Monday, August 03, 2015

Paddy Aspell, an appreciation

Although Paddy Aspell lived at least half of his 89 years in Newbridge, he was from and very much involved with Kilcullen for all of them, writes Brian Byrne.

That's why there was a large attendance at Kilcullen Parish Church recently when the former councillor was brought 'home' to spend a last night in the town he loved before his funeral mass and burial in Newbridge the following day.

The people there mostly represented the 'old' Kilcullen who would remember him, but many facilities which are enjoyed today by the much-expanded population of newcomers to the once-a-village are there at least in part to his work and influence over many decades.

A guard of honour from Kilcullen GAA and the Kilcullen Boxing Club escorted the hearse to the church, representing the two local sporting organisations with which he had been inextricably connected since his youth.

And in a comprehensive reflection on the man and his achievements on behalf of the people from where he had come, his longtime friend Christy Howard tapped into, and triggered, many local memories. Among those listening, his daughters Marguerite and Bernie and sons Patsy and Murty, and his sisters Kitty and Peg, may well have been familiar with many of the stories. But for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Christy's thoughts will be a record of a man much loved by a community which he loved so much himself.

The fighting spirit which eventually served him well in his political endeavours and in the service to his constituents as a councillor kicked in early. Contemporary and friend Pat Lynch recalls how Paddy as a youngster, with friends from his home area of Gilltown and Brannockstown, would walk in to Kilcullen in the evenings to train in Kilcullen Boxing Club's loft behind Byrne's Hotel (later The Hideout), and then they would walk all the way home again, in the dark in winter.

As a fighter himself, Paddy achieved a number of successes, including All Army Featherweight Championships twice. Another contemporary, and a good performer in the ring himself, Jim Berney recalls Paddy as 'handy', and remembers being with him in an international event in Kilkenny against a Belgian team.

But it was as a trainer that he left his best boxing legacy. Christy Howard remembers how he and his friends were taught by Paddy the most important boxing lesson. "He taught us defence," he says. "We could always avoid being knocked out because he taught us how to protect ourselves."

He also recalls, somewhat ruefully, that during competitive bouts, Paddy would always urge his young fighters on. "He'd say, 'go on, you can do it, you're nearly there', even when things were at their worst. He never threw in the towel, even though sometimes we'd wish he did."

Paddy also trained teams in Kilcullen GAA, which Christy Howard said was a natural progression, as the boxers and the footballers were pretty well the same group. And he brought the same lessons in being tough and being good defenders to his 'boys' on the pitch as he did in the ring.

"He was also adamant that the boxers and footballers were of good behaviour, especially away from the clubs. Learning to box also conferred a responsibility on the lads to behave properly out around the town."

It was a time when Kilcullen Boxing Club was what would be known today as a 'centre of excellence', Christy Howard says, noting Paddy Aspell's involvement in training national and international stars of the 50s such as Olympian Colm McCoy and Irish and international champion Billy Schwer.

In the development of the boxing club itself, Paddy was one of the prime movers in the building of the club's new premises in the early 1960s, the John F Kennedy Hall. Building the hall was very much a hands-on matter for the club members of the time, with many of them temporarily becoming block layers, plumbers and carpenters, and fundraisers. In the last few years, the Club moved to new state of art premises on the campus of Kilcullen Community Centre.

Paddy's Newbridge associations were strong from early in his life, as he worked in Irish Ropes along with many other Kilcullen men. So when he and his wife Nancy (who predeceased him in May, 2009) set up home there, he had many Newbridge friends already. It was from there that he became involved in politics, winning a Fianna Fail seat in the 1974 local elections to Kildare County Council. He served on the Council until 1991. He was also elected to Newbridge Town Commission in 1979, and served as Chairman during the subsequent term. In 1982 he made his only run for the Dail. Though unsuccessful, his 3.9 percent of the vote for a first-timer was respectable. He was also a member of the Eastern Health Board and of Bord Failte.

Paddy also went into the pub business in Newbridge, in a period which is remembered with fondness by his friend and party colleague Fiona O'Loughlin. "Many a good night was had by many, including myself, in Aspell's Bar," she says. "He was a great character, a proud Fianna Fáiler, immersed and interested in all political events both local and national. He represented his constituents on both Newbridge Town Commission and Kildare County Council with vigour and determination, and there was no prouder father than when his son Murty was elected to the then Town Commission. Paddy was great company and enjoyed the chat and banter — no later than two weeks ago when I visited him in hospital."

For Christy Howard, Paddy's passing is a particular loss, as in recent years he was a constant visitor to Paddy's home for chats and recollections and discussions on matters of today and yesterday.

"He remained very interested in Kilcullen, the Boxing Club, and the GAA, but most especially the people of the town where he had grown up. Before I'd leave him after a visit, he always had a particular topic in mind for the next time I'd come, and he'd want me to make sure I was up to speed on it."

Paddy's last public visit to Kilcullen was in 2012, when he was given a Kilcullen Community Award for his dedication over many years in coaching and helping to develop the Boxing Club. It was presented to him by Margaret O'Shea of Kilcullen Community Action.

Ar Dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

This article was first published in The Kildare Nationalist.