Sunday 25 March 2018

Athletics: 'People saw that we were ahead of our time'

A generation of teachers created a template for a revolution in Irish sport

Marie Crowe

Marie Crowe

In January 1973, a group of young students gathered in a room at the Old Crescent College on O'Connell Avenue in Limerick. It was the group's first day in college, but this was no ordinary fresher class. Each student had been handpicked to embark on a journey that would ultimately determine how Physical Education was taught in Ireland.

In that room stood some of Ireland's best young sporting talent, including Gaelic footballers Brian Mullins, Hugo Clerkin, Fran Ryder, Johnny Tobin, Liam Farley and Ted Owens, hurler Pat O'Kelly, international athletes Tim Crowe and Ruth Algar, swimmer Jane Cross, soccer international Joe Brunton, diver Gráinne Friel and many more young people with extraordinary sporting ability.

That first class set the tone for what was expected of PE students in the 1970s. First and foremost, they were athletes. And over the years that followed the talent pool got even deeper with the likes of rugby's Eddie O'Sullivan and Tony Ward, athletes Liam Moggan, Liam Hennessy and Joe Hartnett, hurling All-Star Colm Honan, soccer's Dave Maheady, footballers Jimmy Deenihan, Pat and Mick Spillane, Richie Bell, Brian Talty, Michael Kilcoyne, Rory Kinsella, Brendan Lillis and Andy Shorthall all enrolling. The college became a mecca for sports training and development.

"It was very exciting from a sportsman's point of view," explains former Kerry footballer Jimmy Deenihan. "It was like a physical fitness camp and it contributed in a major way to my success with Kerry. It exposed us to other codes and to the training of other coaches and athletes. We were shown the most modern training methods and it educated us to look at others. It was a great introduction to training and conditioning."

Prior to 1973, there was limited PE training for Ireland's teachers. Each year approximately ten male students were chosen to go to St Mary's in Strawberry Hill in London to learn how to teach PE.

However, it was decided that physical education should be expanded in schools, and so the National College of Physical Education (NCPE) in Limerick was born.

"I was very proud of NCPE and I still find it hard calling it Thomond or UL," says Tony Ward. "Going there opened my eyes to so many different sports. Because I was brought up on the south side of Dublin in a rugby-playing school, sport and life ended at the Naas road, but going to Limerick gave me an appreciation of other sports."

"I developed a love for Gaelic football and hurling that I didn't have before. We were all borrowing ideas from other sports, watching what others were doing. Even Páidí ó Sé, who was a guard in Limerick then, used to come out and train with us in the college."

Back then, if you wanted to study PE in this newly-built college, you needed to meet both physical and academic standards. It was a prerequisite that the students had achieved the required grade of two honours in the Leaving Cert as well as passed a physical test.

During this physical assessment, which was held in Dublin, the students had to demonstrate various motor skills such as throwing, catching, and kicking along with several gymnastic movements. Their abilities were judged by three members of the Department of Education and then, after the Leaving Certificate results, each of the students was informed by letter if they had secured a coveted place. When the course got under way in January 1973, the new NCPE wasn't fully constructed so two buses brought the students to Tralee for their first semester. They were put up in the Brandon Hotel with full board at a cost of £2.47 per week. Each room had a television and the students could avail of room service and free entry to all dances in the hotel. They had a de facto uniform of a bright blue adidas shell tracksuit. The people of Tralee became used to the strange sight of the group in their distinctive 'uniform'.

The curriculum included physiology, psychology, sociology plus an elective that could be taught along with PE such as Irish, French, music, environmental studies (history and geography) or maths. It also covered a wide range of sports, games and swimming lessons.

By April of that year, the new college in Limerick was officially opened. It included the first 33-metre swimming pool in Ireland, a diving board, gymnasium, sports hall, an all-weather pitch, tennis courts, and several playing fields.

The GAA club in the college was particularly strong and the Gaelic football team was trained by Dave Weldrick. His background was soccer but he is remembered as a fantastic coach. He applied techniques from other sports to the game of football and many of those who played under him credit him for helping shape their careers. In 1978, the footballers won the All-Ireland club title in spectacular fashion with a team full of future county stars.

"We were the first professional GAA team," says Pat Spillane. "We were training twice a day, videoing our sessions, we had tactics and physiotherapists, our set-up was the best around and it was all overseen by Dave Weldrick. He was the first guy to look at other sports and see what we can take from them and bring into GAA. He took soccer drills and reintroduced them as Gaelic drills, changed how the team prepared and created new tactics for football.

"It was great for my career with Kerry. I had four years living my life as a full-time Gaelic footballer. I used to eat, sleep and breathe Gaelic football and our team was at a fitness level that was far ahead of nearly all inter-county teams at the time. The club was so strong that in 1978 we trained on the same complex as the All Blacks and they stopped training and came to watch us."

Not only did the early classes of that PE course produce great athletes but it also produced great coaches, like Eddie O'Sullivan. "That exposure to teaching PE was helpful for playing the game of rugby and coaching it. I'd say my PE background has helped me in a major way, you learn to teach games which is a huge advantage," he says.

Many of the students in the College brought what they learned back to their clubs and counties and put it into practice when training teams. "There was a big demand for our expertise; even as students we were asked on a regular basis to train teams. People recognised what we were doing. We were ahead of our time," says Deenihan.

The NCPE became Thomond College within a few years, and then eventually the University Of Limerick. And over the years the course changed too. Physical fitness became surplus to entry requirements; instead it became solely based on academic qualifications. As demand for entry to the course rose so did the points required from the Leaving Cert and it quickly went out of reach for many of those who were passionate about sport.

"The NCPE concept was very visionary at the time," adds Deenihan. "The idea was that there would be a PE teacher in every post-primary school in the country. But nowadays the vision isn't as strong and the ambition isn't as great. The focus in school is on academic lessons. Since the '70s the emphasis on physical education has fallen."

On that first day of College in 1973, the students were told by Dr Paul Robinson that they would become pioneers in education and they were being charged with developing a PE programme for future generations. Forty years have passed since that first great revolution; perhaps another one is now overdue.

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