Thursday 19 July 2018

A loyal and dedicated Wicklow Gael


Getting the hump! Jackie Napier and Mick Hagan enjoying some exotic activities during the Wicklow team holiday to Lanzarote
Getting the hump! Jackie Napier and Mick Hagan enjoying some exotic activities during the Wicklow team holiday to Lanzarote
Jackie Napier with referee David Hughes and London GAA Chairman Tommy Harrell ahead of the 2012 Christy Ring Cup final in Croke Park

Brendan Lawrence

Reclining in his comfortable armchair in the cosy sitting room of his home in Kilcoole recently, Jackie Napier was ready to take us on a journey through his lifetime spent within Wicklow GAA.

It's a few weeks out since Wicklow's Mr. Hurling was presented with his President's Award at a special shindig in Croke Park, an honour deeply appreciated and treasured by the Bray Emmets stalwart.

Attempts to have a sit-down with Jackie prior to the big night were met with lines like, "ah, would you leave it until afterwards? Wouldn't that be the best thing?" The limelight doesn't truly sit well with Jackie Napier. The Wicklow GAA administrative legend is truly at home at the coalface - standing on the sideline in Aughrim or Arklow or his beloved Old Conna, maintaining order, keeping notes, recording the moment on paper and in his vast vault of a brain for future reference.

If not the sideline, then Jackie is equally at home in the boardroom having spent decades involved at club, district, county, provincial and national level across a wealth of committees and causes. Fond of a quip, from the top table or the floor, adept at forcing home a point or raising an issue, clinical in his research, confident in his facts, when Jackie Napier speaks the room listens.

High points from the career of Jackie are as plentiful as there are young hurlers in Bray, and perhaps that is the highest point of all from a lifetime spent in the service of his beloved north Wicklow town, once seen as impoverished in terms of the small ball game.

After decades of winters and springs spent travelling the highways and byways of Ireland with Wicklow teams, the summers with his club would flash by in a brutal hurry as the Bray Emmets hurlers would exit championships with little more than a whimper having fallen from Senior in the mid-60s to the depths of Junior where they languished until the Junior 'A' win of 1990.

Several key pieces of the Bray Emmets jigsaw fell into place that allowed them to emerge from the doldrums and take their place at the top table of Wicklow club hurling. Jackie says that during the dark times he never thought that glorious day in October 2014 would ever happen.

"Never thought it would happen. We went from a Senior team to a bad Junior team over the course of a few years," said Jackie. "When we won Junior in 1963, there was no Intermediate, so we went Senior. We stayed Senior for a few years and then went back Junior and went really low Junior then. "We won a couple of Junior 'B's and lower grades of Junior and then in 1990 we won the Junior 'A' and went up Intermediate and then won the Intermediate. But the Minors were the real stepping stones to that. Since 2004 to present they have won nine Minor championships: 2004, 05, 06, three-in-a-row, lost out in 2007, 2008, 09, 10, three-in-a-row, 2012 and 13 and 2017, that's nine. The fruits of that had to come through at some stage.

"The day we won the Senior, the 2013 final that we lost, we had a man sent off in the wrong, we were 11 minutes without a player, we should have won it but for what would I call it, a mistake by the referee, or his linesman or whatever, we were in with a great chance of winning it. Came back then in 2014 and we had a man sent off and I thought that had put the tin hat on it, but no, we came back and won it. Leighton (Glynn) missed the free to equalise. I think that was a magic moment, to bring the cup back to Bray.

"In 1952 in Arklow I was a boy. Joe Butler brought me and there was no cup that day. There were no nets either. Avondale disputed whether a ball went over the bar or under it, but Bray won by more than that in the end.

So, what was the secret? How did Bray Emmets achieve the dream?

"A hurling plan set out by the club. They said they were going to win a Minor by such a year. It sounded crazy at the time because we were coming from a very low base.

"The Kilkenny man (John Henderson) had a big say in that. He had been there, and he had done that. He knew how to handle players as well, how to talk to them. He could say things to them that I couldn't say or that you couldn't say, and he could get away with it. They had marvellous respect for him.

"Look, put it this way, I don't think we would have won Senior titles or Minor titles without him. Pat Lee did great work as well, and so did Tom Walsh, a great friend of mine, the late Tom Walsh. He was in Bray since 1957. We were there when we had half a team, we were there when we had good teams, we were there when we had fair teams and it was great that he was there when we won the Senior championship. He died the following year," he added sadly.

Jackie Napier's love, nay, adoration of the game of hurling has brought him to almost every corner of Ireland (and plenty in England, too) as a member of the backroom teams of Wicklow panels from as far back as the 1960s.

A Tipperary man instilled a passion for the game in a young Jackie Napier and plenty other young Bray lads when he took them hurling in People's Park after moving to the seaside town to open a chemist shop.

"Joe Butler, he hurled for Dublin in the 1948 All-Ireland Senor hurling final, he was a Tipperary man," recalls Jackie. "He came to Bray and opened a chemist shop in Sutton Villas. He got a whole lot of kids in the area out into the People's Park on the Lower Dargle Road and he coached them in hurling.

"He was a member of the Bray Emmets team that won the Senior championship in 1952. He brought me to the match. He lived around the corner from me. He was playing centre half-back.

"Times got bad. He was a very generous man and business didn't go to well, so he emigrated to Kenya in Africa in 1955 and he was the man who got me involved in hurling," he said.

