An unbreakable spirit forged in tragedy - Corofin's Connacht dominance can be traced back to the death of a star player in 1946
One day last summer Joe Stephens, a former Corofin footballer, took the Andy Merrigan Cup from its current Galway residence and drove 120 miles east. His destination was Dalgan Park, a few miles outside Navan. The magnificent building on the grounds had been home to the Columban Missionaries since the 1940s and is now a quiet retirement centre. The structure remains as stately as ever.
But within the walls, and along the corridors that seem to run to eternity, the transformation is startling.
Black and white photographs of young seminarians convey a thriving era that has completely vanished. Row after row of men smile down from the walls, primed for missionary work in places like China, Burma and Korea. Most are dead now and because vocations have plummeted they were never replaced. The training college once teeming with students is long gone. A small number of ageing Columbans remain in Dalgan Park under the care of nursing staff. It was one of those retired missionaries that Joe Stephens wanted to see.
Fr Frank Mannion is 91. He played for Corofin and Galway before devoting the majority of his life to the Columban Missionaries. In 1953 Corofin GAA club made a presentation to Mannion marking his imminent departure to conflict-torn Korea, where he worked for 25 years. Later he moved to the west coast of America to work among Korean immigrant communities. Six years ago he came back to the old seminary he first joined in 1946 while still in his teens.
He was a powerful athlete in his day, a midfielder for the county in successive championships in 1951 and '52. Now, confined to a wheelchair, he follows Corofin's progress on radio and television. The year he entered the seminary, 1946, he helped Corofin reach the county final against the strong favourites Ballinasloe. But he wasn't allowed leave the seminary for the final. His brother, Joe, did take the field, one year older at 20, already a member of the county panel, full of speed and promise.
Corofin's footballers are writing new lines of history at a furious pace but the early chapters of the club's story are inextricably linked to the events of 1946. Frank Mannion is the last surviving member of that team which won the championship against the odds, only the club's second triumph and its first since 1932. The first player to die from that team, lost less than two days later, was his brother Joe.
The impact of his death was colossal. It made players turn away from football. The following year, dispirited by the experience, Corofin feebly surrendered their county title, failing to field a team against old rivals Annaghdown in June 1947. Tom McHugh is writing a history of the club. His late father was on the '46 team. "My father and other players reflected that no-one had any appetite for football in 1947," he says.
They would not win a senior championship again until 1977, when Joe Stephens was on the team. When the cup placing Corofin at the pinnacle of club football arrived at Dalgan Park, Frank had his picture taken holding it. Seventy- two years have passed since he buried his brother.
"He was a coming star of that team," says Frank Mannion softly, from near his bed in Dalgan Park. "Oh, he was a footballer." Frank is asked if he still follows the games, with Corofin facing Ballintubber in today's Connacht final at MacHale Park, live on TG4. "Oh," he grins, "sure do."
His voice is weak and he doesn't have the stamina for a lengthy conversation. But before we leave he is shown a picture of the 1946 Corofin team. He stands in the back row, three from the right, a boy with jet-black hair. At the front, in an inset picture, you can see Joe.
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"It was a very sad moment in the club," says Michael Ryder, the Corofin chairman, of the death of Joe Mannion. "And it took people a long time to get over it. It would always have been known but maybe something that people didn't talk much about. To lose a club member and quality player, it rocked the club. It really, really hit the people and did affect the people."
Corofin are now an unstoppable force in Galway football and one of the most stylish and technically gifted sides playing a game that is often plagued by negative tactics.
If Gaelic football ever manages to shed its current beleaguered image of being a dreary spectacle, it will be teams like Corofin that will be hailed as non-conformists, those who refused to accept they you could not win by playing riveting football. They are a blessing in dark times.
Since 1991, when they won only their fourth senior county title, they have hoovered up 16 Galway SFCs, eight provincial championships and three All-Irelands. But for a good many years after 1946 they struggled to make much of an impression.
There were ten in the Mannion family to which Frank and Joe belonged. Of the four boys, three played county football with Galway: Joe, Frank and Liam. The youngest, Tony, did not. Tony is living in Renmore in Galway city, retired 11 years from a career in teaching. When his brother Joe died, Tony was only four but he has an incredible gift for recalling detail.
As we drive from Dublin to Dalgan Park to see Frank, Tony opens a trove of memories of matches and moments, and the people encountered along the way.
"I remember Joe," he had said earlier on the phone. "One or two very clear memories of him in my home. I have a very clear memory of being up in his arms the day of the football match (county final) on November 17, 1946. I danced around the house, hoping that he would bring me to the match and he said he would bring me when I'd grow up."
