Ger Siggins (Times Ireland)
Ireland’s central plains have been a cold house to cricket over the last century. Perhaps the peatlands weren’t ideal to develop the hard pitches required, but the development of artificial surfaces in recent years coincided with a small rally in fortunes.
Currently, eight clubs play in the counties without a coastline that are governed by Cricket Leinster. Laois are the best of them, currently second in Division 4 and a win over Clontarf 3rds today will leave them well placed for promotion.
That game, however, will take place in a mood more of mournful resignation than celebration. For 33 years after the Portlaoise club was reborn in the rugby club grounds in Togher, the cricketers are on their way out.
The club has had a peripatetic existence, passing through Tullamore and Portarlington before it settled in the rugby grounds under a licence agreement in 1985.
Portlaoise CC enjoyed a degree of success but the new century sparked an upsurge in fortunes on and off the field.
Like the national team, the Celtic Tiger brought established talent and unprecedented numbers of cricket fanatics to the region. Renamed Laois, they won the Senior 2 Cup, the premier competition for teams outside the senior league, in 2004 and 2008.
They developed new talent too, and youngsters David Murphy, Phil Blackley and Omar Rasool were picked for interprovincial sides.
Needing greater tests, Murphy left to open the bowling for Pembroke for several years. He is now at Oxford University and has played this summer for Warwickshire’s 2nd XI.
“We’ve nearly 100 members now,” says Rasool, the club secretary. “We’ve three senior teams and will probably have a 4th next year, and we’ve enough youths now to enter the leagues.”
Portlaoise was the first town in Ireland to elect a black mayor when Rotimi Adebari took office in 2007. At the time he said that “Portlaoise is a town that looks beyond colour, creed and religion… but integration is a two-way process and involving or engaging members of the ethnic communities in local activities is the way to go.”
Letterkenny-born Rasool, a medical student who has lived in Portlaoise for 15 years, points to the inclusive atmosphere in the club.
“We’re a model for diversity. Our first team has players from Ireland, England, Australia, South Africa, Pakistan and India, and our second team is mostly drawn from the Asian community.”
Perhaps the club’s finest hour came 2016 when they reached the final of the second-tier All-Ireland National Cup, losing to Rush. That same year Laois’s major domo, Roland Bradley, was also the first president of Cricket Leinster from a club outside the capital.
Last week Bradley wrote a heartfelt posting on the CricketEurope forum, announcing the club’s departure from Togher and recalling its great days there.
“There was great pride taken in turning rugby outfields into a very acceptable cricket ground with an artificial that had plenty of TLC,” he wrote.
“Clubs from all over Ireland and beyond visited Togher, and hopefully were always made welcome and will remember the place with fondness.”
The departure is not of their own volition and is a sensitive issue in the town. The cricketers say there was a deterioration in their relationship with certain rugby committee members, which came to a head with an email from Portlaoise RFC secretary Ciaran Reilly informing them that the rent would be increased from €2,500 per annum to €10,000.
This week, Mr Reilly told Times Ireland, “that’s not true”, and that “[the cricket club] chose to leave.”
Whatever the ins and outs, Laois CC has had to find a new home, and next season they will be playing 10km away in Stradbally.
The new ground is situated on land owned by Tom Cosby, host of the Electric Picnic music festival, but not on the main estate which would be inaccessible for six weeks every summer. Instead Laois CC will play behind a delightful hostelry, Napper Tandy’s, whose facilities have been made available for teams to change.
“We will spend 2019 finding our feet and seeing how it works out, but Stradbally is a very picturesque village, a lovely place for families to visit,” says Bradley.
“The ground is off the middle of the main street and there are some excellent coffee shops to visit, and a playground. Togher was a distance from Portlaoise and had nothing around it for visitors.”
The move brings the game back to a village where the game was played for over a century on Cosby lands.
The county has already produced two Irish internationals, including Ken Hope of Portarlington and Pembroke, and one first-class cricketer with Sussex, George Brownrigg.
There may be more on the way, with Rasool excited about young prospects Liam Guppy and Jacques Chidley. The club has always been a welcoming one and look forward to entertaining on what they now see as ‘home’.
It still has characters like Eddie Harvey who, while umpiring, once appealed with the bowling side when Bradley was clean bowled – and then gave him ‘not out’.
Harvey took five hat-tricks for the club, perhaps because he insisted on keeping his money and fags in his pocket, finding the jangle of the change a useful distraction to batsmen.
So, when the sun goes down over Togher for the last time, and the stumps are finally drawn, there’s an undeniable feeling that Portlaoise’s loss is most definitely Stradbally’s gain.