By Charlie Keegan
IT happened, quite by coincidence, to be the 43rd wedding anniversary of Killeshin and Laois football legend Liam Doran and wife Rosaleen, when I called to their lovely home in Keelogue, Killeshin on Thursday 18 August.
The wedding anniversary was the last in a series of happy days for Liam and Roisín in very recent times.
There was the wedding of their daughter Rosaleen to her English fiancée, RAF pilot Alex Still in The Church of the Holy Cross, Killeshin on Thursday 4 August, followed by the birth on Monday 8 August of their son Liam Junior’s first child, daughter, Síoda.
Liam is married to Nicola Balfe from Carlow Town.
Síoda is the Doran’s third granddaughter – daughter Treasa Codyre, who lives in Knocklyon, Dublin has two girls, Ada (9) and six-year-old Fiadh.
There were also many happy days for 84-year-old Liam to reflect on from a career in Gaelic football which marked him out as one of the greatest footballers ever produced by the O’Moore County.
I interviewed Liam in the front room of his home, a room which provides a panoramic view of the countryside which extends over five counties – Laois, Carlow, Kildare, Dublin and Wicklow.
Wife Rosaleen says any stranger who calls to the Doran home always comments on the marvellous view. She remembered some years ago an American motorist accidentally drove into the Doran yard. Before making his way back unto the road the Yank called out ‘How much?’ (for the farm and house) – he was really smitten by the splendid view.
Liam told me the Doran farm at Keelogue goes back all of 500 years. That information had been imparted to him by his late father, Martin.
The third of nine children, Liam is the last of five Doran brothers while he has two surviving sisters – Nancy Scully, Timahoe, Co Laois and Sarah Murphy, who lives near Cavan Town.
Liam started his schooling in the local Killeshin National School, interrupted by two years in Timahoe NS, when he went to live with his grandmother Bowe (née Lawlor), before returning to what was then a new Killeshin school, which had an enrolment of boys and girls. The late Sean O’Shea, a Kerry native, was school principal
He left school aged 14 to go farming with his father and, in time, inherited the Doran land, spending all his life in Keelogue. “I started out farming life ploughing and tilling with horses” Liam recalled.
He was not an early comer to Gaelic football, playing only one Under-14 game. That was in the colours of Graiguecullen as there was no juvenile football team in Killeshin. No doubt the Graigue lads had spotted the emerging football talent of the young Liam Doran.
An early memory as a teenager of his adult football, surrounded games on a Sunday in Ballylinan. “There could be up to six games played on the day. The venue had no dressing rooms but that did not matter – teams played and got dressed and the next two teams followed from there.
“They were great days and there was never any trouble, despite the fact there were no pitch markings of any sort. Everybody played the game and went home. And there would always be a big crowd for the games.”
So it was Liam Doran, or ‘Liamy’ as he was known to neighbours and friends in the Killeshin area, cut his teeth in the game he came to love.
At 16 he was playing junior football in the green and white jersey of Killeshin with the distinctive sash, lining out at right corner forward. Liam liked playing in the forwards, but it was as a centre back that he was to leave a lasting impact on the game.
Liam explained how it came about he became the anchor of defence for club and county over a glorious career, which perhaps did not yield the rewards his football talents warranted.
Liam was good enough to be noticed by the Laois minor football selectors, first lining out in the blue and white of his county in a Leinster MFC tie against Longford during the mid-1950s, a game he thinks played in O’Connor Park, Tullamore. “Laois lost by a point and I was bitterly disappointed” he commented.
In Ballickmoyler, a village close to Killeshin, there was a garda barracks and most of the gardaí stationed there down the years were from outside counties, with a significant presence of Kerrymen. Most of these members of the Force had a keen interest in Gaelic football.
One garda made the observation the Killeshin selectors always tended towards picking a big, strong centre back without the mobility in dealing with a speedy centre forward. The garda suggested the club should pick a young, fast, clever footballer to man the No 6 position and put forward the name of Liam Doran. The suggestion was taken up by the club and, with that change from attack to defence, a football star was born!
