By Charlie Keegan
THE unexpected death at St Luke’s Hospital, Kilkenny on Sunday 19 February of Cecil Whelan, Monacurragh, Carlow has left the people of Carlow town and district with feelings of deep and sincere loss.
A native of Wexford town, it was Carlow’s gain and Wexford’s loss when the Whelan family came to reside in Graiguecullen when Cecil was 12 years’ old.
Cecil certainly made his mark in Carlow. As a strong trade unionist, he was a lifelong member of the Irish Labour Party. As a long-time Labour activist, he was selected to represent the party at local government elections to Carlow Urban District Council (UDC), being elected to the local authority in 1979 and serving until 1985. During his time on the UDC, Cecil was honoured by his fellow councillors with the chairmanship in 1983-84, a role he filled with dignity and honour.
Cecil always threw his lot behind the Carlow Labour candidate in general elections, canvassing door-to-door. He enjoyed cross-party support and friendship for his kind demeanour and lack of enmity towards politicians not of his own political persuasion.
Cecil attended Carlow Vocational School in Dublin Street and while studying there was selected by Donegal-born teacher Eugene McGinley to man the goal for the Carlow school’s football team which, in 1959, brought sporting honour to Carlow as Leinster and All-Ireland champions, beating Down 3-8 to 2-5 in the final at Pairc Tailteann, Navan. It was the county’s first All-Ireland football title, a feat repeated in 1973 under the management of the late Padraig Cunnane from Tullow, when Carlow defeated Leitrim in the All-Ireland final at Croke Park.
The life of Cecil Whelan was captured beautifully by his beloved daughter Martina during his funeral Mass in the Cathedral of the Assumption on Thursday morning, 23 February – Cecil had reposed on Wednesday evening in Healy’s Funeral Home, Pollerton Castle, when the large number of people who called to sympathise with the Whelan family spoke hugely to Cecil’s popularity.
Martina told the large congregation that it was a hard thing for her to speak “as it’s normally Cecil giving the speeches in our family. There was no better man to get up at the drop of a hat and speak at any event”.
She said that Cecil was born at 8 John Street, Wexford in June 1941 to Moses Whelan and Ellen Roche. He had one sister, Angie, and he spent many happy years there growing up, surrounded by his aunts and uncles. “As my aunt Angie says, he was absolutely spoiled by all of them.
“In Carlow, he met the love of his life Stella Doyle from Montgomery Street, Carlow and they married in Church of the Holy Cross, Killeshin in 1966. They were married for 57 happy years and still enjoyed walks along the River Barrow together, just as they did when they first met.”
Growing up, the Whelan summers were spent in Ballyheigue and Castlegregory in Kerry and on his favourite beach, Curracloe in Wexford, “where we spent days swimming and enjoying the sun. We were all taught to swim in the sea and to this day we all have that need to be by the sea”.
Continuing her tribute to her dad, Martina said: “Cecil served his time as a fitter in Thompson’s Engineering Works, Hanover. He moved to Läpple Ireland, having spent nine months training in Germany. He worked at Läpple for 21 years until his retirement. In both places of employment, Cecil was held in the highest regard for his professional skills and his friendly manner towards all – workmates and management alike.
“He was a member of the Carlow branch of the Labour Party and was elected to Carlow Urban District Council in 1979 as a councillor and stayed until 1985. He also served as chairman of the UDC.
“Cecil went back to college in the 1980s, attending Maynooth part-time, and he achieved a degree in social science. He instilled in us (children) a love of reading and history and his own interest in current affairs never wavered over the years. He read the newspaper daily, his favourite being the ***Irish Independent***.”
Martina said Cecil had a huge love of sport and played hurling for many years. In Wexford, he played with Faythe Harriers and in Carlow hurled with The Pearses, now Carlow Town Hurling Club. He also played football with the vocational school, going on to win an All-Ireland medal.
He was also involved in Carlow Community Games for 12 years, coaching and training many Monacurragh children in athletics during that time.
“He tried to get me running, but I didn’t have the running gene. However, he got his runner in my sister Paula and they spent many years involved with Community Games, with Paula winning lots of county medals and even reaching the national finals in Mosney on two occasions.
“Cecil re-formed the handball club in the CYMS on College Street in the late 1960s with his father-in-law Tom Doyle. And he served as chairman of the Carlow Handball Association for a number of years. In his retirement years, not wanting to be idle, he became a mentor and coach to many young people, encouraging in them a love of handball. Cecil coached a number of juveniles who won Leinster and All-Ireland titles, even travelling to Canada for the World Handball Championships.
