Fr Michael Leahy’s Tops of the Town, Castleisland

Fr Michael Leahy was appointed curate to the parish of Castleisland by Bishop Eamonn Casey in January 1971 where he served for four years.  He set about forming the Castleisland Youth Club, and a committee to build a Community Centre in the town.


He is particularly remembered today for his role in organising the fundraising Tops of the Town competition in Castleisland which ran for about a decade.[1]  Fr Leahy had gained experience in organising this competition during his previous fourteen years ministry in Killarney:


Sean Costigan was working as a storeman for Hilliard’s Department Store in Killarney when he was approached by Fr Michael Leahy in the early 1960s for help in putting together a show for a new competition called ‘Tops of the Town.’  Father Leahy was looking for a method of fundraising to pay off a debt on the parish hall.[2]


In Castleisland, eight groups were established to compete in the competition. They were Cordal, Scartaglin, and Castleisland Town, the latter divided as follows: Church Street, College Road, Killarney Road, Limerick Road and Tralee Road.  The eighth group was the Youth Club.


Fr Michael Leahy in his youth (image courtesy Helen O’Connor, On the right, John Roche, Chairman of Castleisland District Heritage, stands outside Conroy’s Furniture, formerly the Astor Ballroom, founded in 1948.  In the early 1970s, the competitions were held in the Astor before moving to the Community Centre. The Astor closed in 1985


John Galvin of Adraval was part of the group from Scartaglin.  Almost fifty years on, he looks back at the fun, laughter and camaraderie, and recalls how in 1973, ‘A Little Bit of Heaven’ was a blessing for Scartaglen:


Back in the early 1970s there weren’t as many attractions or distractions for people as there are in today’s world so when Fr Michael Leahy started the Tops of the Town in Castleisland, the idea took off like wildfire with the young and the not-so-young.  The response to his appeal for variety shows from different areas and sections of the town was massive.  Once the shows got going they were the topic of conversation everywhere, and of course the rivalry was riveting, and who controlled the bragging rights was high on every group’s agenda.  So the Tops of the Town became the ‘Talk’ of the Town and surrounding districts over the winter months and early spring as the build-up to the performances got underway.

Scartaglin is always regarded as being a great location for music, song and dance and in the early 1970s, there was lots of talent available. When the call came to take part in the competition, Scartaglin responded readily and a group of talented people was recruited.  In 1973, Scart got a show together and they called their production, ‘A Little Bit of Heaven.’  An amount of work, preparation and rehearsing went into this show.  Scartaglin defeated the Youth Club from Castleisland in the semi-final and when Killarney Road defeated Church Street in the other semi-final, the stage was set for a grand finale: Scartglin v Killarney Road.  This pairing was the topic of conversation by everyone in Scartaglin and Castleisland in the lead up to the final which took place in early April.


‘A Little Bit of Heaven’ was an outstanding show and Scartaglin were quietly confident taking on Killarney Road on the night.  It is difficult to remember all the members of the winning group but included in the cast were Michael Cremins (St Michael the Archangel, complete with trumpet), Jackie Reidy (St Peter), Jer Clifford (the Devil), Ned O’Connor, John Galvin (yours truly, reciting a poem called The Lobster), Mary O’Connor (Dromulton), Eileen Fleming, Sheila O’Connell, Sheila Brosnan.  Others included the late Francie Davy O’Connor, John Flynn, Gertie Tangney, Bridget Vaughan, John O’Connor (Dromulton), Jackie Dan Jerry O’Connor, all of whom have gone to their eternal reward.  In preparations for the final, Paddy Mercer of Tralee was of great help to the group.


A funny incident happened on the night of the final.  Three members of the group found a bottle of whiskey backstage and opened it.  Before they went out on stage someone spotted that half the whiskey had gone so the person that swiped the bottle topped it up with water.  The three who were ‘fond of the drop’ had a watery whiskey drink in the end, which was just as well as they probably would have gone on stage drunk or half drunk at least.


