The First Blitz: A Tribute to ‘The Duke’ by ‘The Legend’

Mikie O'Connor traced the events from the first basketball hoops at the back of St.Mary's Parish Hall in the  mid to late 1960s to the first Blitz in the Astor in 1972.   ©Photograph: John Reidy
Mikie O’Connor traced the events from the first basketball hoops at the back of St.Mary’s Parish Hall in the mid to late 1960s to the first Blitz in the Astor in 1972. ©Photograph: John Reidy

In my early childhood years I was practically a feral child.

My days were spent either on the bank of the River Maine with my fishing rod or out at the crack of dawn snaring rabbits.

By Mikie O’Connor

I loved being free in the countryside and I loved nature. After the Intermediate Exam Results came out my parents, wisely decided, drastic action would have to be taken to salvage any kind of academic progress.

I was sent to boarding school. At first I hated it. I was homesick. Being sent to boarding school at 15 is like having your tonsils taken out – it’s much harder when you are that bit older.

Sport to the Rescue

I often cried myself to sleep during the first few months there but sport as it has done so many times since, saved me.

I was the smallest in my class by some inches so basketball seemed an unlikely sport for me.

We had a beautiful, modern gym but the greatest thing about it was it had indoor basketball nets.

A lad called Gerry Fenix from Tralee, though only sixteen was the star basketball player in college. This was my first introduction to basketball. At this time basketball was going through a golden era in Kerry.

Where it all began: Donal ‘The Duke’ O’Connor sitting on the old window ledge at the back of the former St. Mary’s Parish Hall on Castleisland’s Church Street last week as he awaits the tip-off for the 48th annual Christmas Blitz at dawn on St. Stephen’s Day. ©Photograph: John Reidy

Derry O’Shea –  A Phenomenon

There were several teams in Tralee alone. Many of the Kerry football stars were playing basketball in the winter months.

Some of them were even internationals. Derry O’Shea was a phenomenon though only about five foot seven inches he could dunk the ball.

It was easy to see how Gerry Fenix was so far ahead of the rest of us. With Gerry’s encouragement I started to pick up a few of the skills and I also started to grow. Castleisland had teams in the county junior leagues.

Most Capped International

We had some fine players, Declan McGaley, Jerh ‘Shy’ Nolan, Mike Brosnan, Donal ‘The Duke’ O’Connor himself and Joey Browne. And, of course, Big John O’Connor – who later became the most capped senior international of all time.

Denis Cronin - deadly from the free throw line.  ©Photograph: John Reidy
Denis Cronin – deadly from the free throw line. ©Photograph: John Reidy

At U-16 and 18 we got a few fine hidings and that hardly surprised me because there wasn’t a single basketball hoop in the town that I can recall. Where our local lads practiced their skills I have no idea.

Towards the end of the sixties one man or should I say one boy had a dream and when this boy has a dream there is no stopping him.

Air of Authority

That small fellow you see strutting around the complex with a polished air of authority.The one that looks like a cross between Olde Apple Seed John and Billy the Kid, the man we call The Duke.

The founder, director and grand-master of the Christmas Blitz had a dream.

There was waste ground at the back of the local billiard hall known locally as The Club. No one knows how he commandeered it but I remember standing there staring in awe as huge holes were dug out of the back wall of the club.

Picks and Sledges

Picks and sledges were wielded by hardy boys, stripped to the waist, covered with sweat and dust.

I have no idea where the steel girders and backboards came from, nobody had loose cash in those days.

Eamon O'Connor - one of Kerry's leading playmakers.  ©Photograph: John Reidy
Eamon O’Connor – one of Kerry’s leading playmakers. ©Photograph: John Reidy

All I remember was that rings went up and small boys and big boys had hearts racing in anticipation of their own basketball court in town.

There were queues a mile long and many the scuffle to get on the court, in hail, rain or snow.

When winter came the Duke wasn’t happy, there were no night-glasses in those days and the luminous ball had not yet been invented.

