Jim O'Brien: Showing what can be done: an ordinary rural community doing extraordinary things

Jim O'Brien

Jim O'Brien

The strength and vitality of their social and sporting life is often used to measure the health and sustainability of rural communities. We are accustomed to hearing stories of places that were once home to thriving GAA clubs now having to amalgamate with a string of neighbouring clubs to field a team.

It is heartening to hear of exceptions. Recently, a place dear to my heart in the Slieve Bloom mountains completed a remarkable rise through the ranks of county GAA achievement, becoming the only dual-code senior club in the county.

Some feat for a club that 11 years ago did not own its own pitch.

Rosenallis is a parish of 600 souls in the north-west corner of Laois, one of a necklace of villages dotted around the foothills of the Slieve Blooms. It has two primary schools, one in the village of Rosenallis and one that rejoices in the gorgeous name of Derrylamogue, 'the wood of young Liam'.

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There are two churches - one Roman Catholic, one Church of Ireland - plus a Methodist chapel where the great John Wesley is reputed to have preached. The parish is home to thriving Church of Ireland and Catholic communities, while two community halls cater for all kinds of occasions.

The nearest town, Mountmellick, is 6km away, with Portlaoise about 15km.

The locality benefited from the boom years with a plethora of builders and tradespeople, large and small, able to commute from home to building sites north, south, east and west. However, the bust took a heavy toll.

Back in 2007 there was a rising sense of energy and a new optimism in the community.

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There was a growth in self-belief as locals, who could trace their indigenous ancestry back to the ancient septs of Laois (or the armies of O'Neill and O'Donnell), worked shoulder to shoulder with newcomers who arrived knowing no-one but quickly decided to call this place home.

The Lehmans collapse and the Anglo Irish Bank implosion of 2008 didn't daunt Rosenallis GAA club. They bought their own pitch that year, and as the world fell apart they set about building their place of dreams. A hillside field was levelled, drained, sanded and stitched with new grass, while second-hand prefabs were beaten into changing rooms and meeting spaces.

Lights were installed, generators were bought, and after dark, as the young were put through their paces on the beautiful green sod, the grey-haired and less supple of limb gazed amazed at this miracle of the night that could be seen for miles around.

All this took place between 2008 and 2012 during the depths of the recession. Up to €450,000 was found, and often hard found, to make it happen.

The real work continued with the U-6s, U-8s, U-10s, U-12s and right up to the Junior Bs where skinny teens in oversized jerseys mixed it with the trundling heroes of yesteryear.

Sewn into jerseys, these vintage footballers and hurlers promised their wives this would be the last year the smell of Deep Heat would pollute the bed.

The work paid off as confidence blossomed, skills grew, and silverware, adorned with green and white, was paraded through the village with increasing regularity.

"We concentrated on the important things, the games, the playing facilities and training," explains club chairman Mick Lennon, originally from south Armagh.

"We've got great people working at all levels of the club."

They continued to look to the important things, purchasing and developing a training pitch in 2015, and only now are they turning their attention to building a club house.

The concentration on the games and the skills has delivered big time. The U-6s, U-8s, U-10s and U-12s of 2008 blossomed to deliver a junior football county title and Leinster title in 2016.

Most recently, in a two-week period in October, Rosenallis joined the ranks of both senior football and senior hurling in the county.

Rosenallis is a typical rural parish with a mix of farmers, tradespeople, teachers, job-seekers, nurses, entrepreneurs, home-makers, engineers, public servants, business people, students, pupils and golden oldies.

This ordinary rural community has done extraordinary things. It shows what can be done.

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