FIFTY YEARS ago this Sunday - March 27th, 1961 - a Derry athlete claimed the All-Ireland Individual Youth Cross-Country Championship and, to date, no one has ever replicated that magnificent success.
ARTHUR DUFFY reports
Representing Co. Derry at Killenaule, an 18-year-old named Willie Deery, stormed to a sensational victory in the Co. Tipperary mud and to this day, now aged 68, the former Beechwood Avenue resident had vivid memories of what was the highlight of his athletics career.
A partner in the firm of Deery & Conway Solicitors, based in Derry’s Castle Street, Willie still keeps fit by attending the gym two nights a week and, indeed, still pulls on his trainers to take part in charity fun runs,
“I actually ran in the 2005 London Marathon,” but my competitive career ended many moons ago,” he laughed.
Unasumming and particular modest, Willie was shocked when I contacted him this week, informing him of a milestone never to be equalled locally.
“It doesn’t seem like 50 years ago but I do have great memories of the occasion,” he recalled.
Having read over a copy of the “Derry Journal” report of the race, Willie agreed that his preparation for the race was “far from perfect!”
Indeed, the ‘Journal’ headline proclaimed: “Splended Achievement After all-night car trip.”
According to the report, the Derry athletes encountered mechanical problems - when they had reached Strabane on Saturday night!
“Co. Derry planned to have a team of several young runners in action at the Championships in which 15 counties competed but having reached Strabane, a series of events culminated in Derry’s greatest triumph,” said the report.
“The mini-bus in which the team was travelling broke down, so a reluctant return to Derry had to be made. There, Oak Leaf Club official, Brendan Duddy, got his own car and with other club officials, Hubert and Charlie Logue, Jack Peoples and Charlie McDowell, plus Deery, started out again on the 250 miles trip to Tipperary at 11 o’clock on Saturday night.
“On arriving at the border another crisis arose, for the Customs Post was closed, But the Gardai at Swanlinbar went in search of a Customs official and succeeded in getting the post opened to facility the entry of the Oak Leaf car into the 26 Counties. Stopping only for short rests, the party travelled throughout the night and early morning before arriving in Tipperary shortly before the time for the race,” continued the ‘Journal’ account of the proceedings.
“There, all formalities were waived to enable Deery to get prepared without fuss and he eventually took the field with 250 other runners from 15 counties.”
In front of a crowd of 2,500, Deery stormed into the lead half a mile from the finish to win easily by 80 yards with Co. Clare runners, G. Brogan and Lynch taking the other two podium places.
“I was 18 at the time, working in the former BSR Machine Shop and I didn’t really appreciate the achievement,” declared Willie this week.
“I didn’t know what the future held for me but, as it turned out, it was certainly the highlight of my athletics career.
“I have great memories of the event with Brendan Duddy the Co. Derry official in charge,” he recalled.
And the report also referred to Mr. Duddy’s thoughts at the end of the first lap.
The ‘Journal’ report went on: “We were very happy at that stage for we felt that Deery would win knowing his fantastic strength and finishing ability,” proclaimed Mr. Duddy after the race.
Amazingly, Willie didn’t actually take up the sport until after he had left school.
“Athletics in those days, especially at school, centred on the sprint events and I wasn’t much good that them. So after school I concentrated on cross country during the winter and on the longer distance athletic events on the track such as 800, 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 metres events.
Now a proud father of three children and a grandfather to Áine and Aiden, outside jogging Willie enjoys cycling - “only when weather permitting,” he laughed.
B.S.R. Old Boy
From the old BSR, Willie continued his studies in the evenings and, in 1978 qualified as a solicitor having worked as an apprentice solicitor and hasn’t looked back.
“I enjoy working and, provided I keep in good health, I’ll continue to keep going,” he concluded.
Willie Deery did write one of the greatest pages in the Derry’s sporting history and that story book ending to what must have been a fantastic adventure on the way to the All-Ireland Cross-Country Championships in 1961 made the achievement all the more impressive. It was, indeed, a long way to Tipperary . . . !