Thursday 17 October 2019

Liam Collins: 'Emotional farewell to GAA legend Eugene McGee

Former Offaly manager Eugene McGee was 'kind and caring' beneath his famous gruff exterior, writes Liam Collins

Eugene McGee before the famous All-Ireland final between Offaly and Kerry. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Eugene McGee before the famous All-Ireland final between Offaly and Kerry. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

The GAA commentator Eugene McGee, who is best known as manager of the Offaly football team which sensationally beat Kerry in the last minute of the 1982 All-Ireland final in Croke Park was "kind, caring and considerate" beneath a seemingly "gruff" exterior, mourners were told at his funeral in St Mel's Cathedral, Longford.

"Old men and women on the highways and byways of Offaly are mourning Eugene McGee today, even though many of them never met him," celebrant Fr Michael McGrath told a congregation of old footballers, journalists, friends and family.

Eugene McGee, a GAA commentator, editor and eventual owner of his local newspaper, the Longford Leader, died last Sunday at the age of 77, having fallen ill after the wedding of his son Conor and the introduction of his daughter-in-law, Saoirse, to the McGee family.

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In his eulogy, friend and publisher colleague PJ Cunningham said Eugene was in a "race against time" health- wise and last Saturday, the day of his son's wedding, "was another All-Ireland to win", and he succeeded in that too.

Although it never defined his diverse life, it was the dying moments of that All-Ireland final in Croke Park on the September 19, 1982, that elevated McGee from journalist and commentator to his own place in the pantheon of GAA history. With two minutes to go, Kerry were leading by two points and looked set fair for a famous five-in-a-row victory.'

According to the talk at his funeral, there were three Offaly mentors on the sideline, but it was McGee's decision, as manager, to introduce Seamus Darby in the dying minute of the game with instructions to go for a goal.

With his only kick of the game, he put the ball in the back of the Kerry net and Offaly won what is described as a "dramatic and iconic" victory by the narrowest of margins, 1-15 to 17 points, linking the two men forever in the GAA hall of fame.

As Eugene McGee's coffin was carried down the nave of St Mel's Cathedral last Thursday, members of that team waited in the porch to provide a guard of honour.

"It is a very sad day for us," said Darby. "We have great times to remember, it wasn't only one day."

Sean Lowry, the Offaly captain, whose inspiring speech before the match was reproduced by Eugene McGee in his last book and read out at his funeral Mass, said it was a "tough day" for all the team. Still the philosopher, he added: "It tells us all how short our life is with so much to do and so little time."

Born in Augnacliffe, in north Co Longford, in 1941, the second of a family of seven children whose father was the national school teacher, Eugene McGee played football with the local club Colmcille and later University College Dublin (UCD), where he studied agriculture and then arts. He became a successful manager of the university team and began writing GAA columns for the Longford News.

"A lot of people think I am gruff, dogmatic and dour," he admitted in one interview - which to many people he was - before adding: "I wouldn't completely agree with that.

"GAA writers over the years were famous for not offending anybody, it was always an arse-licking job," he added. "You were under the thumb of the County Board secretary or whoever was in power, that is probably what attracted outsiders to me at the start."

But as Cunningham said in his eulogy, "he was more than a one-trick pony". Apart from his successes as a Gaelic football county and club manager, he became a respected commentator on GAA games and their administration, writing a provocative column for the Irish Independent for 20 years. Although he never pulled his punches, he was respected enough to be appointed chair of the 2013 Football Review Committee of the GAA which introduced the black card.

He also prospered in business, becoming editor of the Longford Leader and eventually buying the newspaper, which had been in the Farrell family since it was founded by the Irish Party MP JP Farrell in 1897. In 2002 it was sold for €9.1m to Scottish Radio Holdings and it is now part of the Iconic Media Group.

By this time, McGee had moved into one of the most prestigious homes on Longford's Battery Road, which may well have had something to do with its proximity to St Christopher's, where his special needs daughter Linda was cared for and of which he was a great supporter.

It was Linda who "stole the show" at his funeral, escorting the hearse on the motorcycle he bought her, with other members of the Freewheelers Motor Cycle Club. After his wife Marian and family took their seats, the funeral Mass opened with the football used in the 1982 All-Ireland, a "relic of that historic day" being brought to the altar as a symbol of his life, along with a copy of his 2014 book, The GAA in My Time.

Despite money and fame, Eugene McGee remained his own man and, as Fr McGrath remarked, "was always rooted in his Longford place of birth".

Following the Mass, celebrated by Fr McGrath, retired Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise Colm O'Reilly and Fr Frank Gray, Eugene McGee was buried in Colmcille cemetery near his home place.

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