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LAST WORD COLUMN: Riobard O’Dwyer lived a life less ordinary

February 9th, 2020 2:00 PM

By Kieran McCarthy

The late Riobard O'Dwyer, centre, chatting with Cork County GAA Chairperson Tracey Kennedy and Beara GAA Chairman Jim Hanley, at the launch of the division's website at Berehaven Lodge in July 2018.

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IT’S one of my regrets. In July 2018, I floated the idea of an interview with Riobard O’Dwyer, a chat about his life less ordinary.

He gave it the green light, but asked to defer it for a while as his wife, Joan, was ill at the time. We agreed to come back to it at some point, but unfortunately we never did.

That’s a regret, as Riobard’s life and times are worth remembering and celebrating – because he was a remarkable man.

He passed away last month after a short illness.

Riobard’s story deserves to be told. This was a man who was born in Detroit, Michigan on May 30th, 1932, and was just three-years-old when his parents, Liam and Ella Mae, returned to Ireland and settled in Ardgroom. This was close to his father’s home place in Caolrua.

Once Riobard’s little feet touched Beara soil in 1935, life on the peninsula changed for the better.

When he passed, he held the title of Beara GAA President. But he was Beara’s unofficial president too.

In August 2018, a heavy brown envelope arrived in the post to Southern Star HQ in Skibbereen. On the top left sat a silver sticker: Riobard and Joan O’Dwyer, Eyeries Village, Co Cork, Ireland.

Inside was Riobard’s life story, written by the man himself, three A4 pages bursting with information – and these were just the highlights.

He also included clippings of features in The Southern Star from June 1987 and the Cork Examiner in January 1995. One headline read ‘Beara’s living legend’, the other, ‘A Beara man of many parts’.

There was also a copy of Riobard’s book, 50 Years of Beara Football, enclosed, signed by the man himself on page one: ‘To Kieran, with my best wishes, Riobard.’ That still has pride of place in my office.

Later that day, an email arrived. It was Riobard. (At the time he was 85 years old, yet he was more efficient on email than most). He was checking that the post had arrived, and, when we’d agree on a suitable date later down the line, he added, ‘You are heartily welcome to come down to Eyeries when you have finished all this – and I'll also play a few tunes on the accordion.’

We never got around to that chat and I never got to listen to him on the accordion, but we can celebrate his amazing life. He was a husband, a father, a brother, a grandfather, a friend, an athlete, a footballer, an author, a musician, a genealogist, a teacher – he was so many things to so many people.

The words of Cork GAA Chairperson Tracey Kennedy at the launch of the Beara GAA website in July 2018 spring to mind.

‘Riobard is an extraordinary man who has given a lifetime of service to the GAA, particularly in Beara, and since I met him has been an inspiration to me as well,’ Kennedy said, to a loud round of applause at a packed room in the Berehaven Lodge in Castletownbere.

The main photo on this page was taken that night and as Riobard’s smile lights up the photo, it also lit up that launch. His enthusiasm was incredible, but his was a life less ordinary.

When he was seven years old he landed his first job, gathering the admission fee of six pence at the door of the new dance hall for his father and mother who were playing the accordion, fiddle and concertina up on stage. A year later, Riobard was up on stage playing the accordion, swapping places with his father. Riobard’s accordion playing is legendary in Beara and beyond. He would play the national anthem, too, at the end of Beara GAA conventions – and his fingerprints are all over Beara GAA.

In his younger days, he played left-half forward and enjoyed success with his local clubs, St Mary’s and Urhan, after also winning a Corn Uí Mhuirí with Rochestown College in 1950.

Then he moved further back the field and stood between the posts – he was in goal for Beara when the division won its only Kelleher Shield in 1960 and when they won the 1967 county senior football championship and then Munster senior title as well.

Riobard was also involved in the administrative side of the GAA and was Beara secretary on three different occasions.

Athletics was another of his sporting loves, stemming from his days attending Ardgroom National School when he competed in his bare feet. He went on to win seven All-Ireland hop, step and jump senior medals, including five-in-a-row (1952-56); he was a champion athlete.

One of his All-Ireland medals was won in Belfast. This was during The Troubles. Riobard’s medal was confiscated crossing the border, but he got it back the following year.

When he won the Wexford hop, step and jump championship – he was teaching in the county at the time – the Beara man jumped two feet over the edge of the pit! It’s a record that has never been broken.

When Riobard founded Ardgroom Athletics Club in 1955, he was its sole member until his younger brother Sean joined five years later. Sean himself was a terrific athlete and won six All-Ireland hop, step and jump medals and three All-Ireland long jump medals. The two brothers competed against one another too at All-Ireland level; in 1963 in Killarney, Sean taking the title after a jump of over 49 feet. The next year, as Sean attempted to equal Riobard’s five-in-a-row record, Riobard won, by a single inch.

Away from sports, his interest in genealogy is legendary and he spent 50 years researching the family trees of every parish in the Beara peninsula, covering almost 200 years; that’s an incredible accomplishment alone.

Riobard was such an influential figure in all aspects of life in Beara, from his sporting background to his work as a primary school teacher that stretched to almost four decades, from his passion for music to his amazing feats in genealogy.

We’ve only just touched on some of the highlights here, and it seems if we had arranged for that interview, I would have settled in for a good few hours to listen and learn from a man who accomplished more in his lifetime than most can ever dream of.

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