Frank Conway is well known for his lifelong interest in Fianna Fáil politics, but there’s much more to the man as his famous and treasured autograph book and much more bear witness to, writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh, who spent an entertaining afternoon in conversation with the Kildysart man who has long since been a resident of Ennis.
ON the landing ready for hanging sits an A0 sized print of Neil Leifer’s iconic Sports Illustrated image of Muhammad Ali that was taken 50 years ago last May.
Ali is standing over the stretched and stricken Sonny Liston, right arm extended, mouth in overdrive, his opponent down and out.
“That was the fight of the phantom punch,” says Frank Conway, “or maybe it was as Ali said that he hit him so fast that no one saw it. I saw it — the photograph that is — the other day when I was buying a bed in a shop on Parnell Street in Ennis. I admired it and they told me I could take it away. It’s on the landing, because I haven’t found a place for it yet, but I will.”
With that Conway goes rummaging in what can only be described as his miscellaneous and highly eclectic collection of memorabilia that stretches back over 60 years.
Scrapbooks, magazines, newspapers, newspaper cuttings and finally a small notebook measuring about 4 x 2 inches.
“There are a few scribbles in there that my kids did when they were young, but there are plenty of autographs,” he says. “I got Muhammad Ali, but I’m not sure if he was known as Cassius Clay then, but I can’t find it.
“He was passing through Shannon after a fight in London — it could have been one of the Henry Cooper fights, but I remember he was going to have some breakfast in the airport, so along with lots of others I went up and got his signature. I thought it was in this book, but it could have been another.”
Ali may be missing from here, but the others put a mirror up to Shannon’s golden age — when the airport truly was a hub of the aviation world through which world figures, whether they were politicians, movie stars, sportsmen and more, transited.`
At the time Frank Conway was a young executive working in the Duty Free end of the Shannon operation — always with his notebook in his pocket.
The earliest entry dates from 1955 and is Eleanor Roosavelt’s signature — the woman christened the ‘First Lady of the World’ because of her 12 years in the White House beside her husband Franklin D Roosavelt and her human rights achievements.
“I can still picture her,” says Conway, “coming into the airport and going up to the Duty Free where I worked and I was wondering ‘will I go up to her, or won’t I?’. She was kind of busy doing what she was doing, but I went up and I always remember what she said to me when signed her autograph: ‘always glad to oblige the Irish’.
Other names are actors Doris Day, Charles Laugthon and Victore Mature, while there’s a ‘Good Luck Frank’ greeting from one John Wayne.
“They’re the ones I had from Hollywood,” he says, “but the ones I missed, there are many”.
But there’s more than just the film stars between the pages that also pay homage to his life long interest in politics, particularly Fianna Fáil politics.
“To my great friend forever, Charles Haughey,” says an entry on the first page, while cut to the last page and it reads ‘To Frank, thanks for all your support and assistance over the years, Bertie Ahern.”
“Charlie and Bertie,” guffaws Conway. “From Charlie to the man he described as the most cunning and devious of them all. I got on with them both and with all the others in Fianna Fáil. Sylvie Barrett was a great friend of mine from his time as a rate collector in Kildysart, while Brian Lenihan is in there too, as is Paddy Hillery who was a great man, while Charlie and Bertie did great things as well,” he adds.
Some would say that these politicians mixing with the movie stars is entirely appropriate, because it was in Shannon that Conway’s interest in politics was stoked over half a century ago — and because of Shannon.
“It was after Kennedy’s election and after he was in Shannon during his Irish visit,” says Frank. “My friend Paddy Monaghan thought of going for the county council and I became his campaign manager.
“We didn’t know much — Fianna Fáil meetings that time were in Lillis’s Shop in Ennis. There was a Cumann meeting on with Sean O’Ceallaigh presiding. ‘We’re up from Shannon — how do we get into politics’, we said.
“What ye do is ye go way and form a cumann’, he roared. We formed the Sean Lemass Cumann — that was the start of it. There was a big Fianna Fáil rally up in O’Connell Square. The person on the public address said ‘I want to introduce our final candidate – representing the Shannon area, Paddy Monaghan from Galway.’
“That was the end of Paddy’s chance of being elected and we knew it. We were driving back to the hostels in Shannon where we lived and we threw 200 leaflets out the window going through Clarecastle. They were fluttering in the breeze — we were defeated, but you could say Paddy went places.
“That’s because before there was ever a local authority in Shannon he was a chairman of a group there and through that got to go the America and was brought to the White House, where he was introduced as the Mayor of Shannon. Wasn’t that something.”
Meanwhile, Frank made his own mark — as a near life-long member of Fianna Fáil he was witness to some of the most stirring events in the party’s history after being elected to the party’s National Executive for the first time in 1971.
That was the Árd Fheis best rememberd for the furore between Kevin Boland and his band of rebels against Dr. Paddy Hillery and the Fianna Fáil hierarchy.
“I was sitting in front of the podium,” he recalls, “and the party brought Sean McEntee down to make a speech in support of Jack Lynch and face down the rebels. He was the old lion, but he had lost his teeth. He was great at the rallying speeches, but the fire had gone out of him.
“It was left to Paddy Hillery, who was secretary of the party. He faced them down with his immortal words ‘You can have Kevin Boland, but you can’t have Fianna Fáil, you can have him and you’re welcome to him’. It was great stuff and great to be there.”
Conway was also there the day that Dessie O’Malley was expelled from Fianna Fáil in 1985. As a member of the National Executive he was summoned to party headquarters for a vote on O’Malley’s future within Fianna Fáil, a day in which Conway made his own mark on local Fianna Fáil history.
“Before I went up to vote, I looked for a meeting of the Dáil Ceanntair to find out what way I should vote. It was held in the West County on a Sunday night and lasted over four hours and it was decided by a sizeable majority that I should vote against the expulsion of Dessie. I went away with my mandate.”
Two days later, Frank flew to Dublin for the meeting in party headquarters on Mount Street. Dusk was falling in Dublin and on Dessie O’Malley at the same time. The television cameras were there. There was also someone intent on meeting Frank Conway.
“As I was approaching the steps of headquarters, this man approached me. I recognised him, it was Liam Lawlor.
“‘I’m not telling you how to vote’, he said. ‘I just want to point out to you that this isn’t just a vote on whether Dessie O’Malley should be expelled or not, this is a leadership issue. If he isn’t expelled, that will be a reflection on Charlie Haughey’.
“He was trying to influence my vote. I just dismissed him. ‘I know exactly what I’m doing, I have been briefed by my own people in Clare. That’s it’. I proceeded into the meeting. Inside it was ‘Sea’ to expell him, ‘Ní Hea’ not to expel. When your name was called you had to stand up. I should have come early in the vote, because it was done alphabetically, but I was passed over. There was a reason.
“There was something up and I was then called out for a phone call. I was told there was an emergency meeting of the Comhairle Dáil Ceanntair officer board in Clare that decided I was now to vote for his expulsion.
“‘This is very strange,’ I said. ‘I am an officer of the CDC as vice chairman and I wasn’t told of this meeting,’ I added down the line. There was a lot of pressure put on me but I refused to budge. I was determined to stick by the original Dail Ceanntair decision.
“John Stafford TD told me to abstain. ‘No, ‘I’m sticking by the original decision’, was my response. John O’Rourke voted for Dessie’s expulsion. There were only seven or eight out of 70 who voted not to expel him. I voted Ní Hea — I had to vote that way. I wasn’t going to be bullied to vote the other way.”
For full interview see this week’s Clare People.