Lives Remembered

The cheeky clown prince of snooker


Jackie Rea was a snooker pioneer who helped transform it from minority interest to compulsive viewing in homes across Britain and Ireland.

The co Tyrone man, who was Irish champion for 20 years, starred in the BBC's first Pot Black tournament which blazed a trail for the sport in the new era of colour television.

Oozing charisma on and off the table, he was known as 'The clown Prince of Snooker', becoming a mentor to Alex Higgins and inspiration to a new generation of players.

Rea himself did not retire from competition until the age of 69, having dedicated his life to the game and entertained people around the world with his unique talent.

John Joseph Rea was born in Union Place in Dungannon in 1921 and first picked up a cue at the age of nine in the billiard room of the pub his father Thomas managed in the town.

He honed his skills in St Patrick's Hall, and when the family moved to Springfield Drive in Belfast he played out of the National club in Berry Street. Jackie had a spell in the shipyard as a plumber and was in the Royal Navy for a short time, but he had an obvious talent for snooker and after winning both the Northern Ireland and Irish amateur championships in 1947, he turned pro in 1952. at a time when the game was at a low ebb, his best showing in the world championships came five years later when he was beaten by John Pulman in a marathon final by 39 frames to 34.

His biggest win was the 1955 News of the World championship -- earning him a cheque for £500 -- but like most players, Rea had to rely on exhibition games to secure a steady income. in this arena he had no equal.

His appearances were as much a comedy routine as a display of snooker skills. Billed as the 'cheeky chappie with the Charlie Chaplin walk', Rea would have a crowd in stitches as he bantered and fooled around during games with local players.

He also had the best trick shots in the business -- his 'chinese chopsticks', where he rolled the white ball down two cues to pot his way around the table, has not been matched since - and many were picked up by Dennis Taylor and John Virgo.

When Pot Black was screened in 1969 Rea was an obvious choice for the original cast of eight players.

However, its success came a little too late for him to benefit from the incredible popularity that snooker would enjoy. Alex Higgins ended his 20-year dominance of the national title in 1972 and Rea would act as a father figure to the young Belfast man, encouraging him to cross the Irish Sea and settle near his own home at Cheadle Hulme near Manchester. They remained close friends until Higgins's death in 2010.

Rea continued to be a fixture in the early stages of tournaments and did not hang up his cue until 1990. In later years he coached youngsters in his local Hazel Grove Snooker club, continued his charity work and entertained his many friends with his natural wit and larger-than-life personality.

Jackie Rea died aged 92 on October 20 and his funeral on Wednesday was attended by Dennis Taylor, Joe Swail and many other leading figures in the sport. He is survived by his son Johnny --Rea's first wife Rosaleen Donnelly, from coalisland, died two weeks after giving birth in 1953 -- and daughter Jacqueline and son Paul from his second marriage to Betty.

* PIONEER: Images from the BBC and the Tyrone Times charting some of the best years of Irish snooker champion Jackie Rea who inspired a generation of talented players

Lives Remembered