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Dún Chaoin man with a foot in both camps

If Kerry don't reach the All-Ireland final, Dan Kavanagh tells Tommy Conlon that he will be comfortable seeing Galway in Croke Park in September

IT goes a long way back, the great tradition: as a boy growing up in the Kerry gaeltacht Dan Kavanagh heard his grandfather tell of the game they played in post-famine Ireland.

They didn't call it Gaelic football then, for two good reasons: they didn't speak English and Gaelic football had yet to be invented. But what they did play was the indigenous sport of a people who created it out of their own imagination and which gradually mutated into the game that Kavanagh played at the highest level, for Galway and Kerry, throughout the 1940s.

It goes a long way forward too, the great tradition: Dan Kavanagh's grandson, Larry Kavanagh's great-great-grandson, is a member of this year's Kerry under-21 team, standing by for an All-Ireland semi-final.

Eanna Kavanagh plays with Dr Crokes in Killarney. His grandfather also played with Crokes but his football life began on a patch of flat ground that overlooked the cliffs and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. It was the parish of Dún Chaoin (Dunquin), west of Dingle, and it was the 1930s another time, another place.

"There was a commonage at the end of the parish," he recalls, "a bit of coarse ground of a no man's land just on the cliff edge, and that's where they played football. They stuck up two sticks and put what's known as a súgán across it a crossbar and tied it on both sides. There wasn't enough space for a pitch but you could have a kick-in and kick-out in a limited way, maybe 50 yards in length. I started there, we used to stand behind the goal and every time the ball came over the súgán you were there to get it. Very often the ball disappeared over the cliff and fellas'd run down the side of the cliff."

It sounded like a hazardous enough undertaking but his explanation is simple: "Youth! Youth!" They were boys, fearless and probably heedless. "Some of the cliffs are pretty high but if you grow up to a thing, it's not it was easy enough, I often went down to bring up a ball."

Now 81, Kavanagh retired from his job as Kerry county engineer in 1986. It is not difficult to see in his broad physique the strong centrefield player he was in his athletic prime.

The youngest of a family of eight, he describes a childhood that was idyllic, the kind of which will never be lived again. His grandmother was a Sayers, "same Sayers as Peig, I knew Peig" the woman whose classic account of struggle and hardship on the Blasket Islands haunted many a Leaving Cert student over the years.

In his experience the '20s and '30s in west Kerry was not a time of hardship. "No, never. I never saw it anyway," he adds, chuckling. "In rural Ireland, and particularly in parishes close to the sea, people can earn a pretty reasonable living, they can live well, in the sense that they've plenty of food. I never saw poverty much in west Kerry and there's none there today either."

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His parents were "smallish farmers" and there were tourists in summer, civil servants, teachers and others interested in developing their Irish. There was fishing too, lobster, mackerel and as much crab as you could eat. One of his cousins was Maurice Kavanagh, better known as Kruger Kavanagh, who came home from America and built a guesthouse that would later become a famous public house on the Dingle peninsula. But, as Dan points out, "there was a little drop to be had there before the licence was got."

He remembers the occasion when Patrick Kavanagh stayed in Kruger's. "He went away and wrote an article about it, something appeared about Kruger's shebeen, there was a little bit of a rumpus." At Sunday Mass, while the rest of the congregation faced the altar, Dan noticed the poet facing the other way, transfixed by a vision. "The door was opened, it must've been a summer's day, and if you turned around and looked out the Church you were looking directly, without any obstruction whatsoever, at the Blasket Islands. Paddy was there down on one knee looking behind him. That stuck in my memory. Such a beautiful view, looking out from the Church."

Families were "very fond of education" and in 1935, having won a scholarship for gaeltacht children, he was sent to boarding school in Dublin Coláiste Chaoimhín Glasnevin. It was to be the beginning of his formal football education too. And he was good, selected at centre field on the combined Leinster colleges' team of 1938 his partner the fabled Tommy Murphy of Laois.

THAT summer he was selected for the Kerry minor team, the first from Dunquin to play for the county. They were beaten in the All-Ireland final by Cavan. In '39 he played minor for Kerry again and began his engineering studies at University College Galway. There he formed another distinguished midfield partnership, this time with Henry Kenny of Mayo.

In 1941 he declared for Galway knowing that he stood little chance of breaking into a Kerry senior team that was dominating football at the time with All-Ireland titles in '37, '39 and '40. They won another in '41 beating Galway in the final Dan Kavanagh played centrefield on the losing team that day. His direct opponent was one of Kerry's greats, Paddy Kennedy. "He was tall, very athletic, class touch of Micko (Mick O'Connell) about him. In other words he used the ball, kind of a perfectionist, beautiful footballer."

In 1942 they beat Kerry in the semi-final Dublin beat them in the final. Playing against his native county "never cost me a thought. People don't hold it against you."

He played one more year with Galway before moving back to Kerry in 1944 to take up a post in the council's engineering section. He was quickly drafted into the Kerry panel, coming off the bench to replace Kennedy in the All-Ireland final of that year which they lost to Roscommon. Two years later he had his All-Ireland medal, beating Roscommon in a replay, and in '47 was on the team that lost to Cavan in the New York Polo Grounds.

He rarely dwelt on the disappointment after losing big games "I never carried football with me after a game was over. Once a match was played, it was over as far as I was concerned, I got on with my work and other things of life." The game in fact never dominated his life he did not eat, sleep and breathe it. "Oh no, never did. That's the way it was in my time anyway."

Still, he was glad to get his medal in '46. "There's so many that played intercounty football and never saw an All-Ireland medal, some great players some of the greatest."

He reckons he could have had two more if the dice had rolled their way. "I would say, '44, I think we could have and should have won; and I would say '47 in America, we won but not on the scoreboard. Not taking from Cavan, they were very good at the time. They had some great footballers and good scoring forwards. Joe Stafford, Peter Donohoe - Peter was deadly, he was something like our friend in Cork now (Colin Corkery), every free straight over."

He's not mad about the modern game the short passing, the fouling, players playing out of position it's substantially different to the style of his era. But it was even more different in his grandfather's time, almost unrecognisable as football. In fact they didn't even call it football, or @@STYL CF,MILI peil.

@@STYL CF,MILS "You never called it peil, it's only of late that the word peil came into existence at all in the gaeltacht. I mean kids going kicking, they were ag imirt chaide, and prior to that even, ag bualadh chaide. It was all Caid. And Caid comes from interparish football.

"I remember my grandfather telling me I was a very young fellow, he was probably late '80s I remember him telling about Dunquin, they'd play some other parish, Marhin or Ventry, and they'd go to the next parish and the ball'd be thrown in and it was a question of trying to bring it back to your own parish and it was played cross-country.

"This was Caid in the old it was pre-Gaelic Athletic Association. The local team were trying to hold onto the ball and the visiting team were playing to get the ball away from them and bring it back home. That was Caid. And football continued by the name of Caid and they still call it Caid out in Dingle. My grandfather played it and this is the way he described it."

Dan Kavanagh played his last championship game for Kerry in the 1950 All-Ireland semi-final against Louth. In a tribute programme to him on Radio Kerry in 1999, one veteran follower of Kerry football described him thus: "A great pair of hands, a great kicker of a dead ball and as tough as táthfhéileann (a hardy bog plant)."

He will be watching the game today, backing Kerry - but he's had a long fondness for Galway. "Ah yah, great memories from Galway. If the Kerry jersey is not in Croke Park on All-Ireland day I'd like to see Galway there."

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