Sport GAA

Monday 10 December 2018

Colm O'Rourke: Meath trip of a lifetime built a bridge to future

Members of the Meath football team enjoy the sights of Sydney during their historic tour of Australia in 1968
Members of the Meath football team enjoy the sights of Sydney during their historic tour of Australia in 1968
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

Fifty years ago this week, Ireland invaded Australia. It was altogether a friendly move, by a Meath team who had taken up an invitation by an Aussie rules touring side who came to Ireland in October 1967. Meath, as All-Ireland champions, played the Australians in Croke Park before an attendance of 23,000 and that game marks the start of the football relationship between Ireland and Australia.

Central to the competition between the two countries were two men of vision. On the Meath side was Peter McDermott, who captained Meath to win the All-Ireland in 1954, he also refereed the final in 1953, and was coach in 1967. (Maybe if Dublin don't get to the final this year it might be refereed by Cian O'Sullivan or Diarmuid Connolly, who could come back and win another medal next year.

The first Australian tour here was the brainchild of Harry Beitzel, a colourful writer, referee, commentator and businessman. His party was unofficial and the players were called the 'galahs' as they had big hats with colourful feathers. A galah is an Australian bird with bright plumage. The team were again labelled galahs before they left. It was not meant to be a compliment.

After the match in Croke Park, which the Australians won, Beitzel invited Meath to travel to Australia the following March. McDermott and the main Meath County Board officials - Fr Tully, Liam Craven and Jack Fitzgerald - accepted the invitation. Now all they had to do was raise about £15,000, enough to buy a few new houses in Dublin at the time. The Aussies were guaranteeing £5,000. It all had to be done in just a few months too.

In 1968 the average industrial wage in today's money was roughly €270 a week, at the time it was about £15 per week. A new car then would start at about £500. Many players were lucky to have any sort of car and some were still getting around by bike. It may have been the swinging '60s in Britain but Ireland was still quite poor. Few had ever been on an aeroplane going anywhere and now McDermott was proposing to bring them to the other side of the world. Most thought it was a non-runner but there were enough men of substance who decided to make it work.

There were two main classes of Irishmen and women who went to Australia and Van Diemen's Land before this time. One was given free passage on board a convict ship, the type of crime involved was minor but the colonies were crying out for workers and the Irish fitted the bill. After independence there was a subsidised passage scheme where Irish people could get to Australia, especially in the '50s and '60s for £10. The immigrants from Britain were called ten-pound Pommies and the Poms (English) are not particularly popular in Oz. Again the idea of assisted passage was to boost the workforce.

At the time of that Meath tour I was only 10 years old but I can clearly remember the excitement associated with it. The equivalent now would be to go to the moon. There were no mobile phones, fax machines or emails. Few had house phones and people made arrangements to make calls at particular times to make sure they got who they wanted. It must have been some fun even getting through to Australia with telephonists in several countries in between, pulling out some lines and connecting others. Young people can read on but I'm sure they have absolutely no idea what I am talking about!

Twenty years later I was working in America for the summer and I rang home. In about ten seconds my mother worked out I was alive and well and told me to hang up quick as a phone call from Chicago was costing too much. That was the perception of how expensive it was to ring from abroad.

Over the early part of 1968 there were collections in Meath outside mass, there were barn dances and draws and house-to-house collections and individual contributions. Enough was gathered to bring all the players as earlier it looked as if some of the extended panel might have to be jettisoned.

So, on March 2, 1968 the cry was "all aboard" as the first part of the voyage was to Rome, then Singapore and Perth. The party was led by the Meath County Board chairman Fr Tully, who had trained the team to win All-Irelands in 1949 and '54 and the tour organiser was Joe Walsh, who many Irish people would know from package holidays to the sun in later years.

The Meath players were heroes in the county at the time . . . indeed, they still are. Peter Darby was captain while Jack Quinn, Pat Reynolds, Ollie Shanley, Tony Brennan, Matt Kerrigan, Sean McCormack, Mick Whyte, Mick Mellett, Terry Kearns, Bertie Cunningham and Paddy Mulvaney were household names. Two have passed on, Peter Moore and full-forward Noel Curran, whose son Paul Curran won an All-Ireland with Dublin in 1995. Pat 'Red' Collier was a huge favourite of the crowds in both Australia and Ireland. All the gears in his engine were forward. Reynolds and Brennan went on to be selectors with Seán Boylan in the Meath set-up of the late '80s.

Some of the big players in Australia at the time were Ron Barassi and Polly Farmer. Barassi was the captain of the first team which came here in 1967 and is one of the greatest players ever in Aussie rules. A huge bronze statue was erected of him in the parade of champions outside the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Barassi's father was killed at Tobruk, fighting the Germans, in World War II and Barassi Jnr embraced wholeheartedly the idea of international competition.

Meath played matches against Australian selections in Perth, Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide. The matches were competitive with decent crowds everywhere.

They were treated like royalty wherever they travelled and it was a big thing for the Irish in general and Meath people in particular to meet up with the players. At that time going to Australia was a one-way ticket for most. The matches though were treated with such importance that Michael O'Hehir of RTÉ travelled with the party and relayed live commentaries.

After winning all the matches the Meath touring group left for home, the breaks on the way out had meant time in Rome and Singapore. Now it was a chance to go home the other way. The first stop was in Hawaii, then a short break in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. They were innocent times but this was a world tour that few would even go on now.

Almost 20 years later both McDermott and Beitzel were involved to a greater or lesser extent in reviving the connection between the two countries with the international rules series. It struggles on with plenty of dissenting voices, but having played in the series twice and managed Ireland in 1999 and 2000, I do, naturally, have a soft spot for it. And particularly so when I was in charge of the team in the historic Melbourne cricket club in 2000 when we beat the Aussies before a crowd of 70,000. It was in that same arena that Ronnie Delany won his gold medal in the 1956 Olympics so it is a bit like Croke Park to us except nobody was shot in it, to my knowledge at least.

So when young people talk now about taking their gap year and travelling to Australia and all over the world there is a bunch of Meath players, most of whom thankfully are still alive, who can honestly say to these whipper snappers when they start blowing a bit, "we did it all son before there was word about you".

Got the t-shirt too and wrote the book as well. Gaels In The Sun was written by Peter McDermott when he came home and details every aspect of the trip and each single penny is accounted for, with a long list of donors. We all think we are much smarter now but they were not too slow back then either. Truly the trip of a lifetime which created a bridge to the future.

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