He is one of the most recognisable figures in Carbery GAA, having given a lifetime of service, and it was fitting that Bill Harte was honoured with a President’s GAA Award. TOM LYONS sat down with the Carbery Rangers legend this week to chat all things GAA
BILL Harte of Carbery Rangers joined an unique group last weekend when he travelled to Croke Park to be presented with a President’s GAA Award by president of the GAA, Aogán Ó Fearghail.
The awards are presented each year to 12 unsung heroes of the GAA, the men and women who give years of voluntary and extraordinary service to the association and do it simply for their great love for the GAA.
A sprightly 76 year-old, Bill has dedicated his life to the GAA in many different ways. As a young lad in Rosscarbery in the tough 1940s, there was little opportunity to play football and there were no underage competitions below minor level.
Bill recalls as a 13-year-old waiting in Rosscarbery Square for the U16 football team to return to the town after winning the South West final in 1954, the team having travelled to the match in the back of a lorry. It was the beginning of a new era for the Rangers and Bill played his bit but admits he was never too happy with the ball in his hands. There were other ways to show his great interest in football.
‘Jimmy McCarthy, the teacher, was the man who took us for football, once a week training,’ Bill recalled.
‘His father, John, had come to Ross in the early years of the century as a teacher, having won a Dublin county medal with the teacher training college in Dublin, Erin’s Hopes. Jimmy also won a medal with Erin’s Hopes. My father died in 1954 and Jimmy was very good to me. I was an only child.’
At 16 years of age, in 1957, he attended his first South West Convention in Glandore, along with Denis Hayes and got to meet the chief characters in West Cork GAA in those years.
‘We weren’t the official delegates from Ross, we just tagged along to see what was happening. Lar Shea from Clonakilty was elected chairman, Gus Keohane of Enniskeane was the secretary and Peadar Williams of Glandore was the treasurer,’ he recalled.
‘The following year, Gus stepped down and they had a tough job replacing him as secretary. Eventually, they persuaded Tadhg Ó Néill of Clonakilty to take the job but Lar Shea had to step down as chairman then because clubs were allowed only one officer on the executive.
‘Twas as hard to get officers back then as it is now.’
Hard times struck the country in the 1950s and emigration was the order of the day. Luckily for the GAA Bill got a job locally as and never strayed too far from home.
‘At that young age I was also acting as an umpire for one of the most charismatic GAA men in the division, Paddy Kelly NT, of Ross. I learned a lot of useful tricks from Kelly,’ he said.
In 1963, at only 22 years of age, he took over a secretary of the independent minor team in Ross, St Fachtna’s, a position he held until independent teams were done away with in the 1990s.
‘I had already begun to referee underage games in the early sixties and was lucky to go on to carve out a very enjoyable refereeing career at a time when many games were played in farmers’ fields and the crowd wasn’t kept off the pitch by wire. I think I refereed in every club field in West Cork down the years,’ Bill said.
There were scary moments and controversial ones and Bill remembers well being catapulted in to referee the highly volatile junior game between Bandon and Skibbereen in 1964, the year of the infamous Ned Roche case. He got the princely sum of £1 for expenses that day and was expected to feed and water his umpires and linesmen from that. Of course those were the days when a half a crown bought three pints and Bill himself never indulged.
‘When I eventually retired from refereeing, I took on the job of mentoring the young referees in the division on behalf of the board and one of my protégés was Michael Collins, who went on to referee an All-Ireland senior football final. I was delighted with that,’ he said.
Bill himself, was no stranger to Croke Park, acting as steward in the old stadium on many occasions. When the authorities in Thurles had a problem with seat numbers, it was Bill and Danny Warren who found a solution for them.
‘I have been attending board meetings at underage, junior and senior levels since the early 1960s and was the Carbery delegate to the new county minor board in the early 1990s, being appointed to the GPC and the CCC. Con Murphy was the man who started the new minor board, he was a great man. Cork won three All-Ireland hurling titles in a row when he was President of the GAA,’ Bill added.
In the off-season, the beagles and the hounds took Bill’s attention, and he has fond memories of his first dog, Sputnik, in 1960, but he found a new outlet for his GAA activity in winter when he became a founder member of the West Cork Scór committee 1969, going on to represent Cork at many Scór meetings at national level.
He has been a member of Scór ever since and recently travelled to Belfast to support the West Cork representatives in the All-Ireland Scór na nÓg finals.
‘Some of the clubs are very good at supporting Scór, especially the rural clubs but a lot never bother. My own club, Carbery Rangers, always make a big effort. The towns, bar Dunmanway, could do a lot more. It’s been great to meet so many people involved in Scór but I don’t know how long more it will last, which is a pity,’ Bill said.
On the club scene, there was no job too big or too small for his beloved Carbery Rangers and, with Henry O’Donovan, Paddy Kelly, Fr McGrath and Mick O’Mahony, he was instrumental in buying the ‘Court Field’ in Rosscarbery in 1970, which became the headquarters of the club for many years.
He was also vitally involved in producing the club history book written by Mick O’Mahony and is a mine of information on local history and local families. His ability to connect various families is simply amazing.
Bill’s life wasn’t all a bed of roses as he raised a family of five, four girls and one boy and in 1997 the family suffered a near-disastrous house fire. Bill was lucky to escape with his life that night, taking long months to recuperate but despite the setbacks, his dedication and wonderful commitment to the GAA, with the full support of his family, never wavered.
Bill acted as selector on so many teams he has lost count but proudly shows the memento he received as a selector with the Carbery senior football team that won the county title in 1971. Now he is happy to watch his own beloved Rangers campaigning in senior ranks and was one of the proudest men in Páirc Uí Rinn last October when the county senior title was won for the very first time. It was a long journey from junior B to senior champions and Bill has been there every step of the way.
Also sitting on the sideboard is the splendid trophy he received when selected for the prestigious West Cork Buckley Financial GAA Services Award in 2013. He was prouder still in 2013 when he was appointed President of the Carbery Division for three years, following in the footsteps of great GAA men like his fellow Ross man Johnny Tobin, Andy O’Neill of Bandon and Seán Crowley of Bandon.
Bill became the first South West president to receive the new president’s medal, specially commissioned to honour the 1916 rising last year and now it is joined by the President’s pin he received in Croke Park last week.
‘We had a great weekend in Dublin. They put us up in the Croke Park Hotel and the ceremony was in Croke Park itself. There was a dozen recipients of President’s Awards and it was great to rub shoulders with all the big boys,’ he smiled.
One thing for certain, all the honours and medals, so richly deserved for a life-time of service and dedication to the GAA, won’t change Bill Harte one iota. He will always be the same amiable character, full of stories and yarns of the past and only too willing to share them with anybody who takes a minute to listen.
A walking encyclopaedia on all matters GAA, especially in West Cork for the past 60 years, and all the great characters involved, Bill Harte is your quintessential GAA volunteer who has kept the association in the forefront of sporting organisations in this country. Go mba fada buan é.