Pat Critchley forgets nothing. He has the natural born teacher's gift for absorbing names and faces and remembering the best of their lessons. Some of them would reappear years later is his memoir Hungry Hill, written and published as a tribute to St Brigid's Place, his patch of Portlaoise.
A few years ago, Critchley and a few former players called in to visit Georgie Leahy, who had managed the Laois teams they had played on during the 1980s. Leahy was ailing then. They spent an afternoon. They told a torrent of black-humoured stories, most of which were directed against the perpetually bleak state of Laois hurling.
Like the time the county team went to play Limerick and managed a grand total of 0-2. Someone said afterwards: “Lookit, Laois went to Limerick to get two points. And they got two points.”
Or the day they played Galway in a challenge game. Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island after 28 years on the same day. "Did you hear the first line of his speech lads?" someone shouted in the dressingroom. "He said, 'Is Mick Lalor still chairman of the hurling board?'"
Or the time they played Cork in the Centenary Cup game. Blood up, hopes high: the usual recipe for tears. Tommy Tynan, a celebrated Laois supporter, was adamant about the game plan. "Give it to PJ," he would demand every time a Laois player got the ball, pointing at PJ Cuddy, the dangerous Laois full forward. The Cork supporters nearby said nothing as Tynan hollered his advice for a full hour, falling quiet only after Cork had pulled imperiously away and the day was done.
Finally, Tom Cashman of Cork stood over the ball to take a free and there was a lull in the ground. "Hey Cashie," came the killer Cork voice within earshot of poor Tommy Tynan. "Give it to PJ."
It was, Critchley reckoned in a regular column he wrote in Laois Today, the ultimate putdown He's a townie for sure and he bounces with the sense of antic mischief that comes with growing up in a midlands provincial town in the 1970s: a product of ancient basketball halls, record shops, Dark Side of the Moon, local bars, Gaelic fields and a Christian Brothers education.
His sports life is phenomenal and he wears it unassumingly. He has recently retired from teaching English and PE. “I had both hips replaced,” he explains. “The PE was becoming tough going.” But it’s not as if he has slowed down.
Sport may have come to an abrupt halt but already this year, Critchley has put in perhaps the most impressive single coaching day of anyone in Ireland. On Wednesday, January 22nd, he was on the sideline in the National Arena in Tallaght to guide his Scoil Chríost Rí team to the under-19 Girls All-Ireland A title.
A few hours later, he was in Kavanagh country, on the pitch in Inniskeen with Carlow IT who would defeat Michael Murphy’s Letterkenny IT team in the Sigerson Cup semi-final. They won it with Adam Steed’s last-minute goal. Some days are just glorious like that.
Critchley is often referred to as “Laois’s only hurling All Star”, which is some distinction, picked up when he was a mop-haired midfielder when Laois made it to the Leinster final in 1985. But it also locates him in a certain era whereas in truth, Critchley has always moved like the wind and is always looking ahead.
The day we caught on up on the phone, talk turned to the evolution of that Scoil Chríost Rí team from first year kids to their final game, when they completed a cup and league double. The school has a rich basketball tradition but this group was special. From the beginning, they were a special crew and dominated the national grade from first year right through.
"That day was our first ever senior A title. That one had always eluded us," he explained. "They had won every All-Ireland from first year up and some of them, like Ciara Byrne and Shauna Dooley, will be there next year too. But they always put in the time. We try to develop players during the summer and teams during the winter. They really nailed the shooting two summers ago and became an incredible shooting team.
“With the way we train, we put in a good bit in the autumn. In season, the girls had a lot on and were doing the Leaving, some of them. So we went down to one session a week. Maybe they would come in at eight and shoot until quarter to nine once a week. They’d train with the Panthers once a week. They are playing football and camogie. It wouldn’t have been right to ask them to do more than one session. We trained smartly.”
He instances one play in the final, against Our Lady of Mercy, Waterford. Ciara Byrne drove the ball and was hit hard: she shot the ball as she was fouled, made the basket. But no foul called.
“She could have barked at the referee and got a technical foul or a score down the other end. Instead she shot the ball. That’s a five-point turnaround. That was something that Brother Somers taught us in school in 1970. You never complain or lose your cool. And I was passing it on to a player in 2020. That is 50 years. So when you do have a huge influence on young people, it is important to have a positive influence.”
That is Critchley’s mantra in a nutshell. There’s a line in a prologue to a coaching book by Morgan Wootten that never left him. Someone asked Wootten how the previous season with his school team had gone. “And he replied, ‘you’ll have to come back in 10 years for me to answer that’. In other words, when these youngsters develop as people.”
That’s the kick for Critchley. He remembers some of the players on the school team playing against some boys in a school yard game a few summers ago.
“Some of the skills and flair and expressiveness they showed were brilliant. And I began wondering why they weren’t doing this with the school team. We were nearly over-coaching them with set plays so we began to play more of a freelance game. So we do have some plays but we try to coach general principles of play and general movement and what to expect and where to be on the break.
“They read each other rather than thinking about where they are next and you feel like a spectator sometimes when they are in that zone. It is like telepathy where they can think through each other with passes. We do have these have-a-go games where we try things out and emphasise flair in our play.”
