Portarlington Swimming Pool Association paid a special tribute to their longest serving member, Niall McElwaine, at their recent bingo night.
Niall was part of the original committee 50 years ago who dreamed up the idea of an indoor swimming pool for Port, and has played an active role ever since. At 78, the Donegal native is currently secretary and still swims several times a week in the pool he helped to make a reality.
Niall recalls the difficulties they had persuading the county council to help them built an indoor heated swimming pool.
“The pool was built in 1974 but we had spent twelve years proving to the powers that be that it was a good idea. First it was ‘haven’t you got a river, and a canal?’. Then it was ‘you want it heated, and a roof?’,
“If somebody had given us £5,000 at the time, we would have built an outdoor one. But we got lucky. Bobby Molloy became Minister, he had been a champion swimmer. He set out new guidelines, exactly the things we had been looking for,” he explained.
Niall credits the other members of the committee throughout the years for their constant hard work.
“There was Leo Dempsey. Paddy Burbage and Martin Turley, God rest them. Alo Donegan, who was a world class cyclist. They all wouldn’t take no for an answer,”
The committee raised enough money to buy a field for about £500, where Siac is now, in the 1960’s.
“With a bit of good luck, the planning officer who was a wise man, turned it down because he said it was too far out of the town, and it would be dangerous for children to be walking to it. Then we had another stroke of luck. Somebody had bought a field for a cattle mart. The residents objected and the site was lying idle so the council offered it to us. It didn’t look anything then, we had to climb over old walls through nettles and thistles to see it. We got it on a long term lease, about seven years into our fundraising,” Niall recalls.
The bingo began as a way to make use of a marquee set up for summer dances in the late 60’s and early 70’s.
“Someone suggested since it was lying idle a few days of the weeks to run bingo there. We got chairs from the convent and the tech and borrowed lights, and started it on a Tuesday. That was 42 years ago,” he says.
In 1974 the swimming pool finally opened at a cost of £62,000, £16,000 of which the committee had raised through the bingo, which still continues to be a great source of income to it, as well as a social institution in the town.
The pool quickly became part of life for the children of Portarlington and beyond.
“We had the most marvellous galas in the late 70’s and the 80’s, for groups from all over Ireland. I rememember 500 kids in the pool, they’d be there for five hours, great occasions. The community games were there too,” he says.
It produced several gold medal winners in the National Swimming Championships in Mosney, but Niall feels the best contribution is in teaching a whole generation to swim.
“The pool is not like a beach, there’s no great fun without swimming. Now the parents who learnt to swim there are bringing their children too, as young as six months old,” Niall says, adding that many young people who learned lifeguard skills worked their way through college at the pool, including his own son.
He had plans to retire when the revamped pool was opened four years ago.
“When it was in the process of being built, and we were pestering the politicians, we said when we got there, as soon as the key turned, we would say day day. But the secretary resigned, and I was stuck. I’m still here, I’ve invested a lot of my life, so I will stay as long as I still have my health,” he said.
“I was there today, swimming my ten or 15 lengths. When you see the place full of kids, it lifts your heart, there’s no doubt,” said the Donegal man.