was on the wall for himself and John Ford and that the club could no longer run with just two volunteers.

He said that before closing there were about 10 to 12 boys attending the club, compared to the 30 to 40 boys attending just 15 years ago.

“The traditional clubs that I used to know are held on by the tips of their fingers, the clubs where you’d have football, pool, tennis, arts and crafts, and board games. Kids now, they're attention span is absolutely shocking. They play pool for two minutes and they throw the cue away, it's very hard to keep them active.

A group of young boys around the table in the Legion of Mary Room. Photo: Shandon Area History Group.
A group of young boys around the table in the Legion of Mary Room. Photo: Shandon Area History Group.

“If we got our building wired for wifi we could have 100 kids in there sitting on their laptops or mobiles but nobody chatting to each other and there'd be no interaction and our function is to get people active.

“In its early days, the club was the only entertainment in the parish and every house here on the northside way back in the 40s and 50s had a boy going to our club,” he said.

Mr Spillane said that many of the volunteers got the boys employment locally as messenger boys or shop porters which put many of them “on the right path for life”.

“An awful lot of lads who attended the club became good business men and became managing directors or started their own companies.

“A fair share became priests too. In the last number of years we had four or five former members ordained to different orders who still keep in contact with us.” Mr Spillane said the function of the club was to make personal contact with anyone who may have been having trouble at home and to have respect for each other.

The main room which once contained snooker and table tennis tables and in which indoor football was played, note the goalpost still in the corner. Photo: Shandon Area History Group.
The main room which once contained snooker and table tennis tables and in which indoor football was played, note the goalpost still in the corner. Photo: Shandon Area History Group.

“It was a real family club. Older brothers sent down young brothers and cousins came and neighbours came, that's how I was dragged in all those years ago,” he said.

Member of the Shandon Area History Group, Maeve Higgins, had two of her own boys, Michael and Terence, attend the club.

She said that her sons are still in contact with many from the club who they would still consider their friends.

“The atmosphere there was just great, they had their fun and they still had the Legions of Mary and said their prayers and did their work around the local area.” In recognition of the club and all it did over the years, Ms Higgins posted about its closure on the Shandon Area History Group’s Facebook page and within minutes people were commenting and former members were getting back in touch with each other years later.

Anne Twomey of the Shandon Area History Group said it was “so heart warming that so many grown men had such beautiful memories of the place”.

“When I went back in and saw the post I was really moved by all the beautiful comments from mothers of boys who went through it who are now grown men and the grown men themselves and seeing them connect again, it was really lovely,” she said.

Independent councillor and historian Kieran McCarthy said it was “the end of an era” for the club and that “great credit is due to those that kept it alive and at the heart of community life for so many decades”.

Cllr McCarthy said that it was important too to recall Fr Patrick O’Leary and Men’s Club of the local Legion of Mary’s contribution to the club at its inception.

The Fr. O’Leary Memorial Boys Club on Shandon Street has closed after 86 years.
The Fr. O’Leary Memorial Boys Club on Shandon Street has closed after 86 years.

Sinn Féin TD Thomas Gould, who lives in the locality, said that he witnessed first hand the work put in by all the volunteers and that the club will be a “big loss” to the community.

Deputy Gould said it gave kids an opportunity to do something that was different at a time when there wouldn’t have been many facilities in the area.

Numerous boys have gone through the doors of Fr O’Leary’s Memorial Boys Club and the names of the men who gave unstintingly to the club will never be forgotten.

The Fr O’Leary Boys Club hurling team who were first winner of the under 15 league in 1951. Photo published in The Evening Echo, June 27, 2008.
The Fr O’Leary Boys Club hurling team who were first winner of the under 15 league in 1951. Photo published in The Evening Echo, June 27, 2008.

Fr Pat, Jack O’Leary, Mr O’Halloran, Donal Burke, Larry Dineen, Fr Pat McCarthy, Michael Cahill and sons, Joe Nugent, the twins Denis and James Burke, Michael Higgins, Fr Ray O’Riordan, among many others, including stalwarts Bernard Spillane and John Ford who have been involved in the club for many years.

In the words of the late John R. O’Shea, former member of the Shandon Area History Group: “Fr O’Leary’s Boys Club was a wonderful training ground for young boys, giving discipline, pride and self confidence to hundreds of northsiders like me.

“I spent twenty years, boy and man, with Fr O’Leary’s. We were no more perfect than the youth of today, but our advantage was we had senior legionnaires known to us as ‘Brother’ who were just that. ‘Brothers’ who gave us their skills at everything, and I mean everything. Most of them have now passed on to their just rewards.”

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