A journey across country where I kept bumping into old friends

When John Arnold hit the road to the All Ireland Drama Finals in Athlone - he didn't anticipate meeting so many old friends
A journey across country where I kept bumping into old friends

Joe Dolan’s grave in Walshestown Cemetery, which John Arnold visited on his trek to Athlone for the Drama finals.

Does any man dream that a Gael can fear?

Of a thousand deeds let him learn but one!

And the Shannon swept onwards broad and clear

Between the leaguers and brave Athlone

THAT’S the opening verse of The Ballad Of Athlone by Aubrey de Vere, a poem I learned in National School nigh on 60 years ago. It has seven verses of four lines so ’twas easy enough to ‘learn it off by heart’ as we used to say.

Some time, in the 1970s, I recited it - well, some of it anyway, in a GAA Scor talent competition in Knockraha Hall. I think on the night our club was stuck for competitors and I was more or less pushed on stage in the Recitation section.

With no preparation or anything, I started well but…

The poem was written to commemorate a famous siege back in 1691 during the Williamite/Jacobite War in Ireland. The English Williamite forces had conquered large swathes of Leinster and were trying to go across the Shannon into Connacht. The Jacobite (Irish and French) forces tried to halt the enemy march in Athlone. They defended the town from attack by a 25,000 strong force under the command of the Dutchman baron de Ginkel.

The Irish were heroic and the poem tells how 12 of them tried to break down a wooden bridge over the Shannon to prevent the Williamites crossing. 

Ten of the men were shot dead and two survived, but they succeeded in smashing the bridge into the waters. The Jacobite leader, French General St Ruth declared (as in the poem) “I have seen no deed like that in France”.

Anyhow, that night onstage in Knockraha I was halfways into the fifth verse;

Again at the rocking planks they dashed

And four dropped dead and two remained...

and there I remained on the stage in solemn silence trying to think of the next lines, but no, ’twouldnt come to me, so I repeated the first four verses, took my bow, and departed fairly lively!

It’s a dramatic poem concerning dramatic events that took place in Athlone 331 years ago. It was in my head as I set off from home last Thursday before the Angelus bell rang at midday. En route to the opening night of the All Ireland Drama Finals in Athlone ,and I giddy with anticipation.

I was never one for the most direct route, and then again I was in no hurry as I had a long journey, but I had plenty time before I’d cross that historic bridge and arrive in County Roscommon.

I have a paranoid fear about travelling on motorways. Don’t get me wrong, the network around Ireland is wonderful, but I just cannot pas out a lorry or a bus if I’m on any motorway. It’s a silly fear, I realise, but I’m afraid if I go to overtake any long vehicle I’ll get squashed up against the central concrete barrier! I know it’s not rational, but even just driving along on any motorway if there was nothing only cars for company, I’d be on tenterhooks - radio off, windows closed, and a vice-like grip on the steering wheel.

So, off I went with a vagueish plan to arrive in Athlone around 7pm for ‘curtain up’ an hour later.

The thing I love about the ‘old Main Road’ is it’s so familiar and so varying whereas the motorway is the definition of boring and monotonous.

My first stop was in the village of New Inn in Tipperary. In the cemetery near the parish church I visited the grave of Garrett Dooley who died 15 years ago. Though six years younger than my father, they were bosom friends, growing up at either side of the National School. Though ‘exiled’ in the Premier County for decades, Garrett never forgot his roots and his native place - he never missed a point to Point Race meeting here as long as he was able.

At a ‘This Is Your Life’ function for the late Dick Barry, Garrett recalled during the war years a crowd going together to the pictures in Fermoy. The car ran out of petrol and they pushed it into a farmyard where it remained for months until ‘sufficient funds had been accumulated to purchase fuel’!

Garrett was a grand character - one of my four great, great grandmothers was a Dooley, probably related.

On then to the Mill Cemetery in Urlingford to kneel and say an Ave for Paddy O’Grady. I never met Paddy - he died in 1979 aged 73 - but growing up his name was often mentioned. He was the man who installed the bath and Rayburn cooker in our house before my parents wed in 1952. Just a few years back I ‘looked him up’ and had an emotional meeting with his daughter Margaret.

On with my journey. I had an old road map to give general directions - no satnav needed. Destination Mullingar was on my radar for about 5pm and then westwards to Athlone.

There I was heading into Durrow when I saw a tractor just ahead of me - could it be...? Yes, it was. I pulled in on the hard shoulder and the tractor driver was amazed to see me. It was my old Macra na Feirme friend, Padraig Walsh. He had been Macra president in the 1980s and later IFA President.

There we were by the roadside talking of days gone by, the shortage of rain (for grass), the war, and the GAA. His daughter is married near us.

Padraig pressed me hard to have a cuppa but I promised to call another day - a day less ‘crowded’.

Before Portlaoise, I headed off towards Tullamore and from there onto Mullingar. I parked up and went for a coffee in Dolans - opened by Joe and his brother Ben back in 1975. There was no sign of Ben in the crowded bar.

Who did I meet on the street outside, only Adrian Dolan, Ben’s son. We spoke at length - we had been to a ‘Joe Tribute Show’ just two weeks ago in Bantry. Adrian said Ben was relaxing on a holiday in Spain - at 88 he’s still ‘on the road’, playing the sax and singing - he was just brilliant in Bantry.

I bade goodbye to Adrian and headed out the Ballinacargy road to Joe’s grave in Walshestown Cemetery. Joe’s smiling face beams out from the marble headstone, God bless you and keep you, Joe.

Back across Westmeath then and spot on I arrived at the outskirts of Athlone just after the Angelus bell had sounded, very early indeed.

By-passes, ring roads and relief roads are mighty, but with a brutal sense of direction I knew I needed help. I rang the Shamrock Lodge where I was staying Thursday night. In fairness, the receptionist stayed on the mobile phone with me and guided me ‘home’. Up and down streets, left at the lights, straight on past Dunnes, the Church of Ireland on the right, keep on straight, over the famous Bridge, around by the castle, keep right up the hill beyond the Fiddlers bar, Walsh’s supermarket on the left, take the second left, and hey presto, there I was.

I met drama supporters from Kilmeen at the hotel - up for three days, oh I wish! The Drama finals take place each year in the Dean Crowe Theatre, literally a five minute walk from my ‘lodgings’. 

Since 1953, Athlone has been the annual mecca for drama aficionados from all over the country - save for foot and mouth and Covid years. 

Thursday was Opening Night so the Army Band gave an open air recital from 7pm onwards.

Back in the last century. when RTÉ radio in Cork had a separate station on air daily, I often met Tom Maguire on Leeside. Later promoted to Head of Radio One, Tom now lives just ‘out the road’ in Mount Temple so I got another invite to tea!

Palace Players from Kilworth/Fermoy opened the Festival with a brilliant production of Chapatti. A ‘two-hander’, and Sean and Mary were just amazing for Director Danny Buckley and, most importantly, the Adjudicator loved it. We had a great night/early morning in the Festival Club in the theatre - pure buzz and craic.

On Friday, I took the scenic way home via Birr, Roscrea, Thurles and the Glen of Aherlow!

After watching Cork and Kerry on Saturday and the Bartlemy Races on Sunday, I headed back to Athlone on Sunday evening. Madness, you may say, and you’d be correct, but lads, what lovely madness!

Ballyduff, directed by Ger Canning, were on stage with Rabbit Hole that night- another mesmeric theatrical experience. The Festival Club was mighty again!

I was on the road home before 8am on Monday, oh the joie de vivre, it’s what we live for.

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