|Dublin-born writer Maurice B. Ahern, who spent seven years of his
childhood living in Tubbercurry, recalls some of his fondest memories from the early 1950s including his
favourite Sligo Rovers player of that time, the late Johnny Armstrong. Ahern was in Sligo last week with
copies of his debut novel, 'Dare To Run'. Although he doesn't regard himself as such, Dublin-born scribe
Maurice B. Ahern is a writer. Last week he was in Sligo, attempting to impress local bookstores into taking
a chance with 'Dare To Run', his impressive debut novel. If it wasn't for his south Sligo past, the former
athlete would be just another one of those self-published authorsthe ones without the backing
of a publisher trying to flog their wares. But the very mention of Sligo holds a unique resonance for
the 59-year-old, who spent seven years of his childhood in Tubbercurry, the key town in south Sligo.
His late father Paddy's work with the Hibernian Bank (now Bank of Ireland) brought the Aherns to
Tubbercurry in the late 1940s. Happy memories were recalled, including a race with a boyhood friend,
Sean Brennan, on the morning they had received their First Holy Communion. The youngsters were
heading to get breakfast but when crossing the road Brennan was knocked down by a car. "He was OK,"
said Ahern, who uses the 'B' initial so as to avoid confusion with the other Maurice Ahern, brother of Fianna
Fáil leader Bertie Ahern, the country's Taoiseach. Among Ahern's friends at the time was Terry
McCann, now a publican in Limerick, with whom Ahern maintains contact. His National School teachers were
Sean Cahill and Mrs O'Hara, whose son, who is a teacher in Dublin, is an acquaintance of Ahern's wife, Mary.
Paddy Ahern's passion for sport left an indelible imprint on his only son, who has four sisters. Regular trips
[to] the Showgrounds was the norm. "We used to come into Sligo town every second Sunday for Sligo
Rovers' home games," said Ahern, "there would be four or five of us in the car. On the way back we would
end up going to a chipper [The Carlton Café] on Castle Street. I remember wet days, going home
in the car and the lovely smell of chips. It was just fantastic."
The Sligo Rovers team of that era featured the likes of Tommy Oatesdescribed by Ahern as a
"great character"Louis Dykes, Willie Bradley and Scottish-born winger Johnny Armstrong (RIP).
But it was Armstrong, who passed away in February of last year, that Ahern shouted loudest for.
"Johnny Armstrong was our hero at the time. He was a smashing player," stated Ahern.
Indeed one of Sligo Rovers' legendary players, Armstrong was with the club for over a dozen
seasons (1951-1964) his record for most League goals scored remains unbroken.
Armstrong was employed at one time in Tubbercurry. Ahern revealed that he and his friends spent
many lunch times in a kickabout with their favourite player. Ahern cites one game in particular, Sligo Rovers
famous epic with Shamrock Rovers in an FAI Cup tie at the Showgrounds. Although Johnny Armstrong
gave the home side a first-half lead, the Dubliners were on the brink of victory following two second-half
goals. But a late penalty, converted Austrian international Albert Straka, salvaged a draw. Ahern's dad,
Paddy, was one of thousands who savoured the result. Ahern himself was standing behind the goal when
Straka scored. "To my delight the ball touched my foot as I stood on the net at the back of the goal," said
Ahern, who beamed proudly that he had been part of such a memorable occasion. The replay took place
three days later but Shamrock Rovers won 2-1.
Paddy also brought his son to Markievicz Park to watch Sligo's Gaelic footballers. In fact Ahern was
there for the official opening of Sligo's premier Gaelic football pitchSunday, May 22, 1955and
he recalled seeing Christy Ring at the venue that day. Ring's Cork, the then All-Ireland Senior hurling
champions played Galway (Ring was unable to play because of injury) while Sligo took on Mayo in a
Senior Gaelic football challenge. The holder of Johnny Armstrong's autograph, Ahern also got that of
Nace O'Dowd, the legendary Sligo Gaelic footballer.
The mid-1950s saw the Aherns move to Naas because of Paddy's employment with Hibernian Bank.
Sport continued to impact on Ahern's life. Athlete Ronnie Delaney included the County Kildare town
on a tour to celebrate his success in the final of the 1,500 metres race at the 1956 Olympic Games in
Melbourne. The gold medallist's autograph was added to Ahern's collection which also boasted the
signature of celebrated Sligo Rovers player Mickey Sweeney, a team-mate of Johnny Armstrong.
