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CORK CROSS-COUNTRY OF 40 YEARS AGO

CORK CROSS-COUNTRY OF 40 YEARS AGO

This article, by John Walshe, appeared in the Evening Echo on Friday November 2nd 2018

 

 

donie walsh cross country

Donie Walsh makes a splash!

 

As Lizzie Lee crossed the finish line on Sunday last in Dublin to claim her first national marathon title, the first to congratulate her with a warm embrace was coach Donie Walsh.

However, 40 years ago this month it was the Leevale legend himself who was making the headlines when winning his fourth Cork County BLE cross-country championship over a challenging seven-and-half mile course at Bandon.

This was somewhat the end of an era as far as the then 30-year-old Walsh was concerned as it marked his final Cork senior title, the fourth victory adding to a similar number of BLE national championships he had won over the country.

But there was still one significant performance remaining four months in the future – an achievement on a par with the second place that Walsh had attained eight years before when he finished runner-up at the NCAA championships in Virginia, just eight seconds behind the iconic idol of that era, Steve Prefontaine.

Before Walsh embarked on a four-year scholarship to the famed Villanvona University, he had already featured amongst the medals at Cork County level. In 1967, at the age of 18, he was runner-up to Matt Murphy from Rising Sun in the last of the old NACAI championships which took place at Glanworth.

The following year, under the auspices of BLE, he picked up a bronze medal behind Murphy and another rising star, John Buckley of St Finbarr’s, at the county decider held at Mahon. Home on vacation from Villanova in 1971, he won his first Cork title, followed by another third place (in the wake of John Hartnett and Buckley) the following year.

Two more victories followed at Lemlara (1973) and Ballincollig (1974), these two years also marked by the first of Walsh’s four national cross-country titles. But when he lined up on that overcast November day at Bandon in 1978, it had been four years since he had last tasted success in his home county.

Having to settle for second to John Hartnett at Fermoy in 1975, two more defeats followed, both times to his Leevale clubmate Ray Treacy at Midleton (1976) and Bandon the following year.

In his preview in the Cork Examiner to the championship, Brendan Mooney stated that “Donie Walsh, the dominant figure in Irish cross-country running throughout the ‘70s is poised to add another county championship title to his string of successes.”

Adding that the Leevale man had never been outside the top three in the nine years he had competed, he predicted that Walsh’s main rivals would probably be his brother Michael and Bandon native Michael Lawton, now also wearing the Leevale colours.

And so it proved, with Michael – who would go on to take second in the inaugural Cork City Marathon four years later – making the early running, closely followed by Lawton who no doubt had plenty of local support. Just past the halfway stage, Donie made his move and gradually pulled away to finish a comfortable winner in a time of 37:00 for the hilly seven-and-a-miles.

Lawton was just 17 seconds in arrears with the younger Walsh a further 10 seconds back in third. The ever-consistent Ritchie Crowley (St Finbarr’s) was fourth, followed by Liam O’Brien (Midleton) in fifth, unattached Kerryman Willie Counihan (sixth), Denis Manning (St Finbarr’s), seventh, and Billy Bolster (Grange), eight.

The top 10 places were filled by three more Leevale runners - Jerry Murphy in ninth while Pat Duggan and Gene Mealy crossed the line together for a joint 10th to guarantee the club an easy team victory ahead of Imokilly and St Finbarr’s.

Seven months after they (along with Elaine Kelly) had made history by becoming the first women in the country to run a road race with the men, Marion Lyons and Dervla Mellerick took two of the top three places in the women’s race.

Compared to the 15 miles they had run from Cork to Cobh the previous April, this time the shorter distance was more to their liking as Lyons led her St Finbarr’s side to victory. She finished around 100 metres clear of Valerie O’Mahony from Togher with Mellerick, representing UCC, in third.

Catherine Hourihan of St Finbarr’s finished fourth ahead of future national champion Fionnuala Morrish from Leevale with the afore-mentioned Kelly in sixth.

The junior men’s race went to 16-year-old Finbarr McGrath of Leevale ahead of Brian Regan (Grange) and Der O’Riordan (Leevale) with Robert Shannon (Bantry) finishing fourth. Leevale were easy team winners but it was their third scorer – also aged 16 – who was destined to become one of Ireland’s greatest ever athletes.

Nine-and-a-half years on from that day around the muddy fields of Bandon, in the more lavish surroundings of the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis, Marcus O’Sullivan would win the first of his three World Indoor 1500m titles.   

Although Donie Walsh would not taste individual success at county or national level again, the following March he would play a leading role as fifth scorer in Ireland’s silver-medal winning team at the World Cross-Country Championships.

Held in quagmire conditions at Limerick Racecourse, the Leevale man again produced the goods when it really mattered on what proved to be a never-to-be-forgotten day for those privileged to attend as John Treacy won the world crown for the second year in succession.

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Cork Athletics is a constituent member of Athletics Ireland. Cork Athletics is the governing body, administering athletics, track and field (T&F), cross-country (XC) and running in county Cork. The Board comprises elected representatives of constituent athletic clubs and running clubs. Cork County Board AAI organises Championship races and competition, including road, track & field (T&F) and Cross-country (XC), at junior, juvenile, senior and masters levels, and selects representation for the county. In addition, training and education is provided for coaches and officials. The Board also regulates the Athletics Ireland race/event permit (licence) process for county Cork.
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