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A Zoom with Zoom – Life advice, sporting experience and education from one of Laois’s greatest products

While Covid-19 has taken so much from us, it has also provided everyone with a chance to talk to some really inspiring and interesting people. 

Pat ‘Zoom’ Critchley certainly fits that description and one Laois student has done a brilliant in depth interview about the Portlaoise native’s life. 

Eden Penfold, a TY student in Loreto Secondary School, Kilkenny, sat down with Pat over Zoom recently and spoke about a range of topics including life advice, sporting experience and education. 

The Ballacolla native has penned an article following their conversation which we have replicated below:

Pat ‘Zoom’ Critchley is a sporting legend from Portlaoise in County Laois. He is well known as both a player and a coach across a range of sports.

Pat has played at National League level in hurling, Gaelic football and basketball. He won 14 Laois Senior County Championships with Portlaoise GAA Club – seven in hurling and seven in football.

He also went on to win three Leinster Club Football Championships and an All-Ireland Club Football Championship with Portlaoise. Pat has also won one Limerick senior county football championship with Thomond College. He was also fairly handy on the handball court!

One of the many golden sporting moments that Pat will be remembered for was in the Summer of 1985 when his outstanding hurling helped Laois secure a win against Wexford in the Leinster championship which resulted in Laois reaching the provincial final for the first time in 36 years.

Following on from this, Pat was chosen as one of the 1985 Hurling All Stars. He was the first and is still the only Laois man to be awarded an All Star in hurling. He earned his selection onto the 1985 All Star Hurling team as a midfielder alongside John Fenton, Nicky English and Joe Cooney.

At the 2019/2020 Basketball Ireland Annual Awards Pat won the President’s Lifetime achievement award.

He has coached teams and players in various sports at various levels and age groups over the years.

Until recent years, Pat was a P.E. and English teacher at Scoil Chríost Rí Girls Secondary School in Portlaoise. Since 1985, he has coached the school basketball team to eleven All Ireland finals, five of which they won….the last big win being in January 2020, when the girls U19 A Basketball Team brought home the gold.

At about the same time as the Scoil Chríost Rí girls were giving great performances on the basketball court, Pat was also coaching the Carlow Institute of Technology Gaelic Football team and guided them to the Sigerson Cup Final against DCU last January.

On top of all this, Pat is also a great storyteller and has written two books; Hungry Hill (his autobiography) and Bruno, both of which I would highly recommend.

I interviewed Pat over Zoom on the evening of January 31 2021. In this interview, Pat talks about his own personal experiences and stories as well as offering some lovely advice.

How did your lifetime involvement with the GAA start? What was your first experience of the GAA?

Well, I grew up in St. Brigid’s Place which was a big new housing estate in Portlaoise. There were lots of kids about and we would have been playing on the roads and on the top field at the time.

Then, in Primary school (Portlaoise CBS), we were very lucky that there were a number of Christian Brothers who were brilliant sports coaches, particularly in hurling and football. Brother Somers was the main man when I was in the 4th, 5th and 6th classes and he started us playing basketball in between hurling and football which is how I got involved in basketball.

So all of that was the start of it there, both in St. Brigid’s Place and in Primary school. Portlaoise CBS was just up the road from our estate so we used to climb into the yard and play there also.

I have been reading your book ‘Hungry Hill’ and a couple of questions come to mind when I read about your early years. In the book you talk about the freedom you had as a child to run through fields and jump and climb and sledge down the road . These are things that children nowadays don’t do so much. You grew up in a time when children could be daredevils and take risks. A time before the modern concern with ‘Health and Safety’ took over. Would you say that that free, fearless and gungho style of play had an impact on the way you played on the pitch and would you say that children these days are worse off without it?

Of course it was a very different world back then. Most of our parents would have come from the countryside and even though St. Brigid’s was in the town, once we went to the top ditch, we were actually in the country exploring and climbing trees.

If any parent nowadays saw, say for instance, my friend Mickey Bohan going up a beech tree, maybe 30 or 40 feet up, they would probably call the fire brigade, you know.

It’s just the way it was. It probably did have an affect on us in the way that we’d get cuts and bruises and things but we just tended to get on with things. We were very resilient. We would be playing out on the roads and you could hear a car coming as there were very few cars on the roads at that time. If you heard a car coming you’d just stop the game and start it up again afterwards.

Today’s kids probably don’t have the same experiences and maybe the same freedom that we had. It’s not as easy to do anything on the roads now that the traffic is so dangerous and, again, it’s a different world.

But a lot of the fearlessness (like to go into tackles) would also have come from the coaching that we got from Brother Somers. Teachers and coaches can still teach those qualities.

We have to remember as well that every generation has to live in their own world, like the one that they live in today. You would hear older people say ‘All the youngsters today, can’t get them to do this or that …’ There has always been a generation gap. In my English classes, when I was teaching, I used to put up a quotation that incorporated that.

The quotation went along the lines of “The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in places of exercise.” and I would ask the girls to guess when the quote was written and the furthest any class went back to was 1952. In actual fact, it was written by Socrates!! So there has been a generation gap for the last two thousand years at least.

My experience teaching and coaching has taught me that the young people today are just as good as any other children. They have all the qualities and the vast majority of them are fabulous people. They respond to coaches and to teachers and they do fantastic things. They are getting through this pandemic with resilience and will come out the other side of it stronger than ever.

You have a lovely bit in your book where you talk about getting your first black and white television and gathering with all your friends and family to watch matches. What impact did watching the matches have on you? Did they inspire you?

Our parent’s generation would have listened to games on the radio – the radio was the big thing – and you would always hear the voice of Michael O’ Hehir on the radio. Even at that time, not everyone had a radio so it was a social gathering to listen to the matches.