The death of Ahern's dad, Paddy, prompted a move for the family to Dublin. Ahern then worked in a bank
when he left Secondary School but subsequent studies in UCD and Glasgow set him up for his life's
vocation. He spent almost three decades as a Community Youth worker in Dublin city, but a triple
bypassbrought on by the stresses of this draining jobsaw him opt for retirement in 2000.
Ahern's love of athletics which started in his late teens, not only gave him the platform to write 'Dare To
Run', it also helped him form a friendship with Eamon Coughlan, the Irish athletics legend. Now president
of Donore Harriers AC, Ahern spent over 15 years running for the club and was often a team-mate of
Coughlan, who emerged as one of the country's greatest competitors. A decent runner, Ahern originally
turned to athletics in order to get fit. "I was going to play for Home Farm!" he said, laughing at what was
his teenage dream, "but I just took to running immediately and I absolutely adored it." A condition that
affected his joints, Anklyosing Spondilitis, ended his athletics career. Once it was properly diagnosed,
he has been able to cope although constant treatment and exercise is necessary.
When no longer a participant, Ahern, who married Mary Collins in 1981, turned to official duties. Secretary
of the Donore club for 15 years, he also assisted in the promotion and organisation of international meets
at Santry Stadium in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He drew on these experiences when writing 'Dare To
Run', which was launched last November. Based in Ballybodenhimself and his wife, Mary, have
three sons, Ciarán, Eoin and DonálAhern's lengthy involvement in athletics means
that he counts two Sligo athletics stalwarts, Calry's Ray Flynn and Terry Hayes, a native of Inchicore,
among his valued acquaintances. He also got to know Emmett Dunleavy, currently among Sligo's top
athletes, and a few other locals during the week spent preparing in Leopardstown for the IAAF World
Cross Country Championships in 1999. Leitrim's PJ Leddy, a sports columnist, like Flynn, for Sligo
Weekender, is another that Ahern praised. "He [Leddy] was a great athlete. He was running at the
same time that I was running but he was a much better runner."
If writing is his thing at the moment, something sparked by enrolling in a creative writing course in 2001, his athletics background has helped enormously.
The designer of the striking cover of 'Dare To Run' is an athlete and Frank Greally, the force behind
'Irish Runner' magazine, is listed on the book's acknowledgements page. 'Dare To Run' centres on the
struggle of Solomon Rumalo, a black South African athlete, to establish himself on the European circuit
in the early 1980s. Although fictional, references are made to actual eventsSouth Africa was then
gripped by the scourge of apartheidand part of the book is set in Ireland. There is a happy ending
for the main character, although Ahern juggled with the idea of a alternative climax to this enjoyable thriller.
"I had to decide whether he [Rumalo] would be bumped off or not. But he had gone through so much that
he deserved a break."
Eamon Coughlan, his former team-mate at Donore Harriers, has read the book, while renowned international
athletes Sonia O'Sullivan, who hails from Cork, and Paula Radcliffe, the leading English runner, have each
perused it as well. All three gave Ahern's work the 'thumbs up', while O'Sullivan penned a piece for the
book's back cover. "This book will appeal not only to those interested in sport, but to anyone moved by
the drama of lifeits hardships, joys and sorrows. I really enjoyed it," said O'Sullivan of 'Dare To Run'.
Rejected by 14 publishers and not having an agent means that selling copies of his book is a gruelling
process. He can be seen at athletics meets countrywide with a stall brimming with copies of 'Dare To
Run', while he also had successfully approached many bookshops nationwide. Breaking into the lucrative
English and American markets requires an agent. That is something he aspires to along with the writing of
another book. "I would love to do another book. When you write one book you learn so much about writing.
It is about confidence. You ask yourself 'can I write a novel?' "But I found the writing less difficult that I
expected," he added
Ahern still keeps an eye on Sligo results. At Croke Park when Mickey Kearins and co. played against Kerry
in the 1975 All-Ireland SFC semi-finalhe also enjoyed Sligo's All-Ireland SFC 'Qualifier' defeat of
Kildare four years agoAhern celebrated Sligo Rovers FAI Cup success in 1994. He might have left
Tubbercurry and County Sligo 50 years ago but he retains cherished memories of Straka, O'Dowd and
Armstrong. "The Tubbercurry experience was a huge experience for me but if I went to Tubbercurry
now nobody would know me. I went there 25 years ago and no one knew me!"