By the time Sean Murphy left Roscrea College he had twice what the entire population of Mayo would murder for.

He had two All Ireland medals to his name.

In 1959 and 1960 he was the Leinster and All Ireland Senior Schools Pole Vaulting Champion and his national record stood for decades after.

When Reilly asked him once where his talent emerged from he replied with typical modesty.

‘I find talent is greatly overrated Reilly. Starting out I was no better or worse than the next person but I had one distinct advantage over most of my competitors.’

‘What was that?’ asked Reilly curiously.

‘The Woodlawn River.’

‘What are you talking about Sean? 

‘The Woodlawn River bordered the end of my Fathers farm, Mount Nirvana. As a young lad I figured that if I could only vault across that stream I’d save myself a long walk by road to school. 

‘After many’s the good wetting I succeeded in crossing it. Each day I’d take that short cut to and from school via that stream and bit by bit I got better and better at it. 

‘I must have crossed that stream a thousand times a year over a ten year period. 

‘I always credited my All Irelands to that Woodlawn River.

‘It gave me what I suppose you could call purposeful practice.’


Jim O’Connor came from the more urbane and salubrious surrounds of the Ennis Road in Limerick City where his back garden sloped down to the expansive and wide majestic river Shannon. There’d be no vaulting across it for a short cut to school.

He nonetheless too entertained dreams of winning an All Ireland someday at pole vaulting.

A gifted natural athlete, things were progressing swimmingly when he won the Leinster Championship in 1978, jumping one inch shy of twelve feet. 

And then, he didn’t win the All Ireland.

Reilly was gutted the night Jim arrived back from Belfield without a medal.

Jim was infinitely more sanguine.

‘Reilly, the reality is you get three attempts in a pole vaulting competition. That amounts to about 21 seconds – between the run in and the jump – to strut your stuff.

‘I’ve jumped 11’11’’ once in a public competition before and another handful of times on the top pitch training in Roscrea when nobody was looking.

‘Today I didn’t do that and somebody else did.

‘I refuse to let 21 seconds of my life define who I am and how I feel. Now, let’s park it and move on positively.’


On January 13th last, 46 years after he didn’t win the schools All Ireland, Jim O’Connor won the National Indoor Master Championship in Pole Vaulting in Athlone. His height of 2.8 metres now stands as the current national record.

In the pantheon of other illustrious Masters athletes Eamon Coughlan appears on the spreadsheet at number 68. Jim is at 168.

‘What inspired you Jim,’ asked Reilly always on the sniff for an inspirational scoop.

‘My damaged knee.’

‘What are you talking about Jim?

‘I pulled ligaments in my knee and the medics suggested that strengthening my knee would help greatly.’

‘That became my goal. To strengthen my knees. 

‘I adapted my routines to get up at 5:55 each morning and be in the gym at 7am. Five mornings a week.’

‘And gradually, I began to look forward to the practice. The sense of space in being up and awake and alive when few others are. The cycle to the gym on both frosty mornings and sunny mornings. The camaraderie of chatting and having the craic with other like minded gym members.

‘I discovered that the benefits of regular practice in the gym were available to me 100% of the time whereas the euphoria of winning a title is fleeting and transient.

‘The practice – not the winning – that’s why you stay in the game.’

‘And as my knees began to strengthen, so too did my confidence and energy and self-esteem. I noticed a new voice in my head I christened ‘Maybe.’

‘‘Maybe’ I could start pole vaulting again. ‘Maybe’ I could get good at it. ‘Maybe’ I could enter competitions again. ‘Maybe’ I could win that medal I left behind 46 years ago.’

‘I credit my All Ireland to my damaged knee.

 ‘It gave me what I suppose you could call purposeful practice.’

Reilly wondered where he’d heard that before!


  • In the most extensive study ever undertaken into the origins of success, the American psychologist, Anders Ericsson studied the results of violinists at the renowned Music Academy of West Berlin in Germany. By the age of 20, the best violinists had practiced an average of ten thousand hours – more than two thousand hours more than the good violinists and more than six thousand hours longer than those aspiring to become music teachers. 
  • Ericssons irrefutable conclusion was that practice, not talent, is the ultimate determinant of excellence. And he further found that there were no exceptions to the pattern: nobody had reached the elite group without copious amounts of practice, and nobody who worked their socks off failed to excel. 
  • Sean Murphy and Jim O’Connor would call it ‘purposeful practice.’ Purposeful practice is the decisive factor distinguishing the best from the rest.’
  • The journey is as important as the destination. Enjoy the practice and let the score look after itself.
  • Avoid letting 21 second outcomes define your entire life. It’s amazing just how often we can allow one bad experience ruin our entire day. 
  • It’s never too late to win an All Ireland.


‘It’s never too late to be who you might have been.’
—George Eliot.


1. What’s your Woodlawn River?


Dr Sean Murphy passed on in 2021. There would be no Western Branch of the Roscrea Past Pupils Union but for Sean. In fact there might be no Roscrea College but for Sean. When the debate raged back in 2017 as to whether the College should close or remain open Sean stood up. 

He made an impassioned plea that the College must stay open in order to continue to give students from the surrounding locality the best chance at realising their potential. 

That was quintessential Sean Murphy. When others were debating budgets and corporate governance and convoluted educational theories Sean reverted to the students. He always put the person – be it student or patient – front and centre. 

After 18 minutes in Donnybrook on Wednesday last, Roscrea trailed Newbridge by 22 points. Some fair weather supporters had already begun their ignominious exit towards the Bective clubhouse.

Reilly had, as he sometimes does, a quiet word with Sean across the veil. 

‘I wonder Sean should we have let the College close after all!

When the final whistle blew the scoreboard read Newbridge 22 Roscrea 25.

Reilly was reminded of the Woodlawn River.

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