By Paul O’Malley
This writer had the opportunity last winter to stand outside on a cold weekday morning, sipping coffee and speaking with former members of the Mayo team who were involved in a historic run to the All-Ireland semi-final of 1985.
As Henry Gavin, Tom Reilly and Willie Joe Padden dug deep into the memory bank, one name kept coming up. It was that of the late Richie Bell, and the men spoke of the remarkable impact he made upon not only that Mayo team, but countless other club and schools teams that he played for, coached and trained.
The entire county was shaken to its very core in 1994 when news came out of South Mayo of the sudden, unexpected death of one of the finest servants, not only to his clubs, not only to his county, but to the entire sport of Gaelic Football. Though still a young man – he was just 39 when he passed away – Richie Bell left behind a wonderful legacy as a player, coach, club official, teacher, husband, father and friend.
His accomplishments were plentiful, whether he was wearing the colours of his beloved Mayo, of his clubs – both Carramore and Hollymount – or of Thomond College. As a coach and manager, he continued to shine as he led school teams from throughout the county in places like Ballinrobe and Westport. Richie also had a great interest in his local community and in developing facilities around his home area.
Everything he did, he did with distinction, but despite this, Richie was an incredibly humble man, never once seeking the limelight or attempting the outrageous when a more welcoming pass was on, as his friends and colleagues from his days on and off the GAA pitch told the Western People.
Ger McHugh counts himself as one of Richie’s oldest friends, having grown up just down the road from him.
“We went to Taugheen National School together and JJ Costello, who also played football for Mayo, lived in between us,” recalls Ger. “Richie then went to St Mary’s College in Galway and that’s when he really began to get a love for the sport.
“St Mary’s was a big influence on him and he improved enormously. We would be playing together at home and he was showing us how football should be played. I remember it was around October time and I thought to myself that he improved by about 300 percent in the two months he had been away.
“I even played against him a year or two later when I was in St Colman’s. We played a bit together and I always remember the South Mayo Final against Kilmaine in 1973 for Hollymount. It finished Kilmaine 1-4, Hollymount 0-6. PJ McGrath was the opposing full-back to me but I didn’t see him. This was well before any full-back would go beyond their own 40-metre line.”
Richie was making major strides as a footballer at the time and featured on the All-Ireland under-21 winning team of 1974. This side was very much a follow-up to the successful minor team of 1971, with which Richie was not involved, but his ability to break through amongst already-established players pointed to a young athlete who was working extremely hard at his game.
As well as this, Richie was becoming more regularly involved with the Mayo senior team around this time. At club level, he was part of a transformational period in the history of Hollymount GAA Club. On top of this, he was also studying for his teaching degree at Thomond College in Limerick.
It was a busy period but Richie found time for it all, according to his Hollymount teammate David Healy.
“My foremost memory of Richie is first of all as an outstanding footballer, tremendously strong and fit. As young players, we first came across Richie in the early ‘70s. We saw him as a very athletic footballer, fearless, with all the skills and a great driving force on the field. He had a great tactical appreciation and an ability to get the best of all playing alongside him.
“Richie’s dedication to the club also stood out. Despite being involved with Mayo, Richie was always available. It was quite common for him to play a game for Mayo and then arrive later for a club game, sometimes without even having togged in!”
Richie was able to bring what he was learning down in Limerick back to South Mayo and was now showing his abilities as a coach.
“He was an outstanding coach whose talents were spread over all levels from under-16 to senior,” recalls David. “As a PE teacher, Richie brought a whole new modern way of thinking into the preparation of teams and how the game was played.
“Training was very enjoyable with the emphasis on skills developed by a wide variety of innovative drills. As regards tactics, all possible game situations were prepared for. All defensive skills and scenarios were practiced, plus the movement of the ball through the various lines, midfield positioning and movement of the forward line.
“Richie was also one of the first coaches to introduce a kickout strategy, long before it became fashionable to do so.”
Richie’s innovations helped to nurture a group of promising young players in Hollymount, a golden generation who would play a central part in the intermediate championship victory of 1989 and further success in 1990 and 1991 with back-to-back senior titles. By that point, however, Richie was playing with Carramore.
“At under-16 level, two South Mayo A titles were captured by Hollymount,” says David. “Two county minor A titles followed and in 1978 and 1979 two under-21 A titles. At senior level, with Richie as player/coach, progress was incremental with the culmination of Hollymount finally participating in the senior championship and the capturing of a number of league titles.”
Modern innovations of sports coaching and science were not all that Richie brought back home with him to Hollymount from Limerick. In 1978, Thomond College made history by winning the All-Ireland senior club championship, with Bell a central figure in their national success.
Among his teammates at Thomond College were current GAA President Larry McCarthy and nine-time All-Star and eight-time All-Ireland medalist Pat Spillane. Spillane spoke to the Western People about his memories of making history with Richie Bell.
“When I started off in Thomond College, there were two main county groups from Mayo and Kerry. We shared a love of Gaelic football and were always very close, playing the game nonstop. Within five years, we were All-Ireland champions.
“We had a lot of very good footballers, not huge names as such. In our final year, we went unbeaten through the college games, the Limerick club championship, the Munster club championship and the All-Ireland club championship over the span of about 12 to 14 months.”
