Wednesday 13 December 2017

'Aughrim? I'd prefer to forget about that ambush' - Mick Dempsey

Combatants recall infamous 1986 battle that still makes Laois 'uncomfortable'.

Referee Carthage Buckley sends off Wicklow's Nick O'Neill and Laois's Willie Brennan during the 1986 Leinster SFC at Aughrim. Photo: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Referee Carthage Buckley sends off Wicklow's Nick O'Neill and Laois's Willie Brennan during the 1986 Leinster SFC at Aughrim. Photo: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Mick Dempsey: 'You make me feel uncomfortable bringing up the word 'Aughrim.' Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Long before he became a familiar figure sprinting around the perimeters on match day in his role as Kilkenny's hurling fitness coach and selector, a role that will take him into his 10th championship campaign this summer, Mick Dempsey was a Laois footballer of some renown.

Success largely evaded the O'Moore County in his playing days.

Laois were caught between the tides of Dublin's second coming under Kevin Heffernan towards the middle of the 1980s and Meath's renaissance under Sean Boylan at the latter end of that decade.

But a small of window of opportunity did briefly present itself for Laois during that transfer of provincial power.

Laois beat Meath by 10 points in a Leinster championship match in 1985, threatening Boylan's future as Royal manager after just three years in charge.

The following year Laois claimed the league title and followed it with a challenge match victory over Kerry at the official opening of O'Moore Park in Portlaoise.

All their ducks, it seemed, were in a row. Enthusiasm and ambition were high as they looked to a first Leinster title in 40 years.

Then they went to play Wicklow in a Leinster quarter-final in June. And one of the most picturesque venues in the country would gain legendary status as the GAA's own 'Battle of Aughrim' took on a life of its own.

It was the GAA at its very best and very worst all in one afternoon.

Four players were sent off, the referee couldn't leave his changing-room for a long time afterwards and the wind was knocked from the sails of Laois football for years.

"You make me feel uncomfortable even bringing up the word 'Aughrim'," laughs Dempsey at the memory of it now. "I'd prefer to forget about that.

"We got ambushed. That was probably the game that created the aura of Aughrim," acknowledged Dempsey, who was at midfield that day.

But with Laois returning there on Sunday for a championship match for the first time since '86, forgetting about it may be a little difficult this week.

Circumstances have changed. It won't be nearly as raucous or as intimidating for the visitors 28 years on.

The ropes that formed the pitch perimeter in O'Byrne Park that day have been replaced by proper fencing, and the walk from the dressing-rooms for the players no longer involves crowd dispersion as it did that day as 12,000 crammed in.

Health and safety regulations have reduced the capacity to just 4,500.

Tom Prendergast, another Laois victim of the 'ambush' that day, hopes the dressing-rooms are bigger than they were back then.

"I remember the subs having to stand outside in the corridor when Kieran Brennan (then Laois manager) was delivering his pre-match speech," recalls Prendergast.

A few other aspects of the day that stand out in Prendergast's mind – the heat and the proximity of the crowd hugging the sidelines.

TOUGH

"Some were sitting right on top of us. But I wouldn't have said it was intimidating. On the field it was tough, no question," he remembers.

Prendergast admits that the momentum generated by the league triumph was lost in the aftermath of Aughrim.

The striking statistic of that day was that not one of the six starting forwards for Laois finished the match, at a time when only three substitutes were permitted.

Prendergast was one of three sent off.

Graiguecullen team-mates Willie Brennan and Christy Maguire also went within 60 seconds of each other, while Gerry Browne was taken off with a nasty facial injury and two more forwards were substituted.

Wicklow player Nick O'Neill was also dismissed by Offaly referee Carthage Buckley, who bore the brunt of Laois fans' ire afterwards as they gathered around his hut beneath the scoreboard where referees changed.

In the aftermath, accusations of intimidation and heavy-handedness were thrown at Wicklow, but Kevin O'Brien, the county's greatest exponent who scored 2-3 in only his second ever championship match, remains adamant there was never an instruction to that effect.

O'Brien says there was a sense of expectation around Aughrim that day that was palpable.

"We met in auction rooms beside Lawless' Hotel just up from the pitch quite early that day and even by that stage a huge crowd from Laois had congregated," he recalls.

"It's uncomfortable even talking to Laois people about it, which is crazy at this stage. There was a lot of expectation in the county that year. But we had a decent team too.

"Portlaoise were All-Ireland club champions, but Baltinglass had drawn with them in the Leinster club final at the end of 1985. I remember being at a meeting on the Thursday night before that game and there was great energy from that.

"A lot of our players had been around and they were a bit tired of being the whipping boys. Having it in Aughrim helped, just as it does now, because all club football is played in Aughrim. The atmosphere was great. It was a real throwback."

O'Brien wonders now about the relevance of the venue in today's game Will the legend of Aughrim live on this Sunday?

"I don't know will the venue concern the Laois players but maybe their fathers and grandfathers might think about it a little more," he smiles.

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