MILLSTREET was left saddened during the past week on the tragic death of legendary sportsman Willie Neenan.
For more than 60 years, Willie engaged in competitive athletics, his power packed and consistent efforts impeccably displayed and distinct trails of a man known far and wide.
Willie became the first winner in an Irish singlet of the over 65 British and Irish International Cross Country Championship and some weeks earlier he broke the Irish record over the 800mtrs middle distance in the European Championships in Cesnatinico, Italy.
Synonymous with athletics in North Cork, Willie compared the successes of 1998 to 1983 when he collected a silver medal and just a half a second from outright gold in the over-50s 1500 metres in the Puerto Rico hosted World Championships.
"Puerto Rico gave me confidence to continue indefinitely as they were six men over 90 years competing," he once quipped.
Athletics for Willie Neenan began in the summer of 1951 when a group from Millstreet cycled to participate at an unrecognised meeting in Cullen called a flapper meet and won two events.
In difficult times, scarce money and no television, athletics became popular and during the summer training every night concluded with a swim in the river Blackwater.
Steadily Millstreet club began gaining a reputation. As a FCA member, Willie added the mile at the Southern Command and All Army Championships in addition to winning team medals with Millstreet and Cork at novice, junior and senior cross country.
County and Munster honours came thick and fast but a potentially glorious winning routine at national and international level was hampered in his occupation as an Artifical Inseminator that limited training for much of the spring and summer months.
His dedication to his profession won respect from the dairy farming community and his catchphrase "I must make a call" was well versed far and wide at any hour of the day.
Willie described Junior Cummins of the Army, Willie Webb, John Buckley, Fr. Dineen, Pat Coleman of Youghal and Ray Hodgins as the best competitors he participated against. The 60s saw a split in athletics and the Millstreet man formed a NACAI club in the North Cork town. Though the great Willie Keane of Clare denied him of a number of senior cross country titles, Willie Neenan captured the accolades of Best Athlete within the county.
Subsequently the introduction of the veteran categories acted as a further spur but illness kept Willie low for a time.
"I discovered my blood count was low, a week in hospital got matters right to what was nothing more than a good oil change", he recalled.
Again Willie blossomed in performances of steel and sterling qualities, holding the capacity to hold in with the best of company to clock up a consistent run of county, provincial and national titles on both the track and cross country culminating on a remarkable runner up placing in the World Championship in the heat of Puerto Rico in 1983 and in the previous year, he notched 2 hours and 39 minutes for the Dublin City Marathon.
His close friend and former American Athletics coach and manager Fr. Paddy O'byrne assisted his training programme. Willie was committed as ever to a rigorious training schedule that included weight and up to 50 miles outdoor training that took in terrain from hill running to such destinations as Mullaghanish to sessions on the flat in Millstreet Town Park.
Playing a pivotal role in the promotion of Millstreet Sports, he helped co-ordinate the annual National School sports day that allowed so many youngsters engage in the sport for the first time.
Willie was a delightful person to know and share company. A devoted family person, the Ballydaly and Millstreet communities are the poor for his passing
Holding a great interest in all matters recreational from GAA to rugby, Willie devoted many hours to athletics and promoting the sport but he never forgot his first love, his wife Marie and daughters Tina, Maeve, Claire and Denise. Willie made many friends during a glorious career and huge numbers turned up top pay their respects at his funeral and the fitting guards of honour bore testimony to a great ambassador of Ballydaly, Millstreet and sport in general.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dilis.