Their path to the All-Ireland final included a Munster club semi-final against Austin Stacks which took three draws and a fourth game to finally settle a series that Spillane refers to as ‘the greatest club matches ever played.’
Bell played a leading role throughout their run to the final, scoring 1-1 in the eventual decider against the Stacks.
“Richie was our centre-forward and was one of those fellas on a football field you would call a warrior,” remarks Spillane. “He wasn’t in it for glory or there to put his name on the scoresheet when there was a better pass on to a teammate. Richie was a team player.
“In terms of fitness, Richie was ahead of his time. There was nothing to match his upper body strength but he was low key and low profile, and just went out and played the game. He wasn’t a box office name and wasn’t one of those guys that sought the limelight but he still delivered a performance in every game.
“We shared great days together and I couldn’t say enough nice things about him. He was a gentleman, one of the nicest guys you would ever meet in all your born days on or off the football field.”
Richie had effectively retired as an inter-county player at this stage, as his main focus was on coaching with the Mayo senior team, but he did get involved as a player again in the 1983 campaign.
Another member of the panel from this time, Martin Carney, told the Western People how Richie played his part in Mayo’s success throughout the early to mid-1980s.
“Before any of us knew about All-Irelands, Richie had one in his back pocket with Thomond College. As a human being, he was a very sincere lad, a good guy to know. You were better for knowing him because he was a warm character.
“Richie was at the cutting edge of football at the time and he was part of the first batch of players to look at football differently. Back then, many would have looked at him and his contemporaries with a little bit of suspicion because of the revolution they were bringing to the game but the fact he was such a good person, a person who commanded so much respect, helped him spread his message so to speak.”
Martin Carney says that Bell brought in new methods when he became part of Mayo’s senior management teams in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
“Richie was part of management before his time and it was really through his training methods and gelling with the younger set of players that we did make progress. I remember he was very organised and hardworking. The type of drills he had us doing at the time were very innovative.
“The emphasis he put on training isn’t quite what you have now but at the time, coming from an era of catch and kick, it was upwardly mobile from anything that had gone on beforehand.
“In terms of conditioning, we were coming from an era where the only people who did weights were rowers and rugby players, to a certain extent. Richie brought in an emphasis on gym work and weight training that hadn’t been there before, it wasn’t part of the curriculum.”
Back at home in South Mayo, Richie stayed with Hollymount up until 1984 and then joined Carramore, who had reformed in 1976. Ger McHugh picks up the tale again.
“All of the teams he was associated with, he offered the skills he learned at Thomond so generously. In 1985, he came to us at Carramore and he certainly made a difference. A lot of the jerseys didn’t fit us on the first of January but they fit us in September. It was revolutionary stuff and his experience was groundbreaking at the time.
“We won the Mayo League Division 3 and the O’Mara Cup and got to an intermediate semi-final. It marked a big change from ‘84 when we could hardly field a team and we could hardly run.
“He had a very good way about him, a real people’s person. He wasn’t into effing and blinding stuff, it was more scientific and well ahead of its time.”
Although he had made the switch to Carramore, Richie still kept a close eye on his former club Hollymount and was the first to applaud their rich vein of success at the end of the 1980s, leading into the 1990s.
“Richie was not involved in the successes of 1989, 1990 and 1991. However, the first man on the field and back in Hollymount after each success was Richie,” said David Healy.
“Above all, we remember him as an outstanding person who had the ability to interact positively with both young and old, on and off the field. It is safe to say that Richie left a very positive impact on all he played with and coached in Hollymount.“
As a PE teacher, he took his talents to many schools around the county, including vocational schools in Ballinrobe and Westport. Richie was a trainer on the Mayo Vocational Schools teams who claimed victory over Kerry in the 1982 All-Ireland Final.
One of Richie’s more notable achievements was with Ballinrobe CBS, who won an All-Ireland Senior B title in 1991. Richie mentored the young group alongside the late Gerry Fahey, Tom Fanning, and Sean Feeney. The school followed this up a short time later by also claiming an All-Ireland Senior Ladies title. Sean Feeney was at Richie’s side throughout this period.
“The 1991 teams are where Richie really shone. That kickstarted a spell of nine titles for the male and female teams at Ballinrobe Community School throughout the 1990s. As a PE teacher, he put in a lot of the groundwork that was needed. He said to me in 1992, about the ladies team, that there was a team coming here who will be really good over the next couple of years.
“Richie was a great coach and had a great way with kids. He was thoroughly professional with the training and the coaching and helping players develop their skills,” said Sean.
Away from the field of play and from his career as a school teacher, Richie was active in the community and was a member of the Taugheen Community Council. He played a vital role in helping the community open up its new hall in the early 1990s.
Richie passed away suddenly on February 8, 1994, during a joint training session of Hollymount and Carramore. Many friends, colleagues, teammates and students to whom this writer spoke alluded to the tremendous sadness that was felt, and is still felt, about Richie Bell’s untimely passing.
If you read this article and find it misses some part of Richie Bell’s many achievements in his short life, it would not come as a surprise to this writer. His coaching legacy is fathomless, inspiring countless young athletes to strive to become the very best they could become.
Moreover, his legacy off the field as a teacher, friend, husband and father is truly immeasurable.