Critchley was a 1970s kid: he grew up in an Ireland that was at once heavily regulated by church and school but, beneath that surface authoritarianism, kind of wild at the same time. He is a brilliant observer of the make-it-up-as-you-go-along nature of being young in that decade. They were all feeling their way through the dark, finding ways to express themselves as they could.
Sport was an obvious outlet. But music was and remains a huge part of his life. For a while, he was part of The Mere Mortals, the Laois rock band managed by his friend and former Laois team-mate Séamus Cheddar Plunkett.
They toured the country: big hair squeezed into a small van. They released a few singles. They made The Dave Fanning Show. They were asked to audition for Alan Parker's film The Commitments. They made it onto the Féile line-up which included The Pogues. They had vague dreams of stardom. They made absolutely no money. And they had a hoot.
“We still slag Cheddar because anything we got we put back into posters. So we got a hundred quid for the first Christmas. And fifty the second. And nothing since. We’re always asking him where all the royalties went to.”
They were originally named Drowning Fishes but hastily changed after An Emotional Fish gained national attention and they were serious but light hearted about it. The beginning could not have been more unpromising. They were on holiday in Spain and told the hotel manager they were a band. True, in the sense that they had instruments with them and knew how to play – at best – three cover songs.
Before they knew it, the enthusiastic hotel manager had offered to stage a gig and put posters up across the lobby. The Portlaoise lads thought it was a riot. Sure they'd play a few songs. Why not? Then they turned up in the function room to find 400 people waiting for them. The first song was awful and it went downhill from there. It ended in a Fawlty Towers moment, the indignant manager literally chasing Ollie Plunkett through the hallway.
But they recovered and toured nationally without ever losing their fondness for the absurd. They disbanded after about eight years, partly because Critchley and Cheddar were so immersed in Laois hurling. And by then they’d become a very good band but like many of bands of that era, the light dwindled. One of Critchley’s abiding memories is of a gig in the front bar of The Point. The stage was small so they improvised, placing advertisement hoardings on top of bottles.
"And myself and Paul Marron were jumping up and down and went straight through the boards. When we knew we were going we kept going and disappeared. We'd wait for the chorus and then reappear."
He has thousands of these stories. Some he has written down but not all. It keeps him young. There's an acute sadness running through his sporting life too. During that shining year of 1985, Laois played Dublin in a national league hurling match. Paul Mulhere, a young Dublin player, tried to block down a ball struck by Critchley and got caught with the hurl. It was entirely accidental and Mulhere actually played on. It turned out he had fractured his skull and he was taken to intensive care in Dublin.
Critchley was among the visitors, in a sustained state of shock. “I remember trying to sleep in my brother Mick’s flat, going missing and nobody knowing where I was,” he writes in Hungry Hill. “I still don’t. I remember getting back to the hospital and knowing by the faces that Paul was dead.”
“It was traumatic,” Critchley says now. His speaking voice is gentle anyhow. Now it’s no more than a murmur.
“One thing is that going back to Brother Summers was we were always taught to keep going if you got a bang. But we were coached to play fairly. You never, ever went across that line. And if it had had been an incident like that it would have been a thousand times worse. You always had to shake hands win or lose. But that is always in the background.
“Every time you drive to Dublin. I remember I came on as a substitute the following Sunday in a county final. I probably shouldn’t have been there. But it meant I was back into it. And it was probably what Paul would have wanted as well.”
He'll keep coaching. It is part of his DNA. He's been coaching since he was 16 years old. He's thrilled with what Eddie Brennan has done with the hurlers and hopes the county might be on the verge of a bright period. Years ago, when he made a hash of the Leaving Cert, he repeated at night classes and had Augustin Martin, the celebrated editor, as his English teacher.
“He gave me a great love of poetry. And I remember him saying to us when we were doing Austin Clarke’s The Lost Heifer. He told us he had met Clarke at a party at Thomas Kinsella’s house. And I asked him: ‘what did you really mean by the Lost Heifer?’. And he said: ‘what lost heifer?’ It was about interpreting yourself. You can read it again in 10 years’ time and it will be a different poem.
“I always think that teaching English and literature is really teaching about life. And there is a big crossover between coaching and teaching. One of my big things is you teach or coach the person first and the subject or the game second. You have the respect for the person first.”
Every so often now, he’ll meet old pupils or men and women he coached hurling or football or basketball too years ago. It might be in the pub or the supermarket in Portlaoise. It might be decades later. They are grown up, moved on. And it’s that part he loves discovering: what becomes of them. The sparkling days – the All-Irelands and what not that they achieve every so often – are lovely. But they are not the why of it.
The why of it for Pat Critchley is the kind of person you might just help to shape, years down the line.
“It is, yeah. Already, you know, lots of our past pupils are coaching. It has a generational effect. I often tell the story of the starfishes in Mexico. All these starfishes washed up on a beach. The old fisherman was throwing them back in and a tourist spots him and shouts: ‘You can’t save them all’. And he replies: ‘No. But I saved that one’. And sometimes you never know what becomes of the people you teach or coach. But you just got to keep doing what you do.”