New book celebrates Fr Liam Kelleher's athletics passion and impact in Tullylease

Cork priest is well-known for his keen interest in sport
New book celebrates Fr Liam Kelleher's athletics passion and impact in Tullylease

Fr Liam Kelleher on his marks in Cobh. Picture: Des Barry

FORTY years ago, the little North Cork village of Tullylease made the sporting headlines with a number of athletics promotions attracting some of the world’s leading performers. 

Now, one of those fondly recalled meetings is the subject of a recently published novel written by Norfolk native Peter Duhig titled ‘When Irish Eyes Are Miling’.

When that energetic and legendary athletics personality Fr Liam Kelleher was transferred from Midleton to Tullylease in 1977, he immediately set about the task of building a running track. Just two years later, the then European and future Olympic champion Steve Ovett – with whom Fr Kelleher had built up a close friendship - was the star attraction at the inaugural meeting.

Although Ovett was unable to make it to the 1981 meet, the line-up on that August day in the featured one-mile event would gladden the heart of any promoter.

Athlete Steve Ovett breaking the tape to win the Peugeot Talbot Westminster Mile Race in London.
Athlete Steve Ovett breaking the tape to win the Peugeot Talbot Westminster Mile Race in London.

It boasted the likes of John Walker, 1976 Olympic 1500m champion and the first man to run a mile under 3:50; Eamonn Coghlan, fourth in that race and a heartbreaking fourth again over 5000m the previous year at the Moscow Olympics; and Ray Flynn who would set the Irish 1500m record the following year which still stands to this day.

Twice World Cross-Country champion John Treacy, along with Midleton’s Liam O’Brien and future indoor world champion Frank O’Mara, completed the star-studded line-up.

Coghlan won in 3:57.8 with Walker second in 3:58.2 and Flynn third in 3:59.7. To have three men break four minutes on what was just a shale surface was some achievement.

Peter Duhig, 71, is a founder of the Norfolk club Ryston Runners and was also the proprietor of a well-known medal and trophy business for many years. Since his retirement, he now lives in Spain and explains how the book came about.

“I have always wanted to write, I don’t know why, but the inspiration came from a few paragraphs in Pat Butcher’s book called ‘The Perfect Mile’ which is an account of the Seb Coe and Ovett rivalry. It mentioned an event that happened in Ireland that no one knew much about.

This caught my imagination and in trying to find out more I discovered the man who made it happen, an Irish Catholic priest. 

"I approached him by email and got an instant invite to visit him in Cork. Fascinated that he was willing to talk about it, my wife Cath and I went over for a long weekend to find him.

“The man lived an impossibly busy and full life, with coaching, friendships, his calling to the church and other personal interests. We had an unbelievably frantic weekend with only a couple of hours sleep; he was so hyperactive and had so many fingers in so many pies. We were shown the sight of the event I have written about and many other adventures in the two days we were there.

“I was totally inspired by him and knew I had to write the story. Unfortunately, I couldn’t write it as a true story, too many characters still alive, and it needed a bit of imagination added to it. 

"So it stuck in my head and festered there for around eight years until the pandemic of 2020 came along. With nothing to distract me I started to get it down on paper. Once I got past the reality and started my version it flowed fairly easily.” 

FR LEO

The story covers the live of the fictitious ‘Fr Leo’ and his desire to be an athlete and a coach and do justice to his calling to the church. It takes him on an exciting journey from the depths of local athletics to an association with the stars of the sport.

And, significantly, it has got the full blessing of the real ‘Fr Leo’. 

“I got the original draft from Peter to read and see if I approved. I had no hesitation, the essence of the book is factual although maybe not some of Fr Leo's escapades, but I have no problem with that,” said Fr Kelleher.

“Fr Liam loves it,” adds Peter Duhig. “He and says he wishes he had written it himself. I hope people recognise the stars despite the names being changed. 

"I feel very relieved to have got it printed, and I have to say a little proud of myself. Everyone thinks my version of events would make a great film. Personally I have always seen it in my head as a film, but had to get it down on paper first.

“It is a feelgood story that I think anyone can appreciate, they don’t need to be an athlete or sportsperson. If you like a good story I feel you will enjoy this.”  

Tullylease – When Irish Eyes Are Miling’ is available on Amazon.

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