Obituary

Bill McEvoy, the Laois man who championed Comhaltas in USA

Teddy Fennelly

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Teddy Fennelly

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news@leinsterexpress.ie

Bill McEvoy, the Laois man who championed Comhaltas in USA

The late Bill McEvoy

The death took place on Wednesday, November 25 at his home in Long Island, USA, of one of the most prominent and popular Laois people of his generation, Bill McEvoy.

A native of Kilcoke, Ballybrophy, Co. Laois, he would have been 98-years old in the coming January.

Though the years had slowed him down physically, he still retained his acute sharpness of mind, the great eye for detail, his gentle humour and the ability to tell a good story right up until the end. A proud Laoisman, his whole life has centred on music, all things Irish and the GAA, especially hurling.

Bill was a member of the celebrated Pipers Club in Dublin and he played music with such traditional icons as Leo Rowsome. He was one of the founding members of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann in 1972 and was U.S. Co-ordinator for North America for many decades including 25 years as provincial Chairman, from which he retired in 1997.

Many honours

Among the many tributes he received in his lifetime was when he was Guest of Honour at a Civic Reception organised for him by Laois County Council at County Hall to mark his achievements.

He also received the ultimate tribute from his own people of Laoisman of the Year, which was bestowed upon him at the Leinster Express Annual Awards for 1994, an honour he valued most dearly of all.

Bill always kept in close touch and friendship with the umbrella body of Comhaltas in Ireland and one of his closest friends was its Director General, Labhras O’Murchu.

In the year 2000 he, along with his late wife, Lily, and family were honoured at the prestigious Tionol Leo Rowsome, a weekend of celebration at Comhaltas headquarters in Dublin. They received specially crafted presentations and Bill’s contribution over so many years was heralded in song and in story as well as by a special exhibition of photos and memorabilia to mark the growth of the organisation he led in America. He was conferred by the organisation with the title of Life President of Comhaltas in North America.

Ceoltoiri Sliabh Bladhma

Bill was always supportive of the work of Laois Comhaltas and was especially proud in welcoming the Laois based traditional group, Ceoltoiri Sliabh Bladhma, and their renowned leader, the late Stephen Conroy, from Roundwood, on their visits to the U.S. in the 1990s. He helped organise the tours from the American side which played to packed houses in numerous venues from New York to Boston.

After a first hugely successful two-week tour, the group was invited back again to perform the best of traditional music, song, dance and story-telling from Laois artistes which proved a great eye-opener for many people who never thought of Laois as the proud stronghold it is for traditional music. The untimely deaths of Stephen and his wife Mary, who was a fine step dancer, a few years later, came as a shock to Bill and to everyone who knew them and their passing was a great loss to the traditional scene in Bill’s home county.

The annual national Comhaltas Concert Tour brought some of the all-time traditional greats live from Ireland to big American audiences wherever they appeared. They played to full houses in all the big cities and in immigrant Irish enclaves throughout the North American continent. These were huge organising feats and the local enthusiasts who helped them in the various places they toured went on to set up branches from where the organisation grew.

Bill was an active member of the Laois Association in New York and helped organise the Laois representation at the annual New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade. He had the distinction of leading the Laois group down Fifth Avenue as its Grand Master.

In 2008 he put together in book form a collection of archive material relating to his involvement in Comhaltas in America and all the people that helped build up the movement there. It is titled “Memories from a Great and Noble Past”. In his introduction he tells us that “so many great people occupy a revered spot in the annals of Comhaltas history. Without their support we never would have made it as it is today. They were motivated by a profound love for Ireland and our native culture, heritage and tradition”. He has a special word for Labhras O’Murchu, Director General of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann. “All of us were inspired by the greatest cultural leader that Ireland has ever had”, he writes.

Laois memories

After a happy childhood in County Laois, his first full time job with the ESB rural electrification took him to County Kerry where he met the love of his life, Lily, and the start of a lifelong romance. Bill, a fiddle player of note and All-Ireland winner of Whistling and Lilting competitions, and Lily, an accomplished Irish dancer, got married on 21 February, 1950. They spent the next four years in Lily’s native Kerry whose people, Bill says, “are among the nicest in the world”.

“But working for the ESB at that time did not present a great future”, he said, “and in 1954 we decided to come to America. As the huge ocean liner, Brittanic, sailed out from Cobh Harbour on its seven day journey to New York, we were both very lonely. Our three children were too young to remember. For more than a day we stood on the deck and watched the distant hills of Kerry slip beneath the horizon and we wondered would we ever again see Ireland”.

But they settled quickly into the American way of life and the family grew of three to nine. They managed pretty well and were able to make their first family trip home in 1964. Since then Bill, sometimes with Lily and members of their family, made in the region of an incredible 130 trips in all back to Ireland. But that is only part of his story for as he said himself, “I go back every night in my dreams”.

On his numerous trips to Ireland, Bill always took time out to visit the haunts of his youth around Ballybrophy and Knockaroo and Durrow, where his late brother, Sean, lived and to Portlaoise, where he usually bedded down for a few nights in the home of Anne Whelan, his niece, and her husband, Eamon, the famed Laois footballer of the 1970s and ‘80s.

