Tom Mac Intyre was best known as a poet and playwright, but he also had the distinction of saving two penalties for Cavan in a championship game against Monaghan. In this interview from 2001 he recalled the world that made him a footballer first and then a writer.
IF you want to play football but you have the artist’s way, says Tom Mac Intyre, there’s a fair chance you’ll end up in goals. Albert Camus did, so did Patrick Kavanagh – Mac Intyre too.
Camus, they say, was handy; Kavanagh, they say, was not. In fact, the Monaghan bard was dodgy. One day, after letting in a dribbly goal, the vexed supporters of Inniskeen's junior football team told him to "go home and put a skirt on".
Mac Intyre was more reliable. Some of the same Inniskeen supporters were probably in Clones the day in 1958, when he saved two penalties for Cavan in a first round Ulster championship match against Monaghan, then as now great rivals.
The poet and playwright will be back in Clones today for the 39th championship meeting of the counties. "You're talking to one of the faithful," he declared last Wednesday. A robust, vibrant 69, he does not look his years.
"That's cos I'm in love," he retorted with a laugh that filled the room. Love and football, in no particular order, would remain the twin motifs of the afternoon's conversation.
A loud talker and a loud laugher, he was by times comical, philosophical and nostalgic, recalling the world that made him a footballer first and then a writer. His obsession with the former gave roots to the latter.
In his play, The Gallant John Joe, he invokes Cavan's great mythic hero, John Joe O'Reilly, and two of his comrades from the fabled All-Ireland winning team of '47 and '48, Mick Higgins and Tony Tighe. He recites the lines with relish. "He had a way of blocking down a ball. A method! Because by Christ there was method in it. And elegant, ladies and gentlemen, elegant! Then deliver it, Higgins on the 40, Tighe on the wing."
He laughs heartily, delighted with the performance and happy for the innocent, impoverished, football-fascinated world that inspired the lines. "You couldn't get the melody of those lines, that musical effect," he says, "if you weren't soaked in the populist ragamuffin poetry of that world."
But it was also, almost inevitably, a dark and repugnant world. The son of a teacher, he grew up in the town of Bailieboro, "a hillbilly town, savagely bigoted, which provided a terrifying theatre on a daily and on a nocturnal basis. It grieves me to say it but my world was the savage, bigoted, Gestapoistic, de Valera-Ireland world of that period and (if) you're going to come out of that alive, somebody's got to be praying for you."
The GAA would classically be seen as a pillar of that world, along with the Church and de Valera's Fianna Fáil. "And it was," he agrees. But.
"But I also found that the GAA world then, and now, still has a huge joy in individual expression. There was the fun of that world, the athleticism of playing, the joy of it, the physical joy."
And for a young man with a writer's antennae, there was "the lingo! The language in that world. We're talking a world of the hills and the ditches and the bog and the slope of the mountain. That's where I learned the English language, and certainly the Irish inside the English, which matters enormously to me and is a huge part of the poetry of the English a writer has available to him in this country".
Long before that sort of awareness however, it became clear to him at a very young age that football was "a great thing to be at," for two reasons.
"One, you were supposed to be at it and two, it was such fun. Playing football was the credo, far more than the Catholic Church. I recall reading in a school book, probably in high infants, the clarion sentence: 'And one day you may play for your county.' This is extraordinary, it seems to me, to remember a line from such an early age but that seared my consciousness. One day you may play for your county. This was ambition. That registered something in the society, all over Ireland and for sure in Cavan."
Because in Cavan they were all reared on "the incandescent glories" of the '47/'48/'49 team. It lost the '49 final but another All-Ireland was won in '52.
The heroes of that team became "mythical on the instant. Big Tom, John Joe's older brother, and John Joe, were mythical even in '43 when I saw Roscommon demolishing Cavan in the replayed All-Ireland final. I'll always remember, I had the Cavan cap on my head and, in the way of a child, as disaster loomed I took the cap off my head and put it in my pocket and the two adults beside me, my father and a hackney driver from Bailieboro, turned and (adopts a comically ripe Cavan accent): 'Look at him puttin' away the colours on the hard day!' And that memory stayed with me for a long time and the lesson, the obvious lesson was, You Do Not Lower the Colours in the Teeth of the Storm!" Uproarious laughter from the storyteller.
Those famous footballers became heroes overnight, he remembers, "because we were hungry for mythic figures. We want the heroes, it's a wonderful human hunger. Look at DJ Carey, he's a mythic figure."
Mac Intyre was a member of the Cavan squad when John Joe O'Reilly died, shockingly young, in November 1952. Coming home from a league game in Offaly, they visited him in the army hospital in the Curragh where O'Reilly, an army officer, was based. They didn't know it at the time but they saw him in his death bed.
"The story as I know it is that he took a belt in the kidneys in a match and, as they used to say, he never overed it." It was an awful "wallop" for the people of Cavan. "That, combined with the death of PJ Duke, the other great half-back of that era. He was only 25 when he died in '50, it was rheumatic fever in his case."
Mac Intyre's only championship season with Cavan was in '58 when his two penalty saves - "badly taken" - helped set up a draw. The replay, in Breffni Park, was abandoned before the end because of a pitch invasion. Cavan won the second replay in Casement Park. They were beaten by Derry in the semi-final.
He continued to keep goal for Bailieboro. If his attraction to goalkeeping was instinctive as a boy, he's able to rationalise it now.
"Why? Because the artistic type has to be on the danger line, you have to be interested in the cliff area and the goal line is one such area. You make one mistake and the consequences are cataclysmic. It's the life-and-death area, anywhere else on the field doesn't carry with it such dark potential and artists are interested - they better be interested in dark potential. Victory or the wicked shadow of defeat. And the mingling of those two elements, that's where the fun begins for storytellers."
Watching the games on television last Sunday, he was disheartened by the level of cynicism he saw - it was "quite frightening." The other thing that dismays him about the modern game is the almost total absence of players who can kick comfortably with both feet. Mention one who can, Kerry's Mike Frank Russell, who scored freely off left and right against Limerick, and his face gladdens with enthusiasm.
"Aw, wonderful. To see that guy in action. That's it. See, you don't have to break stride, you don't have to change direction, the two weapons are available to you. The rule was - I got it from my father as a 12-year-old - you learned to kick with both feet, you MUST be proficient with both feet."
He didn't know it at the time but as a 12-year-old moving into his teens, he was immersed in football for another reason, one too deep to understand then, but one he well understands now. The GAA, inadvertently and unconsciously, was meeting needs that went deeper than Michael Cusack, or indeed Archbishop Croke, had ever envisaged.
"The most important thing to be said about it was that, as you came into your teens in that world, young males and young females, 13, 14 years of age, there were no rituals to get from there into the confused adult world - they didn't exist. And football provided a faltering ritual, that competitive world, that prove-yourself world.
"It was an unsophisticated world but one of enormous significance in a poverty-stricken Ireland and when people attack the GAA I always say, fine, attack as much as you like, but I can tell you that in the town where I grew up a long time ago, football was what kept me and an awful lot of the young male population in equilibrium."
What would have happened in its absence?
"Lunacy!" he says fiercely. "Madness. Because the sexual tension had no other road of release and that was only a partial road but it was a crucial road. At least you were permitted to strut your stuff as a young stud, right? There'd be lassies watching, you might be afraid to put a finger on them but they were watching, there was some sexual buzz. I was lucky. We kids were able to fashion something approaching the necessary ritual to get from puberty into a confused version of the adult world."
Which is why, it seems, he remains deeply loyal to that world and why he remembers it with such gratitude and love.