'We never won anything but we competed. And I made great friends in every county'
Published 26/06/2015 | 02:30
'The local and the individual were more powerful than any Irish identity' - John McGahern, Leitrim GAA fan (and author)
Packie McGarty was only 12 years old when he learned that although money had a value, it would be impossible for him to ever put a price on sport.
It was 1945; the world was still fighting a war but in dear old neutral Ireland, the only battlegrounds were GAA fields. McGarty and his little Mohill seven-a-side team had won the parish fair's grand prize, beating off all-comers from the province.
They held the presentation atop a rickety trailer just recently used for drawing turf. McGarty and his pals waited agog as captain Eddie Rowley received the envelope, then poured its contents into cupped hands.
A gleaming half-crown bounced off blackened fingernails. The thinnest film of tears formed on each boy's face. They didn't want money. Where were the medals?
"My dad worked for two and six every day," says McGarty, 70 years on. "So we knew what a half-crown looked like, we knew how hard-got it was. They probably couldn't afford medals. But we'd no value set on it at all. There were tears flowing."
All he ever wanted was a medal.
This was to be story of Packie McGarty's life, one so wonderful in how it bestowed its sporting gifts and shared the friendship of men from every county. But one which stubbornly, cruelly, denied to him the chance to stand up and say - "I'M A CHAMPION!"
When this writer grew up in Clondalkin in the 1980s, a daily highlight was a trip to the local grocer wherein an expedition to buy a sliced pan would develop into an action-packed, audio-visual replay of the previous day's sport.
The grocer, a kindly-faced, diminutive man in his 50s, would emerge from behind the counter and, deploying the aids of a cardboard Monster Munch box, the previous weekend's batch of the unsold Sunday Presses and a half-stone of roosters, would vividly illustrate the latest Glenn Hoddle goal, Jonathan Davies try or Brian Mullins catch.
We called him "Packie"; though the country knew him only as McGarty. I always recall the first time I asked my father who he was. "Only one of the best that ever played the game, son," he told me.
More than 30 years on, McGarty turned 82 last April and still fine of fettle, rising from his chair from time to time to grapple with an invisible opponent or attempting to recreate a scoring move from sepia-tinted days.
"I'm as well known for not winning medals as winning them," he smiles with dancing eyes.
"I enjoyed it, I loved playing with Leitrim. As Mick O'Connell said to me, the savage loves his native shore. Whatever hand is dealt to you, you deal with it. We never won anything but we competed. And I made great friends in every county. You can't bring medals with you."
He was the greatest Leitrim ever had, of that there is little doubt; they reached four Connacht finals in the late 1950s and lost them all to a wondrous Galway team; even in defeat, the 1958 side were chaired from the field by deliriously jubilant Leitrim men.
McGarty's jersey was ripped to shreds that day - "Arrah, I was fouled a couple of times." His was one of the sport's greatest ever displays without reward.
McGarty, who could field, solo and score as well as any other, lost county finals aplenty, whether with Sean McDermotts or Round Towers in Dublin, or Tara in London.
"My medals are easy kept," he winces knowingly. "I often said if I got to another final, I wouldn't play it, so as to give them a chance to win it!"
His words are not salted, though.
"The man above is the boss. We had great matches, ran Galway close. It was my ambition to win with Leitrim but I didn't achieve it. God gave me a good life and a good playing career. That's it."
He debuted at 16 against Offaly. On the day, he had to cycle home to get his boots and play in his civvies as he hadn't believed the Leitrim Observer when they printed his name in the team. Despite his diminutive stature - "four pence stacked in coppers!" - he scored three goals.
He was a regular on Connacht Railway Cup team at 20 and was the only western player on the GAA team of the Millennium, comprised of those who never won an All-Ireland.
He learned his trade well; Mohill were a junior club when he started and they encountered some severe skites.
"Fellas with their caps turned backwards, ignorant footballers. Jimmy McGowan used tell me to wait for the scrap to finish and the ball to pop out."
McGarty would pop it over the bar. "Who's marking the gasun?" they'd bellow.
He remembers playing All-Ireland champions Cavan in 1952.
"I was just 18 and told to mark the great Brian O'Reilly. I gave him an elbow; that's what everyone did.
"He stood back from me, I always remember it. He folded his arms and looked down on me, he was a fine big man.
"'It's football I play,' says he. And it was only football I played after that. He learned me a lesson. They often say you lead by example and that man did. He made me ashamed."
And so, he spent the rest of his life ferrying pride throughout the land. Without reward, it may seem, were it not for the place he holds in the hearts and minds of so many GAA folk.
He will see some of them tomorrow, when he makes the short hop to Drogheda to see Leitrim take on Louth, and some of them will stop him in his tracks.
For truly, Packie McGarty remains the uncrowned king of Gaelic football. A local hero and a national icon.