There is a famous story of how in 1943 seven Mannions played the pick of the rest of Corofin parish in a football match during a local festival. The seven-a-side team was composed of five Mannion brothers from Belclare, which is part of the Corofin territory, and a separate pair of teenage brothers, Joe and Frank. They ran riot, winning 7-9 to 0-4, and later one of those playing, Mickey Mannion, who was with Galway in 1938 when they won the All-Ireland, lamented that they had besmirched the performance by kicking two wides.
Tony Mannion has heard many stories of what happened his brother over the years.
"I can describe it very easily for you. One of the Corofin players had a habit that when he would be going up to catch a ball he'd bring up the knee. And my brother Joe, they had Joe right half-forward because he was very speedy, raiding up the wings, and this is my impression from the stories that I have been told.
"This particular high ball came, and this player was going for it with the knee up and Joe came flying for the ball as well and he ran smack bang into the knee and he got it in the stomach and it ruptured his spleen. And what happened to Joe was, he bled to death. We must remember it was 1946, and it was the war years.
"After the match they took him to the local doctor and he looked at him. I don't know what was said. He was very bad that night. And the following morning they sent for the ambulance in Galway to come for him.
"This was the old regional hospital in Galway; two ambulances is all that served the hospital in those days. Now one of them was broken down this day and when they sent for the other ambulance it was away, gone out to Clifden to deliver a patient home. The driver went the 50 miles to Clifden and back again, and by the time he got out to Corofin to my brother I believe it was 7.40pm.
"By the time they had him ready on the operating table I believe the surgeon looked at him and he just shook his head, there was nothing he could do, and Joe died at 1.50am on the Tuesday morning."
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In its preview of the 1946 county final, the Tuam Herald branded Ballinasloe a "speedy city team" while Corofin, they reckoned, were "somewhat lucky to be in the final, as they forced a last-minute draw with the Army in the semi-final."
Due to a dispute over a referee the replay never happened; the Army withdrew and Corofin were in the final. Corofin's greatest weakness, the newspaper claimed, would be a lack of match practice, and the fact that their players were drawn from over a wide area which stifled teamwork, "as they are not often out together".
On form, it went on, Ballinasloe "are strong favourites". For Corofin "young Roche" was deemed "the most constructive footballer of the attack" in which "the fleet-footed Higgins, Joe Mannion, the college star, Comer, McHugh and Carroll are all good triers."
The match ended with tempers flaring and Corofin in front, with Ballinsaloe players leaving the field and refusing to come back on. Someone appealed for their return for the sake of the county final but it seemed to fall on deaf ears. The referee then awarded the match to Corofin.
The match reports noted two players leaving the field to injury, one of those being Joe Mannion, but there was no hint of how serious his condition was.
Only a few days later, as the Connacht Tribune would report, Corofin and "north Galway Gaels" were present in large numbers at the "immense funeral" which took place after Requiem Mass in St Coleman's Church, Corofin. People travelled from many parts of the country. The large attendance at the Mass and funeral "testified to the great popularity of the deceased", according to The Tuam Herald. Members of the Corofin and Ballinasloe football teams formed a guard of honour and carried the coffin part of the way. A Joe Mannion Memorial Fund was established and generously supported in the months and years that followed.
The broadcaster and journalist Jim Carney lives close to Joe Mannion's grave in Cummer and has written about the tragedy.
"The club was devastated, and from '46 when they won the senior football championship until they won a junior in '59 they could do nothing, they could do nothing," explains Carney. "They lost the heart, they lost the will, all that, and then they came back and reached the county final in '64. So they got going again.
"But it was a shocking tragedy. It had a devastating effect on the parish. Plus the fact that Fr Frank had missed the game, he had gone back to the college. There was the heartbreak of Frank not being there to win his medal on the day, and then of course what happened to Joe."
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Tony Mannion was ten the first time he came here, to Dalgan Park, for his brother's ordination. It was 1952. The memory is revived as he steps out of the car and takes in the splendid view from the car park.
"And the magnificent building to my back - I never saw it! When I got out of the car, all I saw were the playing fields. There were three football pitches. Who wouldn't be happy in a place like this, I thought."
The first inter-county match he saw was the same year, in St Coman's Park in Roscommon, when Galway lost to the home team after a controversial late goal. Frank played in the middle of the field with Peter Tierney, who followed him into the Columban Missionaries two years later and is buried in the grounds of Dalgan Park.
