Ballinabrackey clubman and Pairc Tailteann chief steward Jim Cooney at the club’s ground last week. Photo: John Quirke / www.quirke.ie

Cooney’s major contribution to the GAA

It's late Thursday morning and Jim Cooney is back home ready and willing to talk to the Meath Chronicle about his life in general and the GAA in particular.

The mornings can be a busy time for the Ballinabrackey man. As a driver of a school bus his first task is to collect students from various pick-up points and bring them to St Mary's SS and Oakland College in Edenderry by around 8.10am.

Then it's back to collect another batch of youngsters in and around his local area before transporting them, this time to Castlejordan National School for 9.20am or so.

It's only then, when he returns home, he has a chance to sit down and the talk by phone to the Chronicle, before later in the day hitting the road again to bring the students back home.

Generation after generation, year after year he has brought youngsters from their homes to local schools and back.

"I have only half a load these days because of the Covid, there's a couple of more buses bringing the rest of the kids. I have only about 20 now on the bus, but it's something I have been doing for the past 40 years now," he explained.

School bus drivers don't often get public praise or even acknowledgement for what they do.

That's their job, people will say, that's what they get paid for, but if they didn't do what they do many young people might not have got to school as easily as they did through the years.

It's the bus drivers' contribution to society.

But then making a contribution in a quiet, understated way is nothing new to Jim Cooney. He has done it and continues to do it in other respects too such as the roles he has filled in that other great force in Irish life - the GAA.

He's more than happy to do whatever he can for the old Association, all voluntary, of course, the only reward the quiet satisfaction that in his own way he is helping out. Contributing.

ROLES

In 50 years involvement Jim Cooney has filled a variety of roles including under-age coach, referee, Minor Board chairman, Co Board committee member and most latterly head steward for Pairc Tailteann.

It's a relatively new role, clearly demanding at times, but you suspect he enjoys it too because it keeps him in touch with other Gaels, especially those who have become friends down the years.

He pays tribute to stewards who fill vital roles at the Brews Hill venue and to members of Meath GAA who have contributed over the years and continue to do so in one way or another.

"The dedication they show is unbelievable, great," he says.

Certainly Jim Cooney - who has also worked as a part-time farmer down the years - is happy to help out as much as he can.

It's been like that for a long time now, as his long list of roles indicate. However, he quickly adds that none of it, none of the involvement, would be possible without the support of someone else. Someone very important in his life - his wife Ellen, or Nellie as she is more widely known.

A cousin of Seamus Darby, the man who scored the late goal for Offaly against Kerry in the 1982 All-Ireland SFC final, Nellie Cooney can also be seen as a member of another cohort of people who are unsung heroes - the partners and spouses of GAA people who keep the home fires burning when 'the other half' is out oiling the wheels of an organisation that is such a central part of Irish life.

"I don't drink and I don't smoke so my hobby is the GAA if you like. I enjoyed my time in the GAA over the years such as my involvement with the minor board but I wouldn't have been able to do all that only that I have a good woman, a great wife," he adds.

"Nellie has in the past organised to bring home the turf, the hay and the silage. She has organised many other jobs, bits and pieces, around the place.

"I would be neglecting something if I hadn't somebody like that. She is great and that has been the way going back since we were married in 1984. Nothing is a problem to her."

Jim and Nellie have three children - Arnold, Emma and Donna Marie - and they too help out.

"Arnold is taking over the farming side of things, I'm just in the background, he'll give me a hand, I'll give him a hand, that type of thing.

"I couldn't have done it without help like that because you cannot neglect cattle.

"If you don't go out into the field regularly you could have a sick animal and that's no good."

BALLYFORE

The Cooneys live in Ballyfore, Castlejordan and at the end of a field behind their house in the Yellow River (a tributary of the Boyne) and beyond that again is foreign land - Offaly.

Those on the Meath side of the river are proud, very proud, of their Royal County heritage and none more so than Jim Cooney.

As a young man he was always anxious to help out the local club, Ballinabrackey, who adopted green and gold colours, you suspect, to emphasise their 'Meathness.'

Cooney was certainly not found wanting when it came to making a contribution in whatever way he could to Meath GAA - at local or county levels.

He got a great kick from helping local under-age teams to club championship triumphs.

He got a personal reward in other ways as well. He recalls how in 2003 when Meath won the All-Ireland JFC in Mullingar by defeating Galway somebody said something to him he never forgot.

"A woman came over to me afterwards, gave me a hug, and said to me. 'That all started with you.'

"She was referring to her son who was on the team and who I had coached from u-8 up. Those words meant an awful lot to me.

"When somebody says something like that to you all the effort is worthwhile."

There was his contribution in other ways such as his time as chairman of the Minor Board which he filled for three years from 2000 to 2002.

There were the other kinds of contributions that were vital if characteristically understated.

There was the time in the late 1980s and early 1990s when one of his tasks was to collect players involved with Meath minor and u-21 county teams and bring them to Navan for training and games.

At times in that role he clearly went way beyond the call of duty.

"When the u-21s were playing I often had to drive players down to Limerick where they were students, the likes of Kenny Cantwell and John Brady, one or two others.

"Down to Limerick is a 100 miles from my house. We would drive down after training and I wouldn't be back until 2am at least.

"I would sometimes bring Arnold with me so I wouldn't fall asleep on the way back.

"Benny Gartland (then Minor Board chairman) asked me if I would bring them down so I said I would."

Whenever his own achievements and contributions are highlighted, Cooney points to others who do as much for the GAA. He's anxious not to take too much of the limelight.

"I would drive the players, but so would people like Tommy Mahon who would pick others up in Dublin and take them back and others like Vincent Walsh in Oldcastle.

"Other members of the Minor Board helped out in whatever way they could. It was a combined effort."

He again refers to the dedication all his fellow stewards in Pairc Tailteann play in helping to ensure the scene is set for games at the old stadium.

He also name-checks a neighbour of his Ned Bland who he regularly travels with over to Navan.

"Ned is one of those people who if you said: 'My car is broken down will you drive me to Cork for a game he'd ask 'when?' He is very good, always wants to help and there are many in the GAA like that."

Cooney will admit he found the lockdown hard. He will never get used to no games to go to on a Saturday evening or Sunday afternoon. It just feels so unnatural.

"I think it has been hard for people, not just me. I might ring someone like Mickey Ball in Bohermeen and say 'Mickey be ready for the game on Sunday when there wouldn't be a game at all but we'd have a laugh anyway about it.'

"Having no games is an awful loss, and it just wasn't the same when only 100 people were allowed in. There was no atmosphere."

The time comes for the interview to end. It won't be long before Cooney has to get back on his bus and collect the school kids and bring them back home.

The years pass but the routine, the dedication, the focus remains the same.

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