Anne, a teacher at the local Sacred Heart School, has been very close to Bill since her own school days. She paid regular visits to his home at Long Island, New York State, and they kept in contact by phone and other means on an almost daily basis. Anne had been speaking to him just a few days before his short illness and news of his passing came as a great shock to her.

Old friends

On one of those trips, in 2003, he set down some of his thoughts on being back home again. He tells of a visit to Knockaroo Cemetery and the old church there, where he went to Mass in his younger years and made his First Holy Communion. “Knockaroo is the final resting place for many of my old friends with whom I laughed and quaffed through early childhood. As I stood there all alone on a lovely evening in August, shrouded amongst crosses and gravestones, my thoughts went back to my schooldays in Knockaroo. My first teacher was Nora Campion, a delightful lady with a lovely disposition, even though she was confined to a wheelchair in those years.

“A little nearer to the church I stood awhile at the graveside of a very dear friend, Timmy Fitzpatrick, from Grangemore and Ballybrophy. Truly a hurling giant and star of many a game back then. He shone in goal for Kilcotton, Laois and Leinster. Hurling was in his blood and why wouldn’t it be? His uncle, Jack Carroll, also laid to rest in Knockaroo, was the last surviving member of the of the Laois team in 1915 beating Cork in the All-Ireland final by 6-2 to 4-1.”

Bill attended his first All-Ireland at the age of ten and often cycled to see Laois teams play. He remembered other hurling greats from his home patch, players like Bob O’Keeffe, Mal Kelly and Frank Jones, who starred on the playing fields of Ireland with Harry Gray, Paddy Wheeler, Jackie Daly, and Paddy Hogan all from Rathdowney. From Errill came the Campion brothers, Micky, Joe and Francie, Andy Bergin, Oliver Dowling, Mick Mockler and fair-haired Paddy Morrissey “from the hill”. There was Pat and Joe Hetherington and Jack Cashin from Ballacolla, the Bergins from Clonad, ‘Lag’ Cranny from Abbeyleix and Paddy O’Brien from Borris-in-Ossory. They were all hurling heroes in their own time but, although they starred at all levels, never got their hands on an All-Ireland medal.

“In those early years we enjoyed our evening and weekends during the summer, hurling in Dunnes School Garden in Kilcoke, as well as the evenings and nights at Murphy’s Cross, Kilcoke, playing pitch and toss and skittles and, sometimes, just general mischief. The road from Ballybrophy to Kyledellig was called the Bowery. Sometimes the lads from Glebe, Donaghmore and farther afield would come down the Bowery, where they knew they would find nice girls.

Bill remembered the Dunnes and Fogartys from Kilcoke, the Hogan family from Garryduff, the Brennans from Coolowley, the Houlihans from Tullacommon, the Treacys from Ballyquaid, the Loughmans and Walls from Killasmeestia and the Kennedys from Killadooly Cross. “And there were many more whose friendship I cherished and whose memory stayed with me through all my years in America”, said Bill.

Storied achievements

Paul Keating edited Bill’s book and tells of how the Comhaltas movement grew in America and of Bill’s part in it. “No one could imagine his storied achievements back in the 1970s when this visionary began to impart and construct the best attributes of Ireland’s foremost cultural movement. He worked closely with Labhras O’Murchu to establish a support network for the annual Concert Tour from Ireland which developed into the branch system that sustains the North American Province.”

Paul Keating went on to say that countless thousands of people across North America have benefitted “from the powerful efforts of this one very proud and dedicated Irishman whose humble origins allowed him to emphasise the grassroots nature of the organisation”. He added: “The book is simply a reflection on many of his experiences and the manner of communicating with people who helped him along the way. It reveals a man who has many talents as an organizer, motivator and writer. He dedicated those skills to Comhaltas voluntarily and at great expense, for which he received no financial compensation down through the decades.”

Bill and his dedicated team set up branches and networks of Comhaltas throughout the U.S. and Canada. He was a tireless worker possessing great stamina and perseverance and gave an enormous amount of time to the organisation. To enable do this, and still manage to work every hour that God gave him, he had the full support of his late wife Lily, and he is always keen to ensure that his dear partner for half a century and more receives the acknowledgement she is due.

He worked for the Bell Telephone Company for thirty years without missing a day and on his retirement he received plaudits for his dedicated service.

Bill and Lily had five daughters and four sons, one of whom, their beloved Maureen, passed away a few years ago. They have 25 grandchildren and 26 great grandchildren. Bill is also mourned by his sisters, Molly Stapleton, Leeds, Bridie O’Kane, Baltinglass, Co. Wicklow, and Margaret Duggan, Portlaoise. He was predeceased by his brother, Sean, Durrow, and his sister, Judy Dowling, Durrow.

After his long and eventful life, Bill, a genial people’s person, will be dearly missed by his numerous friends in Ireland and the USA.

Teddy Fennelly