Tierney, an outstanding midfielder, was an older brother of Noel, who starred on the Galway three-in-a-row team of the 1960s. Peter Tierney died here in the summer of 2009.
Frank and Joe, Tony explains, had different styles, although he can only personally vouch for Frank. For an evaluation of Joe he relies on testimonies.
"He (Joe) was a smaller man. I never saw Joe playing but I saw Frank playing. And Frank was fierce strong. When Frank was ordained in 1952 that ended his playing career."
Tony says that his late brother Liam spoke of how Joe was a "tremendous man to solo a ball" and compared him to John Egan, whom they believed to be the best exponent, or one of the best at least. "He would bring it in here to the lower tummy," Tony demonstrates of Egan's trademark close control. "No fella would get it off him, and Joe had that."
When we arrived in Dalgan Park, and made our way to the section where Frank was resting with a number of other retired priests, we found him reading a daily newspaper. He began talking about Ian Burke, the Corofin player, who was recently honoured as Galway's first All Star in 15 years. Tony, mindful of history intersects, notes that Burke's father, Ollie, was on the 1998 team that won the All-Ireland club title for the first time.
Frank is asked of the aftermath of Joe's death. "It was dreadful," he says.
Tony Mannion remembers his brother being brought back to the house after the county final in evident pain and it worsening during the night.
"I remember, it was in the middle of the night, I heard voices. Joe had a very uncomfortable night. He had great pain. The doctor came in the morning, Dr Nohilly, and gave him an injection or whatever, and he said if he gets any worse let me know. And midday it was much worse and Dr Nohilly came out again and he said, 'good God, get him to hospital'."
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The funeral? Yes, he remembers that too. Even at four.
"I do. My mother had three brothers who were Franciscans," says Tony Mannion. "One, Fr Hyacinth, was a lecturer in the university and the other two were serving on the missions abroad. And a whole lot of Franciscan priests came for the high Mass. What I remember particularly was the Gregorian chant. And it was so lonesome. And I can still remember my mother crying.
"We had a very large family and we had a one-storey house at the time. There was a one-storey house exactly the same down below it, Paddy Glynn lived there. His father had it and Frank and Joe used to sleep down there because there wasn't room at our house.
"Paddy was running the farm and a young man, and he would have known Frank and Joe very well. The day of the funeral - and I was only a small boy at the grave in Cummer - Paddy was one of the men with the shovels. And at one stage Paddy just caught the shovel like that (he gestures with his arms) and threw it down and he walked away and cried his eyes out."
Their other brother Liam was also a notable footballer who captained the Galway juniors in 1958 that won the All-Ireland. He was also a member of the senior panel that won the All-Ireland two years before. But the family links to the current team are remote. The only blood link is to the Farragher brothers, Michael and Martin, who are third cousins.
Time passes. The Columban centre in Dalgan Park is a shadow of what it once was. And names of footballers fade from memory, too, and even tragedies as great as the one that doomed Joe Mannion.
"I went into a classroom one day," recalls Tony of his teaching days. "There was a lot of noise and mayhem and they had a big ball made up out of paper and it was coming my way as I walked in the door, and I caught it and I went, 'oooh yeah, over the bar Sean Purcell!' And I kicked it and it made me: not one person in the class knew Sean Purcell. Time flies by."
Tom McHugh's father Paddy was manager when the first green shoots appeared after the barren years that followed Joe Mannion's death: the winning of a county junior championship in '59. He was a selector when they won the senior title in '77 and he died only months before the next county win in 1991, the club later adding a first provincial championship. People like him could never have imagined the riches that would follow. Frank Mannion has lived to see the club experience incredible prosperity and good times. He has nearly seen the whole chapter and verse.
The memories need to be kept alive. For many years Tony Mannion didn't know of Tom Molloy, a Corofin man who played on the first Galway team to win an All-Ireland in 1925. He later trained Galway to win again in 1934 and was trainer of the Roscommon teams that won in 1943 and '44. When he died in the 1970s, because he had lived a long time away from home, only a few attended his funeral in Corofin. Tony Mannion is researching his life story, determined to do his legacy justice, and hopes to publish it in book form.
Within two years of Joe Mannion's death, with the help of donations organised by a fundraising committee, a lasting memorial was erected in Cummer graveyard. Over £90 had been raised towards the cost. It stands today in perpetual memory of a player who had much too brief a time on this earth to show what he might have achieved given the chance.
Even in Corofin, football isn't always a matter of life and death. There have been times when it was a great deal less important than that.
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