Saturday 21 October 2017

Incredible story of the Irishman who became an All Black hero

Cast in bronze: the Dave Gallaher statue at Eden Park
Cast in bronze: the Dave Gallaher statue at Eden Park

Jonathan Bradley

In Auckland, you imagine Michael Murphy could walk around relatively unnoticed. Seamus Coleman would cause few double-takes and Phillip Deignan would draw the same reaction as any other cyclist navigating his way through traffic in rush hour.

And yet there is one son of Donegal whose name reverberates with significance throughout the entirety of New Zealand.

Indeed, at the famous Eden Park where the Lions played their first Test with the All Blacks this morning, Dave Gallaher, the Ulsterman who captained New Zealand, is immortalised in bronze, such is his standing as one of the founding fathers of the All Blacks.

His was another incredible immigrant's story, beginning in Ramelton and forever linking a small patch of Donegal to the world's most formidable rugby side.

Some eight miles north of Letterkenny, it's the kind of Irish village that seems Hollywood-approved. Sitting on the banks of the River Lennon, Conway's traditional pub encourages passing patrons that Guinness is good for you, while within 100 yards two front doors lie open and another sits with a bunch of keys dangling from its lock.

Dotted around the Market Square are locals chatting amicably together next to stalls selling anything from carrots to handbags.

And just round the corner, above what was once a bed and breakfast but now sits closed with boarded doors, hangs a plaque (above) set into a pebble-dashed wall that marks this modest building as "The Birthplace of Dave Gallaher, Captain of the New Zealand All Blacks 1905."

Despite the relatively meagre population of a little over 1,000, it is not the town's only claim to fame - a similar plaque across the road marks the one-time home of Celtic legend Patsy Gallacher, while the McDaid's line of soft drinks also originate here - but it is certainly the most unlikely.

Gallaher was born in Ramelton on October 30, 1873 to James and Maria Gallagher - the second 'G' was dropped from the surname for reasons of phonetics upon arrival in New Zealand - along with his nine brothers and sisters, but the family would sail upon the Lady Jocelyn to the Southern Hemisphere five years later in search of a new life.

They settled in the Bay of Plenty area, only for Maria to die of cancer at just 44.

Growing into a 6ft, 13-stone mustachioed figure, Gallaher then moved to Auckland and soon took up rugby, representing the Parnell and Ponsonby clubs before making his provincial bow.

An inspirational figure, whose revolutionary views on the game would provide the basis of a coaching manual still cited by the likes of World Cup-winning coach Graham Henry, Gallaher was captain of the 1905 All Blacks, the first tourists to leave Australasia.

The trip was a resounding success - the tourists won 34 of 35 games, including beating both Ireland and Munster, while scoring 976 points and conceding just 59 - and created the aura and mystique that still surrounds the back-to-back World champions to this day.

But Gallaher wasn't just considered a hero on the field. Having retired from rugby, he enlisted to fight in World War One, despite being considered too old at 41, after the death of a brother in the conflict.

Tragically, it was the same fate that awaited Gallaher - another brother would also later perish in battle - who was killed by a shrapnel wound in Passchendaele a few months short of a century ago.

"Hard as nails, fast and full of dash, he bolted from the mark every time, played right up to the whistle and stopped for nothing big or small," read his front-page obituary in the New Zealand press.

His death, a national tragedy, continued to be remembered by All Blacks teams visiting France who would visit his grave at Nine Elms Cemetery in Poperinge, Belgium.

Indeed, in a recent documentary for Sky Sports examining the rugby culture of New Zealand, former captain Sean Fitzpatrick paid the site a visit.

His birthplace, however, remained a path less trodden until 2005 and the last Lions tour to New Zealand.

With Ramelton located in a GAA heartland, the nearest rugby club Letterkenny RFC, the first rugby club from the Republic to become affiliated with the Ulster Branch, were trying to raise their profile when Dr Robert Love began to investigate their most famous export, presenting his findings to the NZRU during the whitewash suffered by Clive Woodward's men 12 years ago.

The result, some five months later, was the surreal sight of All Black stars such as Tana Umaga, Jerry Collins and Joe Rokocoko traversing the lengthy, often sheep-filled, lane to the newly named Dave Gallaher Memorial Park.

Those in attendance as Collins opened the facility said they were only too happy to be making the trek to honour the most Irish of All Black legends.

And if there are any from Donegal among the Lions fans filing into Eden Park, Gallaher's likeness in bronze stands as a reminder that the cliche rings true - it's a small world.

Belfast Telegraph

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