Irish great O’Reilly passes away after amazing life in hockey

Joan O’Reilly – September 17, 1924 – January 10, 2014
Joan O’Reilly, one of Irish hockey’s most illustrious and talented international players, has passed away following a most varied and decorated life both on and off the field of play. With lightning speed and flair down the right wing, she earned 34 caps over a decade in the Irish jersey in which she was widely regarded as one of the best of her generation, leading to her induction into the IHA Hall of Fame.

Joan O'Reilly, left, with Joan Priestman at the IHA Hall of Fame induction in 2006

Joan O’Reilly, left, with Joan Priestman at the IHA Hall of Fame induction in 2006

While it was on the hockey pitch that she gained most of her sporting fame, O’Reilly made waves on the athletics circuit when she produced a quick enough time to qualify for the 1948 London Olympics. A close contemporary of Maeve Kyle, she won the national 100m title while also pushing Fanny Blankers-Koen – who would go on to win four gold medals – in a pre-Olympic race but, due to the prevailing mood towards Irish women, was precluded from travelling to the Games.

Instead, she turned her attentions to the hockey field, making her debut in 1949 against Scotland before famously helping Ireland to a Triple Crown win a year later, beating England in Wembley for good measure.

That year, she embarked on her first of four international tours at her own expense, travelling to South Africa for a six week event, taking on seven other nations in a series of different cities. She would subsequently travel to Folkestone, the USA and Amsterdam as a player, earning 34 international caps.

Her great friend Gladys Ruddock – whom O’Reilly would later act as a mentor to her umpiring career – describes that South African tour as “probably the best tour ever organised”, taking on a similar style to rugby’s Lions trips of the tie.

O’Reilly travelled with Ireland to Cape Town by boat for an IFWHA (The International Federation of Women’s Hockey Association) tournament as Ruddock explains

“In those days, women organised their own competitions. There were eight teams present – Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, South Africa, Holland, Germany and Zimbabwe. They toured all over using the royal train with all the teams having a carriage where they would sleep while, maybe in the middle of the night, two carriages may be left in a particular town like Johannesburg where they would play exhibition matches the next day.

“The rest of the train would then scuttle off to Durban where they would pick up two teams and so on. That’s how all the players became friends worldwide. It was probably the best tour ever organised.

“The idea of the train was magnificent, having the players all together, being beside England one night and the next night they would be off somewhere else and you would have Holland with you. Later, I got to know all those great players through Joan.”

After her playing days, O’Reilly would continue use her involvement in sport to travel the world, going to Malaysia, Singapore and Perth while she managed the Irish women’s team in Vancouver at another IFWHA tournament.

She was famed for making sure that the side not only performed well in their games but “everyone knew their lines”, combining hockey with a keen interest in theatre.

“In those days, every country was expected to do their ‘piece’. With Joan O’Reilly, you wouldn’t dare not know your dance! She was a perfectionist and you would have to know your words.”

On the club scene, she was a member of the Muckross side that traded Leinster league and cup titles as well as All-Ireland crowns with Pembroke for the majority of the 1940s and 50s.

Ruddock says that her friend was a central part of that success, always down the right wing. “I never remember her playing another position. It was a great era and she would have played for a decade for Ireland.The only niggle she had about her hockey was she never managed to worm her way around Elizabeth Delfort, the very famous English left half. She was marking her at 45 years of age and it niggled Joan that she couldn’t beat her.”

Joan O'Reilly, with Ossie Kilkenny, at the IHA Hall of Fame induction in 2006

Joan O’Reilly, with Ossie Kilkenny, at the IHA Hall of Fame induction in 2006

Following her retirement, she would become both an international umpire or as a manager of the Irish team. She was duly elected as Leinster President for five years between 1973 and 1978 while also taking on the roles of Irish women’s President, Irish selector and chairperson of the Women’s Hockey Board of Great Britain and Ireland who organised the home nations events.

All the while, she combined her activities with her day-job as a butcher in Crumlin, sharing the business with her brother James.

In addition, she was a key figure in Grange Golf Club in Rathfarnham where she was the first to organise the Ladies Captain’s Show and was magnificent as a director and also acted. Similarly, she would organise the sweepstakes on Captain’s Prize Day while providing the very best turkey and ham as prizes for the club’s major events.

“She was a mentor for everyone in the Crumlin area,” Ruddock adds. “Ask Joan O’Reilly they would say. You need some tax advice, Joan O’Reilly will know that. She shared that shop with her brother James who did the beef end; Joan did the pork. Her sister Angela had a drapery shop beside them. They were very much revered in the area.

“She was inducted into the Hall of Fame but she was not one to brag about that. She really was a wonderful character, great company and loved a good old laugh.”

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