Scartaglin had a great win with ‘A Little Bit of Heaven.’ Looking back now, almost a half century since that magical night in the Astor Ballroom in Castleisland, anyone still living have, like me, wonderful memories of that famous victory.  It was truly a night to remember, and a happy occasion never to forget.  Scart were in heaven with their ‘Little Bit’ of it, they were Tops of the Town Champions for 1973, and they celebrated in some style.[3]


For the record, the defeated Killarney Road produced a ‘sea-faring show’ which was described as ‘something rather different and appreciated by the capacity audience’:


They introduced such subjects as the Ark and Neptune and among their stars were Vincent Murphy, Tom Brennan and Sgt Sheehan, whose singing was delightful.  Women had a big part to play in the show and the fine choral singing was a special feature.[4]


Three little angels (above left) from ‘A Little Bit of Heaven.’ From left Teresa O’Connor (RIP), Kay Murphy and Margaret Cronin.  Mick Cremins (centre) ‘The Archangel’ with his trumpet.  On the right, a group of sailors from Killarney Road’s production.  Back row from left, Phil O’Mahony, Mary Lyne, Stella Sheehan, Helen Pembroke, Anne Browne.  Front row from left, Mary Murphy Eileen Brennan and Babs Kelliher.  Images courtesy John Galvin


Monsignor Michael Leahy


Michael Leahy was born at Lissaniska, near Knockanure, Tralee, on 1 October 1918, one of nine children of Thomas Leahy (1871-1945) and Elizabeth Keane (1885-1973).  In his youth he displayed great sportsmanship, and played with Shannon Rangers, who won the County Championship in 1942.[5]


He was ordained for the priesthood at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth on 18 June 1944 by Most Rev Dr McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin.  As with his brother, Fr James Leahy (1919-1999), his early years of ministry were served in the UK.[6]


In Ireland, he served as curate in Tralee in 1950,[7] Killarney 1957, and Castleisland in 1971.  Bishop Eamonn Casey appointed him parish priest of Allihies in February 1975 and he was subsequently transferred to Tarbert in 1976.[8]  After a decade in Tarbert, he was appointed parish priest of Listowel in 1986 and Vicar General (VG) of the Diocese of Kerry.[9]


In 1994, Fr Leahy celebrated fifty years of service in the priesthood.  He said:


I spent 25 years saying Mass with my back to the people, up until Vatican II.  In the Latin days, it was silence from start to finish, you wouldn’t hear a tittle in the church – it’s all alive now.[10]


Monsignor Michael Leahy retired in 1996.[11]  He died at the Fatima Home, Tralee, on 9 October 2011.  He was laid to rest in St Michael’s Churchyard, Listowel.  At a mass held at Knockanure Church on 23 November 2011, he was remembered as one of ‘the great and the good who have influenced us.’[12]


This is endorsed by John Roche, Chairman of Castleisland District Heritage, who recalls him saying Mass in Castleisland in 1947:


Castleisland must have been his first assignment in Kerry. I served his mass as an altar boy in 1947.  I moved to Tralee CBS in 1948 and he recognised me after I got off the bus near the church one morning.   He asked me to serve his mass before going into class.  Of course we had constant interaction when he returned to the parish in the 1970s and I’m glad to have visited him in Fatima home in his latter days.  He was one of a kind, and in earlier times would have been known as a Saggart Aroon, the term used to denote the ‘good priests’ during the Penal Times.


[1] The competition has its origins in Waterford: ‘The energetic committee behind the successful ‘Tops of the Town’ competition, which has now reached the semi-final stages in Waterford, has definitely decided to make the competition an annual fixture.  Mr Joseph O’Shea, Hon Treasurer, said yesterday: We did not know at the start how successful the competition would be so we were not able to say whether it would be held annually.  However, we have got such tremendous support we have decided to make it a Spring fixture.  The Waterford competition, which brought to the stage the talents of local factory workers, has awakened the city ... Men behind the competition are Chairman Arthur Doyle, a local auctioneer; Kevin Barden, Secretary and Joseph O’Shea, Treasurer.  The proceeds of the two-month long competition will go towards paying off a debt on the new De La Salle Stephen Street school’ (Waterford News, 23 March 1962). 

The competition went nationwide a few years later with the financial backing of the John Player company.  Further reference, ‘TV talent show that really was ‘Tops’ looks like it could return after 15 years’ Irish Independent, 20 October 2012.

