I went to Tolka Park yesterday to watch Leeds play Shelbourne, and I was sad to see how much the ground has declined. The club clearly has no money for proper maintenance, and the seats at the Ballybough end of the ground, and at either side of the Riverside Stand, are all either removed or dismantled.
That said, I remember when the Ballybough end had a pile of mud instead of seats, and we used to enjoy watching matches from that dubious vantage point.
But most of all the visit reminded me of the late Ollie Byrne, the former owner of Shelbourne football club, and his role in helping my late wife and me to find our cat Boris when he went missing about a decade ago.
I’ve written about this before, but it is worth retelling.
One of my cats is called Boris, because he looks like Boris Johnson. He is the most friendly cat ever, and everyone in the area loves him. But when Boris was a kitten, he got lost on Christmas day while we were visiting my parents.
We spent weeks looking for him, including a major poster campaign all around Drumcondra and Glasnevin. Then we got a phone call from Ollie Byrne, the owner of Shelbourne Football club, who said that he has seen Boris on the wall of Tolka Park, which is Shelbourne’s ground on Richmond Road.
Now, for perspective, since I was a child, I have supported Bohemian football club, and at that time Shelbourne were our major rivals. And Ollie Byrne, who has since sadly died, was hated by everyone in every other club in the league. He ran Shelbourne in a financially eccentric way, and he used to invoke obscure league rules to get points deducted from other teams.
He once got points deducted from Saint Pats Athletic, and the next time Shels played Pats, Pats went a goal up and the Pats fans were chanting abuse at Ollie. Then Shels equalised, and Ollie started goading the Pats fans by giving them the two fingers, and as he was doing that Pats scored again and the fans started laughing at Ollie. He ended up in court, where he claimed that he hadn’t been giving the fans the two fingers, he had been telling them the score was one all.
So that was the man who rang us up, in the dead of winter, to tell us that he had seen Boris on the wall of Tolka Park. And he insisted that my wife and I come down to Tolka Park, and he spent about two hours with us checking every nook and cranny of the ground, in the cold and the rain, trying to help us find Boris.
Ollie told us that he had a dog for many years, who he loved, and that the dog had died over Christmas, and so he was particularly sensitive at that time to anybody who had lost a pet. And my wife, of course, instantly loved Ollie, because she didn’t have the prejudice against him that I had because of football, and even for me it diluted my prejudice against him and I reluctantly had to see him as a decent person.
But we didn’t find Boris in Tolka Park. So we had to keep looking for him. And we spent the next few weeks searching the area around Tolka Park every night, when it was quiet enough to call Boris and be able to listen for any reaction.
The IRA man
One night I was in the back garden of an old folks complex beside Tolka Park, calling for Boris, and an elderly man came over and asked me what I was doing. I told him, and he said ‘is that the cat on all of the posters?’ and I said yes, and he said that he had been keeping an eye out for him but hadn’t seen him.
He spent an hour or so with me, trying to find Boris, then he asked me would I like a cup of tea, so we went into his apartment. He was a really nice man, and we were getting on really well.
For perspective of this next bit, you need to know that my late wife Anne and I spent years campaigning against the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. We organised peace pickets outside their conferences and after some of their worst murders, and we organised peace trains to combat their attacks on the Dublin to Belfast rail line.
So I was in this elderly man’s apartment beside Tolka Park, having a nice cup of tea, and I was glancing around, and I noticed a lot of IRA paraphernalia on the walls. And I asked him about it, and he said he used to run the IRA’s prisoner of war department, and that these were ornaments made for him by IRA prisoners.
I didn’t want to get into an argument with him about the IRA, although I did say that I thought dialogue was a better way than violence to resolve the situation, and we had a friendly discussion about life in general, and when I left he said he was going to make it his mission to find Boris.
A week later we got a phone call from this man, and he said that he had found Boris. So I went around to his apartment and, sure enough, Boris was there. Boris was delighted to see me, and I was delighted to see Boris, and I asked the man where he had found him.
He said that another man living in the old folks complex had found Boris, and that he had been keeping him for weeks, and that he was about to take Boris home to his farm down the country… “But I persuaded him to give him back.” I didn’t ask how.
The Catholic creationist
As an encore, Boris went missing again a few years ago. This time the search led to the roads around the Botanic Gardens, where I was told that Boris had been seen near a particular house. The owner confirmed that he had seen him, and said he would call me if he saw him again.
Completing a hat-trick of challenging my sporting, political and religious prejudices, Boris was safely returned thanks to Eamon Murphy, a member of the Catholic creationist Kolbe Institute, which led to me later debating Hugh Owen from the Institute about the existence of god.
And so Boris is still happily king of our house, and indeed of the road, thanks to Ollie Byrne, a former IRA man, and a Catholic creationist, which is the last combination of rescuers that I could possibly have predicted.