Willie Donlon relaxing in his home in Killashee this week. Photo: Michelle Ghee
He is probably one of the best known publicans in the midlands but in Killashee he is a legend, pure and simple.
And, this week, Willie Donlon who celebrated his 81st birthday earlier this year chats about football, people and his colourful and at times challenging life journey.
It’s all good though, despite the occasional setback, as he says himself.
Born in 1937 in Derryadd, Willie Donlon attended Cloontagh NS initially and then enrolled at the local national school in Killashee.
He starred at all levels for St Brigid's GAA and also played for Longford at Minor and Junior level. He was honoured too with the Hall of Fame award by his native St Brigid's and played in the first ever Longford Schoolboys Championship in 1951.
“Once the boys were going to national school they were eligible to play and Fr Manning Gaels was the big noise in the county at that time,” he recalled.
“We went into the Tech, I remember before the final, and we had to sign a form and put our age and all that on it, but anyway we hammered Drumlish in the final and we were delighted with ourselves; we beat them by 14 or 15 points.”
But the following morning that pride and joy would be shattered and the team was stripped of the title.
It was to serve as a valuable life lesson for Willie.
“The next morning we went into school and Master Bissett from Drumlish NS was there and after he asked a few questions about age, etc we were stripped of the title and the cup was taken back from us; it was heartbreaking.”
Willie was the third eldest in a family of six siblings - four boys and two girls.
Here he recalls a very memorable journey to school through the fields one cold, wet and windy day back in the 1940s.
“The younger brother was only a couple of weeks going to school and we used to cross the fields, even though we weren’t supposed too,” he said, before pointing out that the brothers had gotten snares and were busy setting them for rabbits when they realised there baby brother was gone.
“This particular morning we had two rabbits and while we were looking at this my brother fell into one of the bogholes.
“Somehow we managed to get him out; we rung out his clothes as best we could and managed to get him into school - there was fierce steam rising from him as he sat beside the fire.”
Of major concern too was the reception that Willie and his brothers would get at home when their parents came to realise what had happened.
And, it’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow some good, as they say, and they got off lightly it seems.
“We were more worried about how we would be received when we got home, but I think the two rabbits softened the blow,” he laughs recalling the incident from his lovely comfortable home in south Longford.
“Sure rabbits fed half the country at the time.”
Meanwhile, they were tough times, says Willie, but people were happy nonetheless.
“They were tough times; my father and mother were hard workers and my father served alongside General Séan McEoin,” he added, before admitting that even though he grew up in a political house Willie wasn’t hugely influenced by that.
“They wouldn’t talk about things in those days; it was years afterwards when I began to understand what that time in history was all about, and by then I was out living my life,” he recalled.
“Every townland was like one family - everything was shared and you could depend on people. There was no money to throw away but none of us ever went hungry either.”
Willie also remembers too the first motor car in Killashee.
“When I was growing up there was a priest in Killashee who had a Morris Minor,” he laughs remembering the simplicity of it all.
“Fr Gilfillan was the parish priest here at the time - he had the Morris Minor car and that is the first motor car I remember here in Killashee.
“He was a very solid, sturdy man; we often had to push the car for him at the school.
“The car was often not dependable when he would be leaving the school and a few of us would have to get out and push the car to get it started.”
Meanwhile, Willie Donlon was playing football and developing his interest in other sports including the horse racing.
He had a long and distinguished football career with his native St Brigid’s and while earning himself a reputation on the field, he also suffered his fair share of injury.
In 1957 St Brigid's played Killoe in a League Final and Willie was knocked unconscious that day.
“We were having the better of the game; I was up midfield; in those days there was no mercy, you would be taken out,” he added, before pointing out that the game went ahead despite his condition, and St Brigid's, being outnumbered, lost the game.
“When I woke up the next day, the first thing I asked was ‘who won the game?’
Meanwhile, the Killashee man was serving an apprenticeship in Longford town; there was a large business where the post office is now and it was there that Willie served his apprenticeship in the bar trade.
In 1957, John Magan walked in and asked Willie if he would come and work for him in the business in Killashee and Willie jumped at the chance.
Then in 1960 he took over the business from the Magan’s and ran it himself until 2005 when ill health forced him to take life a little easier.
He does, though, recall some wonderful memories from that time.
“I loved the people and if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t have stayed working in the trade all my life,” he smiled, before pointing out that football championships and racing festivals always brought a crowd to Magan’s in Killashee.
“Albert Reynolds’ visit to Killashee after being elected Taoiseach really was something special too.”
Willie also recalled the National Hot Air Ballooning Championships which were held in Killashee annually for 10 years on the trot back in the day.
“Cheltenham and the Grand National were massive days too; the crowds would be in the pub betting among themselves and it was great craic,” he added.
“And I had a very rare moment one time when we were on our way to Listowel Festival.
“We pulled into a hotel in Limerick to have a bite to eat and were seated close to a group of racing enthusiasts from England.
“They were asking each other what their most memorable moment was and one of the men said his was an occasion in Ireland - while on a break - when he went to a race meeting in a small track in the midlands and this little unknown horse won the race.
“When I heard the midlands I knew there was something coming - there are not too many race tracks in the midlands.
“King of trainers at the time Tom Draper and champion jockey Pat Taaffe raced a horse in Mullingar, but on the day this little black mare by the name of Ban Marie gave it everything she had and passed Pat Taaffe at the finish line - I had a few pounds on her and it was one of the greatest moments ever. And this man from England was regaling this very story to the group.
“Imagine just up the road from us here in Longford, a little racetrack, and to think that an expert in the field would recount that as one of his most memorable moments - after all he had seen in his time - unbelievable.
“I told him I was there that day and had backed the little black mare and I can tell you I raced down when she won; I said I have to touch this horse and when she came into the saddling enclosure I was there and got to pat the little horse for about five seconds - it was the best moment.”
Willie likes all sports and says it’s a wonderful outlet for youngsters.
“I like all sports; I don’t know what kids would do if there wasn’t sport to keep them grounded. It’s a wonderful outlet and the friends you make, you have them for life.
“It’s also a great talking point in the pub,” he smiles.
There is no doubt that the popular Longford man has visited every racecourse in Ireland and these days he looks back with fondness on his years travelling the length and breadth of the country.
He says too that the biggest change in his time is machinery and recalls a time when doors were left unlocked and people walked freely and easily into each other's homes.
“It’s not like that now,” he laments.
“During my early years Bord na Mona started up in Lanesboro - there were no cars - and people were cycling from all over Longford to work there.
“The shop would be packed on a Friday evening with the workers all wanting to cash their cheques.
“Often I might take a notion in the middle of the whole lot to go to a race meeting and I often picked someone out of the crowd to take care of things until I returned.
“And I can tell you it wasn’t often a quick return and when I would come back everything would be exactly as I left it.
“You could trust people and they trusted you.
“It’s different times completely now.”