“I was first selected at centre back for Killeshin in a tournament game in Crettyard. That was the start and the finish of it – I never played anywhere else throughout my career.”
At club level Killeshin came to the fore in 1959, winning the Laois junior football championship, with Liam Doran team captain, defeating Mountmellick in the final. For an encore Killeshin lifted the Intermediate championship in 1960 with Liam again skipper, as the club reached senior ranks, losing out by a point to Portarlington in the Laois SFC semi-final the following year.
By this time the name of Liam Doran was high on the radar of the Laois junior football selectors. But the burgeoning talent of this young Killeshin footballer could not be ignored any longer at senior level and, suddenly, Liam found himself at centre back for his first Leinster senior championship match against Wicklow in Aughrim in 1959.
Laois supporters won’t want reminding of Aughrim 1986 as the venue their men were ambushed by the Garden County in the opening round of the Leinster senior football championship. That happened a few short weeks after the O’Moore County had clinched the county’s first National Football League since the inaugural NFL of 1926, with a side captained by Colm Browne of Portlaoise.
But it was a much happier outcome for Liam Doran and Laois in 1959 when they beat Wicklow 0-11 to 0-5 and went on draw with Offaly (2-6 L 1-9 O) before winning the replay 3-8 to 0-10 and taking Longford in the semi-final by 2-9 to 0-8.
In the Leinster final against defending Leinster and All-Ireland champions, Dublin, Liam remembers Laois leading by five points at half time and going really well. But the superior fitness and tactics of the Dubs won out in the second half as they prevailed by seven points on a scoreline of 1-18 to 2-8.
Mick Phelan scored both Laois goals while Jack Kenna of Jamestown and O’Dempseys, an outstanding half forward of the era, recorded 0-5, with Killeshin’s Seán Price raising a white flag in the final.
Liam said the reality in those days was Laois did not possess the necessary levels of fitness to see out big championship games. He maintains that no matter how good a footballer is, he needs to train to the limit in order to demonstrate his full range of football skills.
There was the heartbreak of a one-point defeat to neighbours Carlow in a dramatic Leinster SFC of 1961 at Geraldine Park, Athy when, having just taken the lead with a late goal, Laois lost out to an immediate response through a breakaway winning goal from Carlow’s Tom Keogh of Clonmore, having been put through by Ned Doogue.
But 1963 saw Laois go on a fine Leinster championship campaign, avenging the 1961 defeat by Carlow with a comprehensive 3-9 to 0-10 win over the ‘Scallion Eaters’, before overcoming Offaly (2-7 to 0-9) in the provincial semi-final to set up another Leinster final meeting with the Dubs.
In that semi-final Against Offaly in O’Moore Park, Portlaoise Liam Doran gave a five-star performance, his outstanding display at centre back earning him the accolade of Sport Star of the Week in the following Friday’s Irish Independent.
A framed copy of that distinction hangs proudly in the Doran household. That recognition was the first time a Laois player was named Sport Star of the Week by The Indo.
After Laois had led for a good distance in that Leinster final of 1963, Dublin rallied to win by a narrow 2-11 to 2-9, in a game which could have gone either way. As it was Dublin went on to claim the All-Ireland title with final victory over Galway. It was a year of what might have been for that Laois team.
What did Liam bring to the game that made him one of Gaelic football’s greatest centre backs? “I suppose I had a knack of outfielding my man and using my pace. In addition I had a good spring from the ground and could position myself well under the dropping ball.” And he had a great belief in his own ability, never approaching a game or an opponent with any element of fear.
He remembers great battles with the late Galway great, Mattie McDonagh – the only Connacht man to win four All-Ireland medals – at National League and tournament levels, saying McDonagh was a very clean player and a powerful man, while he also had great jousts with Dublin’s Wicklow-born John Timmons.
Liam gave sterling service to the Laois footballers, only being warned once in his career in a game for the county when he reacted after being grabbed roughly by an opponent.
He felt aggrieved to have been warned, adding: “I simply loved playing football and rough play was not part of my style.”
Part 2 tomorrow