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Pat Critchley’s compelling story is one to stop you in your tracks

There’s a poignant emotional depth to the Laochra Gael episode on the life and times of Laois’s lone hurling All Star

It’s doubtful that Laochra Gael, TG4′s – at this stage – archive of Gaelic games personalities over the past few decades, has ever produced quite as compelling a story as that of Pat Critchley.

Airing on Thursday, the programme is ostensibly about the life and times of someone who has the unique distinction of being Laois’s only hurling All Star and a major presence in the GAA since the 1980s.

There is however more to the narrative, which opens with an almost melancholy scene of Critchley in his beautifully-appointed house in the countryside at Grange Upper, its solitude contrasting with the Portlaoise council estate where he grew up.

He muses that he would have loved a wife and family and how well he gets on with kids but recounts the words of a former girlfriend to the effect that she was in a play-off with soccer for fourth place in his affections after hurling, basketball and football.


That full-on sporting involvement is obviously centre stage from the early picture of a teenager in front of a sideboard already beginning to creak with trophies and awards.

Bear in mind that what lies ahead is not just a sporting life but a musical sideline with a band, The Mere Mortals, who play at Féile in 1990. Characteristically dismissive of his musicianship, Critchley acknowledges a love of writing, both lyrics and in time the well-received 2008 memoir Hungry Hill, named after his childhood home.

Portlaoise is his club and he will win a club football All-Ireland in 1983 but hurling is his first language.

There is also adversity – just about the worst anyone can encounter but more of that later.

Paradoxically, sporting tales of striving and valiant failure to get over the line have a greater allure than those of success however hard-earned.

It may be one of the GAA’s great achievements to hold together an intercounty system, which effectively predetermines the ceiling in so many sporting lives. You are where you come from even if that means little to no chance of tilting at the major prizes.

Laois would be in that category. A midland county of about 90,000 people, it has one senior All-Ireland to its name, the 1915 hurling title.

Yet in the 1980s Laois hurlers gave the glass ceiling a few belts to see if it would crack. Even then, things were stacked against them. In 1984, the county reached the final of a GAA centenary competition, sponsored by Ford.

Nor were they finalists simply through the good fortune of the draw. To get there they had recorded one-point wins over Limerick, Tipperary and Galway. Unfortunately for them, Cork picked them off mercilessly on the big day. Laois learned what may teams learn: experience is needed and that generally involves disappointment.

Compounding this was a Leinster draw that pitted them against All-Ireland champions Kilkenny a week later. These were not the days of qualifier-indemnified championship hurling let alone round robins. Accordingly, their season effectively wrapped in eight days.

What sort of a role did Pat Critchley play? As you might expect of a multidisciplinary sportsman, he was athletic and indefatigable.

“He never ran out of petrol,” says his brother Mick at one stage. But he was also skilled, both in the tackle as well as in making space for himself – manoeuvres learned in basketball – and able to take nice scores.

“Clever with the ball and a strategic player from midfield,” is one tribute.

At centrefield, he is seen in old footage racing hard at defences, his mop of corkscrew hair bouncing up and down in rhythm with his progress.

Better days beckoned. A rare win over Wexford in 1985 sets up a first Leinster final in 34 years but, again on the big day, things flatline and neighbours Offaly, on the way to their second hurling All-Ireland, beat them comfortably.

There follows the limited consolation – he rates it third behind the dreams of All-Ireland and provincial success – of an All Star. Generously ill at ease, he later says that team-mate John Taylor deserved it more but gracefully accepts it as recognition for his team.

Unfortunately, that year marks him more profoundly for the darkest of reasons. Death is something everyone has to come to terms with whether it be family, friends and finally oneself. Involvement in the death of another is a different matter.

In Croke Park on November 3rd he scores 1-1 against Dublin in a heavy defeat for Laois. At one stage, he is about to strike a ball when it is flicked away by Dublin’s Paul Mulhere unseen by Critchley. The purely accidental follow-through catches his opponent, who is dazed but apparently alright.

Two days later, Paul Mulhere died in St Vincent’s hospital. Critchley is devastated. Attending a Mass in Drimnagh while his opponent was on life support, he is described as having been “in smithereens” by Eamonn Potts, Mulhere’s club manager at Good Counsel in a 2018 Sunday Independent interview with Dermot Crowe.

The Mulhere family encouraged Pat Critchley to return to hurling, which he did. All these years later, we see him reviewing newspaper cuttings and the funeral Mass leaflet, saying how he thinks of this trauma all the time.

Emphasising the “personal and private” nature of the grief, he explains that driving to Dublin he always blesses himself when passing the sign for Athgoe, home to the Mulheres, if on his own. Accompanied, he doesn’t.

It is a burden still carried. In his own estimation, hurling wasn’t quite the same ever after.

Yet there is more. In 2016, driving a local road, he collided with a pedestrian, Tipperary Councillor, Willie Kennedy coming from a funeral. Again, it was a tragic accident but devastating to be involved in a second fatality.

A quiet, shy individual, Pat Critchley managed teams in both codes. He is seen in the school where he has taught sports for decades, Scoil Chríost Rí, Portlaoise, patiently coaching the girls at basketball and sitting shyly between two fellow teachers, singing his praises.

“If anyone were to say a bad word about him, there’d be an army of people to stand up for him.”

• Laochra Gael: Pat Critchley, Thursday TG4, 9.30