A new vision for Athlone

February 29, 2008
As the newest addition to Athlone Town Council, Michael O'Connell has a clear vision of a prosperous future for the burgeoning midlands. The Cork native and keen hurling enthusiast hopes the ancient game will have a big role to play in the future of both the town itself and Westmeath in general. Michael O'Connell was co-opted onto Athlone Town Council in late October 2007 following the successful election of party colleague Nicky McFadden to Seanad Eireann. He has been living in Athlone for approximately ten years and has been involved with Fine Gael activities in a variety of capacities for the best part of that time. When the opportunity arose in late '07 to move into local government, Mick felt that the time was right. "I always had an interest so I agreed to go forward once I was approached," he reflects. "It's still early days and I've taken a bit of time to learn the ropes and find the best way to represent people and to bring their views and concerns into the chamber. Once I've learned how local government works, I'll be in a good position to provide a voice for the people. So far, I find the work very interesting and enjoyable" Away from public life, Mick is Director of IT with Elan, having served in the Signal Corps of the Irish Army for nine years, including two trips to the Lebanon. He holds a Diploma in IT from DCU, a Masters in Business Administration from Athlone IT and is a qualified City & Guild Telecoms Technician. As a local councillor, what would he like to achieve for Athlone? "The town has gone from strength to strength and I've seen a lot of that first hand through my association with Elan, which is one of Athlone's most successful businesses. A growing population has new needs and we have to ensure that the infrastructure and services are in place t sustain this growth. Issues and challenges for Athlone are roughly the same as in any town - providing schools, green spaces, sporting facilities, an inclusive society, employment and opportunities including tourism and our heritage"  "We must also strive for the implementation of a better healthcare service, while the restoration of the railway link between Athlone and Mullingar will help provide a better infrastructure," says the adopted Westmeath man who hails from the east of the Rebel County. Spotting opportunities to advance his career, Michael left the army (where he enjoyed a thoroughly positive experience serving as a telecommunications technician) to join Elan in July 1998. Having progressed through various roles, he has been head of IT at the Athlone-headquartered company for four years now and is delighted that Elan's progress remains consistent. Athlone's newest town councillor is from the village of Ballynoe, one of three East Cork villages served by the St Catherine's club. Though Catherine's is a small, rural club, it has a strong hurling hardcore and provided the Cork team with senior intercounty players like Cathal Casey (who won All-Irelands at minor, U21 and senior level as well as serving the Rebels as a selector) and dual star Denis Walsh (who collected All-Ireland football and hurling medals at senior level), Johnny Sheehan and Kieran Morrison. His first cousin Richard was on the Cork Minor panel in 2004 and his father (Batt) was Captain of St Catherines in 1983 when they won the Cork County Junior A title. Mick took his hurling passion with him to the midlands and has become associated with the local Southern Gaels hurling club, who are striving to bring senior hurling back to Athlone. Success in the '07 MHC represented a definite step in the right direction and the local politician is confident that the Gaels are within touching distance of an overdue ascension to the top table. "Hurling was the only sporting facility available to young people in East Cork and we hurled with the club from U12 level up. In fairness, I always play a better game in my head than I do on the field! I still have a limited game but I love it and I love being involved with Southern Gaels. Hurling is certainly my No.1 love when it comes to sport, though rugby is another interest." Having trained the Southern Gaels / Fr Daltons U12 side in 2006 (and hoping to assist in 2008), Mick saw for himself at close quarters the enormous strides being made promoting the small ball game to the youngest members of the local population. "The GAA is doing remarkable work. The local set-up is superb. We have 150-200 kids picking up the hurl in Athlone here on a Saturday. It's great to see such a growth in the number of kids taking part and also so many new cultures getting involved in our games. "Huge energy has been invested by the management, committee members, Parents and players over the last couple of years. The minors struck gold in 2007 and the U16s were unlucky not to do likewise. Everybody associated with the club has put in huge effort over the past ten years and more. "The club is also contributing a lot towards the development of Westmeath hurling on the intercounty stage. Seamus Qualter has won two Christy Ring Cups with the county team - which is a wonderful achievement - and Martin Carey was a selector with the Westmeath U14 team that won the Tony Forrestal Cup. Michael also believes that Tom Farrells recent appointment as Caoithlearch is also a very positive for the county and that its good to see a man from the south in the top post. Southern Gaels are clearly going from strength to strength." From a county perspective, Michael is also enthusiastic about Westmeath's future prospects, with very obvious progress being made in the ancient code. Having attended Munster and All-Ireland SHC matches involving his native Cork from the age of ten, the Athlone town councillor knows a thing or two about championship hurling "I was very encouraged when Westmeath won their first Christy Ring Cup three years ago," he notes. "Of course, there is still a gap between the likes of Westmeath and the stronger hurling counties, and this is going to present the GAA with a major challenge - but Westmeath's recent success is a good indication that we are moving in the right direction. "I'd like to take this opportunity to wish Johnny Dooley all the best as Westmeath hurling manager and I'm looking forward to the clash of the Dooley brothers if Westmeath meet Offaly. It was important that Leinster Council had the vision to ensure that Westmeath will be playing in Leinster Championship and I'm anticipating a good year for Westmeath hurling. It's going to be very interesting to see how they move forward."


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