BY PAT McCARTHY
‘VERY much one of the all-time greats,’ headlined a Noel Magnier interview with Denis Jer O’Donovan, published some time back, and those sentiments were resoundingly endorsed by the many who came to mourn the passing of the man whose name is synonymous with his beloved homeplace, Fisher’s Cross.
The bowling game at its highest level has traditionally brought forth men of great stature, men whose personalities transcend an age and whose achievements are enshrined in folklore. The pantheon would include Bill Bennet and Red Crowley from the 1930s, Liam O’Keeffe, Flor Crowley, Danny McParland and Mick Barry in the formative years of Bol Chumann, Sexton, Daly and Toal from the ’80s and ’90s and on to the current crop, Coppinger, Murphy, Mullins et al. Denis Jer O’Donovan is in such company.
His legend is built on the fact that he was one of the very few who could match and beat the great Mick Barry when the Waterfall man was at the height of his powers. Having attended Rathbarry National School, Denis settled to a life on the family farm and pub business and, being of athletic build, his sporting prowess both on the football fields with his native St James’ but, more noticeably, on the bowling roads of Milltown and Ardfield, were soon to the fore.
His reputation burgeoned in the early fifties when he defeated Flor Crowley, later to become Bol Chumann’s founding father and, at that time, a top senior. Denis was now heralded as a match for the very best.
His bowl-playing style exhibited a smooth stylish delivery that carried immense power and, allied to pinpoint accuracy and nerves of steel, he proved himself a formidable opponent on the bowling roads of his day. He commanded a large retinue of backers drawn from the Clonakilty-Ardfield area as well as from The Pike and Milltown.
His stock reached an all-time high when he defeated Mick Barry in the first round of the senior championship in a never-to-be-forgotten showdown before a crowd of thousands at Dublin Hill in 1954. Flor Crowley would write of that contest: ‘As far as one could judge, O’Donovan has the prefect temperament for one-man games; that stone-cold imperturbable temperament which nothing can ruffle or unbalance, for he takes no more notice of his own poor bowls than he does of his opponent’s long ones. Certainly, on Sunday he gave us such a superb display of cool determination, unwavering pluck and powerful finishing that we shall not forget for years.’
Unfortunately for Denis, he was subsequently beaten in that championship by Mick’s brother, Ned, and was destined never to win one. He lost out to Mick in another epic contest for the senior crown at Upton in 1962.
Noel Magnier would describe him as ‘the best player never to win the senior championship.’ It detracted nothing from his stature in the game.
He won countless tournaments – Pouladuff in 1957, Tinker’s Cross and The Miles in 1965, when he beat Barry in the semi-final, among them. Having retired in 1970, Denis re-emerged with spectacular success to contest the veteran (over 50s) and vintage (over 60s) championships. He claimed his first county title winning the veteran in 1986 when he defeated Donie Higgins at Templemartin and made it a double winning again in 1987 defeating Paddy Tattin at Ballyshonin.
Mick Barry loomed large in these championships and they enjoined in further fiercely-fought engagements. Denis won three vintage championships 1988, ’89 and ’92. On his way to winning in ’92, Denis defeated Mick in a thrilling duel at Dunderrow, but Mick won when they met in the final of 1994 at Crossbarry, a contest which proved to be Denis’s last score.
Denis was inducted into Bol Chumann’s Hall of Fame in 1992 and, on the nomination of his friend, Larry O’Sullivan, received the West Cork Sports Star Award for Bowling in 1993.
Throughout his long career, Denis always acknowledged the support given to him by his wife Kathleen and his close family circle. Denis kept abreast of the various goings-on in bowling right to the end, always interested, always encouraging and indeed attended several events throughout this past summer.
His funeral services were attended by many comrades from his playing days, friends and supporters for whom he played a special part in their lives. There were many too from the games current generation appreciative of the rich legacy he leaves behind.
Susan Greene, in her graveside oration, recounted highlights of his extraordinary career and described him as a ‘force of nature with a bowl in his hand.’ Denis was interred in Rathbarry Cemetery on Saturday last.
Sympathy was extended to sons, Denis, Jerry and John Joe, and daughter Bernie, and extended family.