Norma Flannery has enjoyed a life in which rugby league and the recently flooded Ulster Hotel have played an integral part.
Norma Flannery has enjoyed a life in which rugby league and the recently flooded Ulster Hotel have played an integral part. Rob Williams

Queen of Ipswich Rugby League

THERE is little doubt who the grand old lady of Ipswich Rugby League is.

“I always say I cut my teeth on a football at the North Ipswich Reserve,” Norma Flannery said from her home, which sits in the late afternoon shadows of Denmark Hill.

To tour Great Britain with the Australian rugby league team twice, particularly in the days when they went by ship, was a rare occurrence.

Yet both Norma’s father Dan Dempsey and husband Denis did just that.

Their absences, at impressionable periods of young Norma’s life, left their scars, as has the Bremer River floods that engulfed her family pub, the Ulster Hotel, in 1974 and again this month.

She is nothing if not resilient, which is why she remains an optimist.

Norma is optimistic the Ulster Hotel, for which she still does the book keeping at age 83, can continue trading as a pub, despite being damaged to the tune of $150,000 and with Denis too ill to help.

Norma also learnt the hard way what a nine-month tour of the UK can do to a man.

“He went over thin and fit,” she said of her Dan’s second great tour in 1933-34, when Norma was six.

“When he came back he’d put on a lot of weight, after the boat trip.

“I didn’t recognise him.

“I used to tell people, ‘this is my daddy but my real father is in England’.”

It took Norma years to realise that her two ‘fathers’ were one and the same.

The realisation came when she was at boarding school at Toowoomba, where the girls were sent during World War II to keep them out of the way of Japanese bombs and US sailors.

“Dad came to visit,” Norma explained, emotion welling up at the recollection.

“We walked into the parlour.

“Dad was sitting there and he cried.

“That’s when I realised he was my father.”

So it was with some trepidation she waved goodbye to Denis as he departed for a nine-month tour Kangaroo tour in 1952.

“It was a different feeling (compared to when her dad went),” she said.

“We were sweethearts. He was at school, I was working with the QT.

“Walking home, he’d get to the corner and whistle. That’s how I knew he was keen.”

While Australia lost the Ashes 2-1 to Great Britain, Flannery had a wonderful tour, scoring 23 tries in 14 matches alongside the man he considers the greatest he played with – Clive Churchill.

It is a record that was not broken until the 1990s.

While his footballing feats laid the foundation for a career that had him named in the Queensland team of the century, his experiences off the field changed him forever – and not necessarily for the better, in Norma’s eyes.

Nine months among hard men and the things they saw, such as people trying to sell their children when the ship stopped in India, meant the childlike innocence Norma had known was long gone when Denis returned.

“He was totally different,” Norma said.

“He was like a little boy when he went away. I didn’t like the stranger that came home.

“We got around it eventually.”

The changes weren’t enough to stop them getting married, however, though Norma expected Denis to retire from football once they were hitched.

When Denis told Norma he was going to travel on the 1956-57 tour of the UK, still another six months away, it nearly drove a wedge between them.

In those days, husbands needed a release signed by their wives to go.

Norma was not going to sign it until Dempsey had a word to her.

But her fears were unfounded as her husband returned the same man she loved.

Rugby league, like the Ulster Hotel, has been a constant throughout Norma’s life.

She dreaded the thought of league taking her father and husband away, as she dreads the thought of the Ulster no longer continuing as the family hotel.

Both have brought heartache, but that has been far outweighed by the joy, love and wonderful life they have provided her.

“I couldn’t imagine it,” Norma says of a life without rugby league.

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