Foley was the golden boy in Dublin's golden generation
For a teenager interested in Gaelic Games, there could hardly have been a more exciting environment. My secondary school days at St Joseph's Fairview coincided with a tremendous upsurge in Dublin's footballing fortunes, in the wake of a bitter All-Ireland defeat to Kerry in 1955.
For Joeys, there was the significant achievement of becoming the first day school and the first by any establishment in Dublin to capture the Hogan Cup. Sadly for me, that precious breakthrough came in 1959, the year after I left.
A measure of the remarkable contribution which the school made to those heady days for football in the capital city can be gauged from Dublin's 1958 All-Ireland triumph over Derry. No fewer than 10 past pupils were involved in that particular campaign, in which the redoubtable Kevin Heffernan was captain. They included Des Ferguson, Cathal O'Leary, Lar Foley, Mark Wilson, Jock Haughey, Paddy Farnan, Johnny Joyce and Christy 'Buster' Leaney. And as a bonus, the school contributed Joe Young to Galway's All-Ireland triumph two years previously.
Arguably the greatest player of them all, however, had yet to progress to senior ranks. Des Foley, who was a class behind me, captained Dublin's minors to success in 1958, so marking a notable double both for the county and its most productive nursery.
Inspiration for the glory days at Joeys could be attributed largely to the arrival as headmaster in 1956 of Brother Michael Geraghty, a native of Mullingar. As it happened, Joeys won the Leinster Colleges senior football title that year, while supplying five players to the Leinster squad which captured the colleges interprovincial title.
Buster Leaney and Noel Fox were subs, but the team included Des Cashel and Lar Foley and a strong, blond 15-year-old corner forward who captured everybody's attention. Des Foley had arrived, and by the following year he had become the rock in a side defeated by Ballyfin in the Leinster final. He was there again in 1958 when Joeys lost in the provincial semi-final to Franciscan College Gormanstown.
Some time before Simon Behan died unexpectedly in January 2009, he outlined the gradual progress towards the 1959 triumph. The son of a Laois father and a Donegal mother, he would joke that his dad had shown admirable astuteness in deciding to settle in Marino, from where Simon and his five brothers went to Scoil Mhuire and later to Joeys.
"We were very fortunate to be part of all that the school represented," he said, "especially the tremendous will to win instilled in us by the teachers." He was in fifth year, a class behind me in 1958 and could recall the significant physical development in players between the ages of 17 and 18 years. And by 1959, their Leaving Cert year, he felt sure that he and his colleagues had come of age in a footballing sense.
Brother Geraghty, who taught me honours maths at Leaving Cert level, doubled up as trainer of the senior team in 1959. And his preparation included a trip with Des Foley and Behan in a car provided by Foley's father, Paddy, to watch Gormanstown in the semi-finals of the Leinster campaign.
As it happened, Gormanstown were comprehensively crushed by Joeys in the '59 Leinster decider in Navan. A hardly credible score-line of 9-9 to 1-7 contained an equally stunning 3-3 from a tightly-marked Foley in midfield. Mind you, he had already gained Railway Cup honours with Leinster by that stage.
As Simon Behan recalled: "No one would dispute that Des was the best player of his age in the country at that time. He was such a figurehead for us that we knew we had to be in with a great chance of going all the way at colleges level."
In the event, the All-Ireland semi-final victory by 1-7 to 0-7 over St Flannan's, Ennis on March 22 in Roscrea, unexpectedly proved to be the toughest of the series, against a college noted more for its hurling prowess. Foley contributed three points and Behan got two.
St Nathy's Ballaghadereen, the Hogan Cup winners of 1957, would be Joeys' opponents in the final, which was refereed by Mick Higgins of Cavan in Croke Park on Sunday, April 19. Given the venue, our school had understandably strong support, though one suspects there weren't quite as many as have proudly boasted their presence over pints in pubs on the northside of Dublin, during the last 50 years.
Predictably, Foley played a captain's role. He covered an enormous amount of ground while moving from defence into attack, especially in heightened tension during the second-half. "Two if not three Nathy's players were jumping with Des for every ball," said Behan. "I think they made a mistake by concentrating too much on him."
One of the beneficiaries in a 3-9 to 2-8 triumph was Behan himself, who scored 2-1. The other leading Joeys scorer was Foley, with 0-5.
More than half a century had passed when Heffo sat with me to recall that historic occasion and he did so, largely to honour his great friend, Foley, who was only 54 when he died suddenly in February 1995. For those who didn't know him, he was a marvellous physical specimen, standing 6ft 2ins, broad-shouldered and with a shock of blond, wavy hair.
"I remember the 1959 Hogan Cup final as a classic exhibition of all the qualities that characterised Des as a sportsman," said Heffo. "The use of his God-given gifts of size and athleticism; his sportsmanship and the fact that he possessed an extraordinary Rolls Royce engine that enabled him to travel with ease from a defensive role on our goal-line, to create havoc in the opponent's square.
"His presence was like a reservoir of confidence to the guys who played with him. And that applied to all stages of his career. My lasting memory of that final is of him, travelling the length of the field, exhorting everyone to effort . . . and finally succeeding.
"Des Foley was a huge presence in any company. And when you put these attributes alongside his superb athleticism, his very keen eye and his indomitable will to win, you had a sporting colossus. I was fortunate enough to have had Des as a lifelong friend and I've never stopped missing him."
As might be expected, all of the Joeys' players were Dubliners, but interestingly, the Nathy's side was drawn from two counties - eight from Sligo and seven from Mayo.
Behan had already won an All-Ireland minor medal as a sub with Dublin in 1958 and went on to win another when the title was retained in 1959, under the captaincy of Mick Kissane, a class-mate of mine. In fact, six players started both the Hogan Cup and Minor All-Ireland finals that year, though Foley was a notable September absentee, being three months overage.
It became a marvellous journey for a closely-knit group of players, who had shared many moments of joy, along with some sadness, in competition through their teenage years. And as a fascinating aside to the All-Ireland minor final of 1959, the trainer of the defeated Cavan team was none other than Mick Higgins, who had refereed the Hogan Cup final, five months previously.