Castlehaven legend O’Neill gave lifetime of service to the GAA and his community

May 30th, 2023 2:00 PM

By Tom Lyons

The late James O'Neill, Castlehaven.

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WHEN club historian Bernard O’Callaghan gets around to writing part two of the Castlehaven GAA story, there is no doubt that one of the most important chapters will be dedicated to the memory of James O’Neill, a man who gave a lifetime of service not only to his local GAA club but to the GAA in Carbery and Cork county.

It was not on the playing fields that the Myross-Union Hall legend made his reputation but in the boardrooms of the Haven, Carbery and Cork.

His contribution over the past 50 years as an officer and delegate has rarely been equalled. James was never content to be just an officer in name only but was central to many positive changes at club, divisional and county levels.

Born in 1936, his beloved club was only emerging from lowly junior B when he took over the position of secretary in 1975. During the past half century, including the positions of chairman, vice-president, committee member, club delegate and trustee, he not only watched his club rise to the pinnacle of Cork and Munster football but was centrally involved in that progress, including the purchase and development of the outstanding facilities at Moneyvolihane and the development of the Black Field in Union Hall.

‘James O’Neill was an amazing GAA man, an amazing Castlehaven man,’ said present Castlehaven chairman Anthony Walsh. ‘Born and bred in Myross and living in the home place, working in the local creamery, he was Castlehaven through and through. He would never miss a meeting of the club unless he was at a GAA meeting somewhere else and he attended his last club meeting the week before he died. He was an active committee member right up to the end.

‘At meetings James was always cool under pressure, always planning ahead, giving advice, looking for ways to develop the club. And he was a fierce man for the rules, knew the rule book inside out.’

Having become a delegate for his club to the South West Board, James was never content to sit in the back rows but was soon seated at the top table, serving as chairman (1998-99), treasurer (2000-2010), development officer (1992-1997) and eventually president (2011-2013). During his time as a Carbery officer, he won the admiration and trust of all clubs. Always cool under pressure, he was never known to raise his voice in argument but had a great way of defusing controversial situations.

‘James was an inspiration to us all,’ said current chairperson of the Carbery Board, Aidan O’Rourke. ‘He gave a lifetime of service to our board, he encouraged lots of us to get involved as officers and was always on hand with advice and guidance. His commitment down the years was incredible. A great man is gone from us.’

When James became his club’s delegate to the county board, a position he held for many years, often making the long journey to the city in the company of Noel Kearney of Skibbereen and Kieran Hegarty and Tim Downey of Clonakilty, he soon landed at the top table as cultural officer. He had a great love of the Irish language and Irish culture and was never slow to use the cúpla focail when possible. He was a great supporter of the Scór competitions in West Cork.

‘I got to know James in the 70s and we soon became solid friends,’ said former treasurer of the county board, Piaras Ó Murchú. ‘He was secretary of the Castlehaven club and I was secretary of Adrigole. Our clubs often played each other, being in the same grade. Later on, Adrigole found it difficult to get matches to play as there were only a handful of clubs in Beara. James was chairman of the Carbery Board at the time and I asked him if it would be possible for Adrigole to play in the Carbery leagues. “Leave it with me,” said James and sure enough, the Beara teams were allowed in. The Carbery-Beara league has now been running for the past 25 years, a great legacy to James’s foresight.’

A dedicated parish member, he was a staunch member of the local church and was a great source of local history in the area. His involvement in many local organisations, including Myross Rowing Club, was always treasured by members, to whom he became a father-figure in later years. No job was too big or too small for him and his advice was always welcome.

Being practically married to the GAA, it is little wonder that James’s family followed in his footsteps. His beloved wife Anne was constantly by his side, attending all Castlehaven games and many Cork matches. They were always immensely proud of any Haven player who wore the red of Cork and made no secret of their pride in their achievements. Anne also served as an officer of the club. His sons, Seán, Séamus and Mícheál, all wore the Haven jersey and the oldest, Seán replaced his father as county board delegate, building his new house in Myross to ensure another generation of O’Neill’s in the locality. Mary, daughter of James, is an avid GAA supporter, never missing a Haven match.

The large crowds that turned up at the funeral in Myross and at the Mass on Saturday at the church in Union Hall, from all walks of life, not only the GAA, were testament to the esteem in which James was held by all who knew him. He will be a huge loss not only to his native Myross/Union Hall and to Castlehaven GAA but to the GAA in general.

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