Sad death of a Killeigh and Offaly GAA folk hero

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kevin@tullamoretribune.ie

THE sad death has taken place of one of Offaly's iconic footballers. Mick O'Rourke, a famed member of the Offaly 1971/1972 football squad passed away at the weekend after a lengthy battle with various health issues over the last number of years.

The Killeigh man was a legendarily tough member of a feared Offaly defence and his heroics in that great 1971/1972 team have ensured a lasting place in Offaly GAA folklore.

He was corner back on the Offaly side that won the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship for the first time in 1971 and he won a second medal a year later when he was a sub.

In all, he made 67 league and championship appearances for Offaly senior footballers, 64 as a starter and three as a sub.

He first came to the notice of the Offaly footballing public in 1964 when he was a member of the squad that won the All-Ireland Minor Football Championship, coming on as a sub for Willie Bryan in the final win over Cork.

It was not long before he graduated to the Offaly senior football team. Considering the glory days that were to come, it is ironic to note that his debut came on a dark day as Offaly suffered a disappointing championship defeat by Laois in 1968. He came on as a sub in that game and began to establish himself on the team in the 1968/1969 National Football League – at that stage the league was split into pre and post Christmas sections.

It also seems strange to reflect that many of his early appearances were in the attack, considering the national fame he won as a defender. In 1969, a memorable year for Offaly, he played on the half and full forward lines. He was there as Offaly reached the National Football League final, losing to Kerry and as they won the Leinster Senior Football Championship, going on to reach the All-Ireland final where they also lost out to the Kingdom.

He did not play in that All-Ireland final defeat and in 1970, he went back to the defence. He played at centre half back in a league win over Roscommon and defeat by Dublin and apart from that, all his other Offaly appearances were at corner back, most in the number 4 jersey.

His performances in 1971 won him lasting fame in Offaly. That was a famous year as the county won the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship for the first time. He was a teak tough, take no prisoners defender. He never shirked from a physical challenge and had no qualms about using very physical tactics to halt raiding attackers. That was part and parcel of football at that time and the physicality of men such as Martin Furlong, Paddy McCormack, Larry Coughlan, John Smith and O'Rourke is remembered with great fondness to this day.

O'Rourke revelled in football when it was at its most physical and this manifested itself in most of his games. While some of what went on in football in those years would not be permitted or condoned now, it was the way things went back then and O'Rourke remained very proud of that aspect of his own football and that Offaly team throughout his life. Indeed, it was something of a badge of honour for him and he brought that toughness into all aspects of his life.

There was a lot more to Mick O'Rourke's football than the physical side. He was an excellent defender, a tight marker who did his primarily defensive duty with great confidence, he was very strong and he also did the simple thing very well, generally finding a man with his clearances.

In 1972, Offaly were at their peak and they won a second All-Ireland title, beating Kerry well in a replayed final. O'Rourke played in the Leinster championship win over Meath but lost his place after that. However, he won it back in `1973 when he won a fourth Leinster senior football medal. He was corner back as their three in a row ambitions were ended by Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final and his passion for inter-county football never subsided.

As the 1971/1972 team entered its inevitable decline, O'Rourke continued to be a steady presence in the defence in 1974, 1975 and 1976 and the '76 championship defeat by Meath proved to be his last Offaly game.

He remained immersed in the GAA after his county career ended, as a club player with his beloved Killeigh, and also the parish football side, St Mary's but also as a mentor and club officer for several years. He became an Offaly senior football selector under Eugene McGee in 1979 as Offaly began to emerge with an outstanding new team that culminated in a famous All-Ireland win in 1982. They came in during the aftermath of a turbulent Leinster final defeat by Dublin in '79 as the County Board decided to keep McGee – the Longford man was under severe pressure at that time, requiring the backing of players and senior County Board officers, including chairman Fr Sean Heaney, to keep his job, but the board replaced the outgoing selectors.

Continued on page 66

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