[2] Unpublished thesis, Parish Hall Theatre: The Role of the Church in Kerry Drama (2007).  In Killarney in 1964, due to the exertions of Fr Leahy, a new hall was opened where a ‘flourishing Town League’ basketball team was in progress.

[3] Article courtesy John Galvin, who extends thanks to Michael Cremin, Jackie Reidy and Jerome O’Driscoll for help with some information.  See Kerryman, 7 April 1973 for a report of the 1973 Tops of the Town competition: ‘The Castleisland show had town and country appeal when Scartaglen and Killarney Road took the stage.  After a really wonderful night’s entertainment, Scartaglen were adjudged winners.  There were seven adjudicators for the final – all strangers and seated in different places around the Astor cinema.  The competition was held for the second year and was a tremendous success.  A total of eight teams started off.  They also included Tralee Road, Limerick Road, College Road, Church Street, Cordal and the Youth Club.  Scartaglen for their show ‘St Peter welcomes the people of Scartaglen to Heaven’ exploited all the wit so native to that part of the parish.  Jack Reidy excelled in the role of St Peter and was well supported by a good cast.  The singing of John and Mary O’Connor was also well received.  The Scartaglen Ceili band came on the stage dressed as monks and this feature must have won important marks for them.’ 

[4] Kerryman, 7 April 1973.

[5] Fr Leahy also won the Kerry Triple Jump 1949 (retained in 1950). ‘Fr Michael Leahy is still remembered for his athletic ability at Knockanure Sports, which were run annually till about 1929, lapsed for some years, then the Leahy’s and others restarted the sports as a flapper meeting around 1943, they worked closely with the GAA and collected funds locally for prizes … Fr Leahy in one day came first in hop skip and jump, 1st in 220 yds, and 1st in 440 yds.’

[6] Fr Michael Leahy worked temporarily at Holy Cross parish, Whitwick, Diocese of Nottingham.  His brother, Fr James Leahy, served St Joseph’s Parish in Leicester from 1942-1976.  Information courtesy David Lawes and Oliver Lewis, Diocese of Nottingham. 

The following is taken from the Irish Independent, 25 September 1968: ‘Rev Michael Leahy, CC, Killarney, joined his brother, Very Rev James Leahy, PP, and four other priests in concelebrating Mass with the Bishop of Nottingham, Most Rev Dr Ellis, to mark the opening of a new church in Leicester.  The new church, dedicated to St Joseph, cost £110,000, half of which has already been contributed by parishioners.  The work was commissioned by Very Rev Father Leahy and building started in December 1966.  Sited at Thurnby, a pleasant suburb about two miles from the city centre, the church is modern in design, but built with traditional materials.’

Fr James Leahy’s achievement in church building can also be viewed at this link: – ‘… the new church was erected in the late 1960s, at the instigation of Fr James Leahy.’ 

[7] Fr Michael Leahy numbered among the clergy who attended the blessing and dedication of the Church of Our Lady and St Brendan at Rathonane, Tralee on 21 October 1970.  The ceremony was conducted by Dr Eamonn Casey, Bishop of Kerry.

[8] A presentation was held in Tarbert Community Centre on 27 February 1986 on his departure from the parish.  He was presented with a reclining chair as tribute from the people of the parish ‘for his work in the community and in particular for his great relationship with the old, the sick and the children.  The fruits of his work are to be seen in the Church, the Community Centre, the extension to the Primary School and the Old Peoples Homes.’  Michael Lanigan of the Organising Committee said that Fr Leahy would always be remembered as being ‘the driving force behind the Cailin Ban festivals and the Christmas bazaars ... Fr Leahy was a patron of every organisation in the parish and his cooperation and advice were always available’ (Kerryman, 14 March 1986).

[9] ‘Among his many legacies in the region is the Nano Nagle school attached to Listowel Presentation’ (Irish Independent, 19 October 2011. ‘Listowel says farewell to great community man’).

[10] Kerryman, 24 June 1994.

[11] He seems to have retired to Ballybunion. 

[12] Kerryman, 30 November 2011.  Shannon Rangers provided a guard of honour for Monsignor Leahy, ‘promoter of parish facilities wherever he went.’