“He was presented with the Setanta Award at the Carlow Sports Star Awards in 2007 for his commitment to promoting the game, and to this day the handball clubs are thriving in Co Carlow, with my uncle Michael (Doyle) and his sons still involved.”
Martina went on to reference the fact that her dad played golf. He was a member of Carlow Golf Club for over 25 years and in retirement he joined the nine-hole course and played on a Thursday with Charlie Holland, his great friend and former Läpple work colleague. Those Thursday golf outings continued until late last year.
Martina said: “Cecil encouraged all his grandchildren to play sport. Even last summer he had Conor Jnr caddying for him and I know well he would have got him playing, too. He loved to coach all his grandchildren in the back garden in hurling and golf, giving them tips on how to hold the hurl and swing the golf club.”
She said Cecil loved to put the odd bet on the horses and would go down to BoyleSports during the week. Even during Covid-19 lockdown, when he couldn’t go out, Cecil had his daughter-in-law Helen as his online bookie!
He loved nothing more than going to Stonehaven, the Clerkin family pub, on a Sunday evening with his son Conor for his pint of Guinness and Jameson whiskey.
Martina said her dad always liked to help the community and was still delivering meals on wheels until just before he entered hospital.
She continued: “He was never happier than when we were all together. We are so happy that we got to have a big gathering for his 80th birthday and he attended his eldest grandson Darren’s wedding to Kirsty in Dublin along with Stella, where we had a fantastic day … memories we will never forget.
“Christmas 2022 was a great family celebration and Cecil even did a bit of singing. And on 21 January he got to attend the big celebration in Chadwick’s Wexford Park, the night the floodlights were turned on at the county GAA headquarters. He was accompanied by his son Conor to see his beloved Wexford play. Even though he lived in Carlow, he never forgot his Wexford roots and always classed himself as a Wexford man. It was a great day for them both. We are so thankful that we got to spend this time with Dad.”
Martina thanked Fr Tom O’Byrne, Adm, Carlow as celebrant of Cecil’s funeral Mass and the beautiful singing of Nuala and all of Stella’s friends in the Cathedral Choir and the beautiful voice of his granddaughter Aoife.
She went on to express appreciation to Healy Funeral Directors and to all the people who had called and left messages of condolence for Cecil and to everyone who travelled from all over to help with the celebration of her dad’s life.
“Most importantly, I wish to thank the nurses and doctors of the Suir Ward and the intensive care unit in St Luke’s Hospital, Kilkenny, who looked after Dad so well and never gave up on him as he fought a tremendous battle. Even in the short time spent there, everybody loved him. The word ‘gentleman’ came up many times in our meeting with the doctors and nurses.”
Martina concluded her eulogy to her dad with the words: “Dad, life will never be the same without you in it. You will be missed so much by your adored wife Stella, myself, Paula, Conor, Damien, Denis and Helen and your adored grandchildren and all your extended family. Rest easy now, Dad. You will never be forgotten. Our hearts are broken.”
Readings at Mass were by Lauren (granddaughter) and Conor (son), while Prayers of the Faithful were recited by grandchildren Darren, Ellen, Rachel, Gavin and Bonnie.
The bringing forward of the Offertory gifts was by Helen (daughter-in-law) and Damien (son-in-law).
The reflection after Holy Communion, titled My father’s garden, was given by Cecil’s daughter Paula, while the singing of Voice of an angel was by his granddaughter Aoife.
During Mass, a Wexford jersey from the Model County’s All-Ireland senior victory of 1996, along with a hurl, were brought to the altar as symbols of Cecil’s life, providing further proof of the place his native Wexford had in his heart. The hurl was brought up by Ellie (granddaughter) and the jersey by Conor Jnr (grandson).
Following Mass, Cecil was laid to rest in St Mary’s Cemetery, with Fr O’Byrne reciting the final prayers at the graveside.
Cecil is deeply mourned by his wife Stella, son Conor (College Green, Carlow), daughters Paula McGrath (Old Leighlin, Carlow) and Martina Smith (Killester), cherished grandchildren Darren, Lauren, Ellen, Rachel, Gavin, Aoife, Conor Jnr, Bonnie and Ellie, sister Angie Cuddy (Browneshill Road, Carlow), sons-in-law Damien and Denis, daughter-in-law Helen, brothers-in-law, sister-in-law, nephews, nieces, relatives, kind neighbours, former work colleagues and his wide circle of friends.