Jackie's playing days were short enough, however, with a Junior crown in 1963 being the highlight. A Minor final defeat to Glenealy prior to that also stung the young Napier while a proud finger points out a newspaper cutting from 1957 where the headline 'Last-minute Goal Beat Kilcroney' sits atop an article that describes how a late goal from Bray's Jackie Napier proved the all-important score in a thrill-a-minute under-16 hurling game on a Tuesday evening. Jackie is philosophical when it comes to his playing limitations and possessed the wisdom to understand where his true talents lay.

"Got to a Minor final and were beaten by Glenealy. We won the Junior in 1963. I made up football teams and hurling teams after that, but I was never good enough to make the county, let's put it like that," he said.

Jackie has accrued a vast library of yarns and anecdotes from his decades of travelling with Wicklow hurling teams and a brief visit to his beautiful home in Kilcoole only serves to barely skim over the top.

From Wicklow hurling in Wembley in 1968 to riding on camels with Mick Hagan on the Wicklow team holiday in Lanzarote to the countless overnight stays and bus journeys to every single county in the country, if someone could get Jackie to sit down and spill the beans they would have a serious exposé of craic and banter and mischief on their hands.

The Wembley trip was special to Jackie, as it was to all the Wicklow players at that time.

"We had played London in the 1967 All-Ireland final, draw in Aughrim and replay in Kilkenny. London invited us to play in the Whit Tournament in Wembley the following Whit, which was June 1, 1968," he recalls.

"The County Board said at the time that we couldn't go, there was no money. So, Billy Lawless ran jumble sales and coffee mornings - although there was probably no coffee back then - he ran various functions anyway and we travelled to Wembley anyway. Manchester United had won the European Cup on the Wednesday, so we were the next game to be played there, Wicklow v London.

"Arrangements were made to get a cheap flight. Billy's brother, Joe, who lived in Dublin and knew someone in Aer Lingus, got us a return flight for five pounds each. We had to go at 1am in the morning from Dublin and, being the Whit weekend, not return until the 11pm on the Monday. The match was on Saturday at 2pm, Wexford and Cork played after, and Mayo and Meath played football after that. There was something in excess of 40,000 at the tournament, most of them exiles from different parts of Britain.

"Mrs O'Sullivan, who was previously an O'Neill from Glenealy, treated us to a banquet afterwards and a good time was had by all until 11pm on the Monday night. We stayed in guest houses in Finsbury Park in London. We were beaten by a point; 1-18 to 1-17 I think. Eamon Murray was playing against us. Jim Kearns and Tom Scott couldn't go. Jim was in the Congo and I'm not sure about Tom Scott, he couldn't go anyway, but Jack Kilbride and Jimmy Hatton replaced them. I don't think either of them played, but they replaced them on the panel," he added.

His highlights from a lifetime of watching Wicklow hurling teams include the All-Ireland Senior 'B' victory in 2003 and the Under-21 'B' All-Ireland Championshi win which, unfortunately, Jackie missed.

"They eventually won the Senior 'B' in 2003 after three or four attempts in a final. It was nice to win that. The 1967 and 71 All-Irelands of course. Minor All-Ireland sin 1967, 74, and the Minor 'B'.

"Unfortunately for the under-21 win (2015) I wasn't there. The lady of the house had made arrangements to go on holidays and I was away. I celebrated that night, though, I can tell you that," said Jackie.

And so, it was on to Croke Park only a few weeks ago to collect his deserved President's Award. It will come as no surprise to those that know Jackie Napier that he wonders why it was him who was selected from the myriad of volunteers from all over the country.

"When you think about all the volunteers around the country keeping the game going, you'd have to ask yourself why I was singled out. I don't know why, but it was a nice surprise to get. Aogán, the GAA President, a very nice man, he was very nice to the family on the night.

"What do you say, like? There are people all over the country who have never been rewarded. It was some honour to be singled out at national level.

"There were four tables of 12 up there (supporting Jackie). It was nice to have the support I had on the night. It was nice to have my family there as well.

"A word to for the hotel, Alan Smullen is the manager of the Jury's Croke Park Hotel, Croke Park gave us a room for two for the night. I wanted the son and daughter to be there as well. I rang Alan to see how much it would cost and he said to me, "a friend of my grandfather's, Jimmy Smullen, how could I charge him?" And he left a box of chocolates and all the trimmings in the room for Josie and Mary".

If ever a man deserved awards and plaudits then Jackie Napier is surely that man. He carries with him the rich history of Wicklow hurling and who better to hold that treasure than Mr. Hurling himself.

A man for all seasons - and positions!

Jackie Napier's career in administration would be hard matched to be fair.

At the young age of 13, in 1955, the Bray Emmets man was the club's juvenile secretary and he came in for praise in a Wicklow People report on a juvenile semi-final of that year.

From that early start, Jackie moved on to various roles in Bray Emmets, the North County Board, the Wicklow County Board and onwards to Leinster Council and Central Council.

In the Garden County, Jackie has served as PRO, chairperson and vice chairperson of the hurling board, secretary and committee member.

He has enjoyed roles on a vast array of committees including: Management, discipline, historical, millenium, transfers and regrading, development, county coaching and games, referees, administration, Scór, finance, county team selection, the Hurling Board, all grades of underage.

He has also achieved foundation and level one coaching qualifications.

Jackie has been elected many times to represent his county at the annual GAA Congress and is held in very high esteem right across the country.

The Bray native also holds the distinction of being the Wicklow GAA delegate to congress on the occasion of the elections of GAA President Hugh Byrne and GAA President Jack Boothman, both from Wicklow, and was Wicklow's delegate on the day that Jimmy Dunne was elcted as a trustee of the GAA.

Jackie also played a huge role in the putting together of the Leather's Echo - a publication that remains unmatched in this county in terms of historical importance and accuracy.

Bray People