Friday 14 December 2018

Meath team of '68 went far - Australia to be exact!

GAA: 50th anniversary of Meath's ground-breaking trip down under

Sean Wall

While most of us are still shivering or even quivering in our boots this week following Storm Emma and the four, six or eight feet of snow (depending where you live) that accompanied it, the Meath footballers of exactly 50 years ago had no such worries.

Not only were they basking in the sunshine of being All-Ireland champions, they were also in their singlets, shorts and sandals enjoying a bout of Australian sunshine.

March 2nd 1968 fell on a Saturday and that was the morning that the Meath men, a party of 52, gathered at Dublin Airport for the first leg of their historic and ground-breaking trip, not only Down Under but around the world.

The journey didn't last 80 days, as the party returned to Dublin on the Sunday morning of March 24th, to a hero's welcome following an unforgettable tour which forged lasting relationships and laid the foundations for the GAA's Australian link which exists to the present day.

The touring Australians had played Meath at Croke Park the previous year as part of their own world tour and defeated Meath in a game played under compromise rules by 25-13.

Meath were newly crowned All-Ireland champions at the time and Australian tour organiser Harry Beitzel had planned a world tour for a selection of star Australian Rules footballers. Beitzel contacted the powers-to-be in Croke Park seeking a match against the Irish champions and made it clear that he only wanted to play against the best and didn't want to travel 12,000 just to play a friendly.

As a result of that game in Croke Park an invitation went out to Meath to tour Australia early the next year and at a special meeting of the Meath Co Board on the last day of 1967 it was unanimously decided the trip should go ahead. The proposer was Johnny Murtagh, father of present Meath senior selector Finian, and he was seconded by Tommy Hand (St Vincent's, Ardcath).

None of the national newspapers were represented on the trip due to cost, and Rathkenny native Jim Gammons in his recently published book Football Immortals recalled that he got a telegram from the Irish Times on the morning of the trip requesting him to send back dispatches to the newspaper. Famed commentator Micheál O'Hehir covered the trip for RTE, but he had set off separately to take in a race meeting in Kentucky and arrived in Australia from the opposite direction.

The whole of the county were glued to their radios to hear Micheál's commentaries, including the final match which was live on Radio Eireann on St Patrick's morning. The inimitable Micheál was as familiar with some of the Australian players as he was with the Meath men and whenever he mentioned the likes of Ron Barassi or Polly Farmer his commentary went up a few more decibels.

The opening leg of the journey was a stopover in Rome where they were welcomed by Brother Denis Wall, a native of Davidstown Slane. From there, following a tour of the city, it was on to Istanbul and there then followed a journey of 2,394 miles to Bahrain.

From there it was on to Calcutta, then Singapore, and the party eventually touched down in Perth on Wednesday March 6th, 11,600 miles from home, ahead of their opening match of the tour.

Over the next number of days Meath would move on to Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide and then return to Melbourne for the final match of the tour.

They first arrived in Melbourne on March 10th and the following day was Moomba Day, a public holiday and a day of celebration in the State of Victoria and Melbourne in particular.

It was similar to St Patrick's Day in Dublin city, with parades and marching bands. The Meath men had a special place in the parade, with a float decorated with shamrocks and Tricolours and backed by a large laurel wreath inscribed with 'The Mighty Men of Meath'. On board were several members of the team and officials wearing their 'Digger' hats.

That was just one of the social outings where the team and officials were feted before they left Australian shores. There was also plenty of sightseeing, excursions and banquets along the way as well as the important issue of football matches.

When the team arrived back at Dublin airport and touched down at 11.35 in the morning there were hundreds and hundreds of Meath supporters to welcome them home. Also there were members of Trim CBS band, together with a troupe of girl dancers from the Convent of Mercy, Trim, home town of captain Peter Darby.

The following evening the team and officials were accorded a civic reception in Navan and again thousands of fans thronged the streets to give the team a hero's welcome.

Drogheda Independent