Back of the Rhyno Mills

Some recalled that the rugby club had once trained at the back of the Ryno Mills under lights. Were they still there? Would they still work? Could we have them?

Liam O’Connor was the man who put them there. He was intrigued by the idea of using them again. They were mounted in a cluster on a big wooden frame. Electricians and cable came out of nowhere.

The cluster was dismantled and lights strategically placed on the walls around the court.

It was an incredible triumph when the first games were played under lights.

Sat on the Window Sill

Ned O'Callaghan - on a mission to Abbeyfeale and Listowel. ©Photograph: John Reidy
Ned O’Callaghan – on a mission to Abbeyfeale and Listowel. ©Photograph: John Reidy

The Duke, Ned O’Callaghan, Timothy Herlihy, Joey Brown and many more were probably still in their teens when this was achieved.

We sat on the window sill of the former girls secondary school and waited our turn. The ‘back-of-the-club’ produced many fine basketball players.

Master Dinny Giffin and Brendan Brosnan were deadly long range shooters. Eamon ‘More-Power’ O’Connor was one of the best play-makers in the county.

Denis Mouse Cronin would beat Larry Bird from the free throw line.We played with abandon, passion and joy. It was competitive it was serious, it boiled over but we loved it, it had passion, it was sport.

County League Games

I can’t remember any county league games being played there. I doubt if the court had the required dimensions, but there were local competitions and underage leagues.

The entrance to the back of the club was through a small door cut out of a large wooden one. There was a sort of corridor under the building it was a great place to shelter from a cloud-burst.

Timothy Herlihy - there at the start of the basketball movement in Castleisland. ©Photograph: John Reidy
Timothy Herlihy – there at the start of the basketball movement in Castleisland. ©Photograph: John Reidy

It was also a great place to learn to smoke woodbines like a man. Many a young girl got her first squeeze and first kiss there.

The Back of the Club was not perfect but it was heaven to us and an incredible achievement by The Duke and his troops.

Still Not Happy

Of course he still was not happy. One-day tournaments called blitzes were becoming very popular. The Back of the Club was never going to do for that even before the advent of the dreaded health and safety.

The Astor Cinema in Killarney Road, today, home of Conroy’s Furniture held dances on Wednesday nights and the occasionally on Saturday nights.

Seats would be removed from the cinema and stacked to make room for the dancing. Jimmy O’Connor the owner was approached.

I don’t know how much persuasion it took or even if he was ever paid for the use of the hall but he gave the venture his imprimatur and the work began.

No Baskets or Backboards

There were no baskets or backboards of course. Duke had all this covered already. We had a nice little pick-up truck in the Rhyno Mills at that time.

It was used for transporting jute bags from the mill to the Sack and Bag Company in Creamery Lane.

I had been doing that job during the summer so I borrowed the truck and Ned O’Callaghan, then teaching in Abbeyfeale, The Duke and myself headed off for schools in Abbeyfeale and Listowel where we got the loan of two freestanding baskets and transported them to the Astor.

Excitement Leading to Christmas

You can imagine the excitement there was in the town leading up to Christmas, indoor basketball in our own town.

Santa had to take a back seat that year. After the first day’s play the hall had to be transformed again into a dance hall for that night. It was a case of all hands on deck. Those who had just finished the last game were in the thick of it still sweating and still wearing their singlets or should I say vests with numbers pinned on.

After the dance, at all hours of the morning, it, as the song goes, happened all over again and again. The logistics were mind-boggling but the show went on and on and on.

Almost 50 Years On

And here we are today almost 50 years later in our magnificent community hall, with our central heating and cosy seats and young lads flying around the place in sports shoes that cost more than the running of the first blitz.

And there he is in the middle of them all in complete control, throwing the odd dirty look, uttering the odd expletive, delegating always delegating, did I mention delegating.

Donal! 90 percent of the people at the Christmas Blitz have no idea what you have done and we know you don’t mind that; you are only thinking of next year’s blitz and how that could be better. But the other 10 percent do.

Donal Duke O’Connor you’re a phenomenon and the greatest ever Castleisland man. We salute you.


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