Sometimes, they put the radio on the windowsill and there would be a big crowd in the garden listening to it. So, the black and white television initially and then, later on, the colour telly did the same thing for our generation as the radio did for theirs. The voice of Michael O’Hehir was still there and the impact on ourselves was the same.

It did get us together as not everyone had a television so we had go up to the house that had a TV set to watch the games – it was like a mini cinema in Bohan’s with Mrs. Bohan coming in with Marietta biscuits, tea and orange squash – so there are great memories of that.

And also, after watching events, like the 1970 soccer World Cup, when the Brazilian team played England, we would rush out, up to the top field, to play the World Cup. We would decide who was Brazilian and who played for England and who was going to be Pelé and who was going to be Bobby Charlton.

And after watching all sorts of sports, we’d go out to play – the rugby, the football, the hurling, the tennis and we played show jumping in our backyard without the horses. I’d say that doing all of those widely varied activities was very good for our skill levels and our motor movements. It kind of helps to make a more balanced player and also probably would have motivated us.

I know myself, I would have played a lot of games in the backyard or on the schoolyard or across on the farmyard over in Granny’s at Dysartbeigh in Mountrath and that was long before the word ‘visualization’ came in, but you would be playing the big games in your mind on your own. You were preparing to play in those games later on in your career.

When you were playing in Under 12s, Portlaoise beat Abbeyleix in the county hurling final and in your book, you talk about the pride that you felt when you won this match. As your career continued and you played in higher profile matches, did you continue to feel that same buzz of excitement and pride when you won and sadness when you lost or did it change?

It was the same. When we first were playing, there were no competitions at club level in that age group so competitions were run through the Primary schools, it was something like Cumann na mBunscoil that they do now.

In hurling, Abbeyleix and Rathdowney were the big teams. The first taste of a big county final game in O’Moore park would have been as an Under 12 and that was through the Primary schools. Equally, in basketball, u/11, u/12 and u/13 was through the Primary schools.

The finals were played in St. Mary’s Hall in Portlaoise which was the biggest hall in the county at the time although it’s very small, it’s a bingo hall. But when there were 200 people in there, it was a huge experience.

For an Under 12 final, the Christian Brothers would get the band to start playing at Tower Hill, at the secondary school and all the supporters would follow the band to O’Moore park. There was a galvanised stand and they would be hitting the back of the galvanised stand and making noise.

So that was my first experience of what in our minds was a huge big win. And to have our parents there and all our friends and the community there, that was special.

And I suppose as you go up along, we won in Rathdowney in the 1981 county final. It was the first time that Portlaoise had won in the senior category in 40 odd years – since 1943.

Those kind of events were special as well, especially for the older folk in the club who had been waiting for all of those years for the team to make a breakthrough.

We were lucky to have the Christian Brothers in the Primary school that were so good. What happens in the 60’s and early 70’s – all those players became the senior teams that we had in what they call ‘The Golden Era’ in Portlaoise in the 80s. Laois were very very strong in the 80s also. But you will always remember your first experience.

And as a coach, are your feelings and emotions the same or different from those you felt as a player?

I suppose coaching is probably the closest you can get to playing. I think that when you stop playing or you cannot play anymore, you would always miss that experience, but coaching gets you close to it.

And there are all the same emotions as a coach but you also have to try to manage the emotions of your team as well. You get to manage your team through victories but you have to manage your team through losses as well.

As you go along, you are kinda more concerned about the values that you are passing on. I would have always said “Coach/teach the person first and then the sport or the subject second”. This is to see them progress and build their self-esteem and make sure that they are feeling good about themselves.

You know, you can do a lot of the right things and success can come but success isn’t always victory. Success isn’t always about winning things. I’d say that over my years coaching, I was always pretty calm but as a coach I was even more so… put everything into perspective. It’s more about the journey than it is the destination.

You will always feel a sense of disappointment after losing but I think you get a better perspective as you become more experienced.

Did your involvement in sport shape your life and career choices?

Looking back, the influence of Brother Somers in the Primary school was probably the reason why I became a teacher and as regards the coaching, when I joined the Portlaoise basketball club in 1972, it was a very vibrant club but after a year or two, it almost disintegrated.

There were very few adults in the club so, when I was 16 (in 1976), I was coaching the u/14 team as there were no adults to coach them. That’s how I got involved in coaching and I’ve been coaching ever since.

At first, it was probably through necessity then it became a passion. So if it wasn’t for Brother Somers, I wouldn’t have been in the basketball club either. So, it is because of the influence of Brother Somers that I became a teacher and a coach.

What involvement have you got now with the GAA?

I am involved a lot now with the local club, especially in the younger age groups and I also help and mentor coaches. For the last two years, I was coaching over in Carlow IT for the Sigerson team and it kinda fit in well because the season runs from November to January and there is very little happening in the underage games at that time. So that’s my main involvement now with the club.

Finally, if you could sum it up, what does the GAA mean to you?

I’d say that one of the big things that the GAA has that’s unique in sporting organisations is its pride of place. It is your passion for your own place. The best players don’t go and play with the best clubs, they play with their own club and their own county. I think that that is a huge thing.

Secondly, it’s the friendships. I’d often say to my own players in the school and the club a quote from Jesse Owens…“Friendships born on the field of athletic strife are the real gold of competition. Awards become corroded, friends gather no dust”. It’s like that family of friends you have from sport.

Also I think that sport is something to be passionate about. It’s good for everyone to be passionate about something that needn’t necessarily be in the school – always looking out for your talents, not just sporting talents. There is music, drama, junk couture, debating etc. I often see that students that have a passion for something outside the curriculum tend to not want to leave school as they enjoy that part of it too, that involvement with their friends. Having a passion for something is a great thing.

SEE ALSO – Why there just has to be a Laochra Gael on Laois legend Pat Critchley