A sporting life

She was a popular figure in the lives of many hundreds of Athlone girls throughout three decades. Her down to earth attitude, and good humour while coaching PE and hockey, encouraged many girls in the love of sport, in their teenage years, and into adulthood. Frances Milling brought those talents to Our Lady's Bower school in the late 1970s, following sporting experience gained while she was growing up on both sides of the Irish border. Her family lived in Convoy, near Raphoe, Co. Donegal, and she went to school first in Derry High school, and then in Lifford. Frances was to her own admission, "mad keen on sports, and not at all academic,". "In Lifford, the school was a mixed Church of Ireland school, and if the hockey was on, and the boys were playing, I'd be in the middle of them, and I also played handball, and then we played cricket in the summer, and tennis, but hockey was my main sport," said Frances. Her father started the local cricket team in their home village in Donegal, and he was a huge influence in her life. "My father left school at nine years of age, to be a farm labourer, and then got a job as a shop-boy, and later became a postman, and my mother had lived an 'upstairs, downstairs' world, and she worked in the kitchen of different estates," said Frances. "My mother's father was a gardener in Powerscourt, Co. Wicklow, and she and her younger sister got into service and worked in several big houses. In Castlepollard, Co. Westmeath, my mother's family lived in the gate lodge of the main estate there, where my grandfather was the gardener. My mother's family had moved around a lot, and lived in many gate lodges. She was 29 when she married, and my father was 60. They had four children together. My brother Sam passed away in 2000, and my other brother, George is in Convoy, and my sister, Jenny is in Nenagh." Following his many occupations, Frances's father, Samuel Ashe, became a shop-owner and ran a grocery and drapery business in the Donegal village. "In the shop on Fair Day, you'd have a cow eye-balling you from the road, and one time a cow came into the shop, and I cleared the counter to get away from him," said Frances laughing. "Fair days then were something else, and you'd see people doing deals and spitting into their hands, and sealing a deal." Frances Ashe, as she was known when was growing up, never heard of the word "bored,", and said that "it was absolutely brilliant," growing up in Convoy. She fished, played tennis and badminton, and didn't get home from school until after 6pm, because of playing hockey every afternoon. Every Saturday morning, she travelled to different places around the north, such as Omagh, Cookstown and Dungannon to play hockey in tournaments. Frances loved boarding school, because she made the most of the sporting facilities in the school. She claims, in laughter, that she was sent away to boarding school for four years, by her parents, to make her "a lady". She was influenced by many people involved in sport then, including her headmaster, who she said put his hand in his own pocket to provide money for the sporting facilities for the school. Following school, she went to Jordanstown Physical Education College, near Carrickfergus, north of Belfast. In her second year there, she met Hugo Milling, her future husband, in a most memorable way. "I never smoked and I went to a hop, and a friend handed me a cigarette to take a puff, and when I took the puff and started coughing, a boy said to me, 'well you can't smoke, let's see if you can dance,' and that was Hugo," said Frances smiling at the memory. Hugo came from Carrickfergus, and worked in the linen trade in his family's company, with his father and brother. After she left college, Frances and Hugo got married and had three children, Karen, Hugh, and Craig. The Milling family came to live in Athlone in the 1970s, after Hugo came to town to manage Gentex. Frances started in Our Lady's Bower in October 1978, doing five hours a week, teaching Badminton. The family settled well into Athlone, and Frances's daughter Karen studied French and Secretarial studies in Athlone Regional Technical College. Frances's two sons, Hugh and Craig attended the Marist College, and Frances became actively involved in the committee, which assisted in the fundraising and building of the Marist College gymnasium. At the time, which was over 30 years ago, she was the only woman on the committee. In the Bower, Frances was very popular as the 'games mistress,' for almost three decades. "The Bower was brilliant, and the many nuns, like Sr. Christopher and Sr Denise were great, and I did the gymnastics class, and did a gym club for 'wee ones' from four years of age up," said Frances. She taught PE, modern dance, gymnastics, basketball and volleyball, and especially hockey which as was said earlier, is her main sporting love. "I got to know all the girls over the years, and I especially remember the girls I taught 30 years ago, because there were only 20 in the class then," she said. She also helped Sr Christopher look after the boarding girls of the school, when there was no matron available. "In those days there was a lot going on, and I worked with Fr. Shay Casey who brought over boys from the Marist, and there'd be hockey matches going on between the girls and the boys," said Frances. Frances met tragedy over the past decade, first when her husband Hugo died in 2002, and then when her son, Hugh died suddenly of an unexpected illness, in the following year, at just 40 years of age. "Hugh lived for sport, no more than me, and was opening bowler for Ireland, in Cricket, for about five years in the 1980s, and he was PE teacher in Hume Grammer School, Manchester," said Frances. Frances and Hugo were very involved in the choir of Athlone's St Mary's Church of Ireland, and Frances is still a soprano singer there. However sport is never too far away from her life, and besides spectating at soccer, rugby and golf events, she was lady captain of Athlone Golf Club in 1995, and President in 2007. "I am an avid supporter of Buccaneers RFC, and go to all the home games, and am particularly interested because my son, Craig is the manager of the team," said Frances. She was also a member of Athlone Badminton Club when she first came to Athlone in the 1970s. Frances was also involved with Ericsson, in Tops of the Town, working on choreography with the young cast. "I was invited by architect, Noel Heavey to join the Athlone soccer club committee, and I became secretary at the time when the club was up on the hill at Retreat, and I still love going home and away to the matches," said Frances. Since she retired from the Bower, more than ten years ago, she has worked voluntarily as a receptionist with the Athlone Citizens Advice centre. Frances is a grandmother to five grandchildren ranging in ages from 13 to 25, and she has encouraged each of them in sport. "I was about twenty-five years with the Bower, but I retired at sixty, because I was getting trouble with my back, from all the standing I was doing, and that's the thing about sportspeople, we all have trouble with aches," said Frances laughing. "I play bowls competitively three nights a week, and it's important for me to continue playing sport at this stage of my life."