Monday 21 January 2019

Martin Breheny: When stars rose in the west

New book on a great rivalry in the Swinging Sixties strikes a chord with the present times

Preparing for an All-Ireland treble bid – pints of milk and sandwiches after training for Galway’s John Donnellan, Colie McDonagh and Cyril Dunne in 1966
Preparing for an All-Ireland treble bid – pints of milk and sandwiches after training for Galway’s John Donnellan, Colie McDonagh and Cyril Dunne in 1966
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

The writing is stark and unsentimental, conveying a sense of frustration felt by many in rural Ireland.

"Researching this book, I found myself driving the highways and byways of Mayo and Galway. I'd spend a few hours listening to evocative stories from the 1960s of huge crowds that came to tournament games between Garrymore and Milltown or packed into dance halls and carnival marquees.

"And then I'd make my way through deserted towns, places like Milltown, Glenamaddy, Headford, Ballyhaunis, Swinford or Charlestown, towns that once heaved with people," writes James Laffey, 'Western People' editor.

'Will Galway Beat Mayo? - How a 1960s GAA rivalry reawakened the west' is the title of his fascinating book which, ostensibly, is a history of the great rivalry between the counties during the Swinging Sixties.

However, it extends far beyond the confines of Galway's All-Ireland three-in-a-row and Mayo's relentless pursuit of their swashbuckling neighbours, delving deep into the social and economic circumstances that applied then and now. Its conclusions are not at all optimistic.


Galway’s three-in-a-row heroes before the 1966 league final in Croke Park. Photo: Connolly Collection/Sportsfile
Galway’s three-in-a-row heroes before the 1966 league final in Croke Park. Photo: Connolly Collection/Sportsfile

"Rural Ireland is unravelling before our very eyes and soon it will be impossible to weave it back together. It is imperative we learn from the lessons of the 1960s," he writes.

It's a book that mirrors the sentiments expressed in John Healy's book 'No One Shouted Stop (The death of an Irish town)', published in the 1960s.

Healy, a native of Charlestown, chronicled the demise of his home town in a story that resonated across so many parts of the country.

And while all this was going on, Galway and Mayo footballers were engaged in a fierce rivalry that Laffey now revisits in minute detail. As a native of Foxford, it must pain him to dwell on an era when the power balance tipped very much in Galway's direction most of time.

However, he believes it's an important part of the overall tale of two counties in a decade of great change in Ireland.

Other than the great Kerry team of 1975-'86, which won two All-Ireland trebles, no county achieved the three-in-a-row between 1966 (Galway) and this year (Dublin), underlining just how difficult it is to stay at the summit for so long in any era. Of course, genuine comparisons between Galway in the 1960s and Dublin today exist only in terms of their achievements.

Dublin CEO John Costello felt compelled to point out in his annual report last week that the senior teams do not have meals delivered to their homes on a daily basis.

Even allowing for the absence of such pampering, it's safe to assume that the Dublin squad - or indeed those in other counties either - are not relying on milk and ham sandwiches to nourish them after training, as was the case with Galway in their three-in-a-row days.

Laffey interviewed many of the Galway and Mayo players of that era, picking up some great stories.

Like, for instance, the fears that Dunmore players would refuse to play in the 1966 All-Ireland final against Meath after John Donnellan was dropped.

Tensions ran high and were only defused at a team meeting a few days before the final when Donnellan told his colleagues to forget about it and concentrate on the game.

And then there were curious pre-match routines. Noel Tierney, generally regarded as one of the best-ever full-backs, told of how he attended dances in Dublin on the night before matches in Croke Park.

"It was the perfect escape before a big game. If you go out dancing, you'll go straight to sleep as soon as you come in," he said.

Galway management were aware of his activities but didn't try to stop him. And if they did? "I'd have gone anyway. And if they said, 'You won't be on the team, I'd have said: that's fine too'," he said.

And how about this as preparation for the three-in-a-row bid? Teachers Pat Donnellan and Bosco McDermott went to London to work on the building sites during the summer of 1966.

"At that time, teaching was paying a pittance so we went over to England," said McDermott. They returned for games and played their part in the treble success.

While Galway were enjoying a golden period, Mayo were left deep in frustration. They were classed as 'the second best team in Ireland' but that was little consolation when they saw Sam Maguire in such a lengthy residence next door.

Then, as now, Mayo had some heartbreaking days, notably the 1966 Connacht final when, after leading Galway by five points near the three-quarter mark, they were reined in and lost by a point. In 1969, they had an easy free late on to level up the All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry but missed it and lost by a point.

Mayo had ended Galway's historic reign in 1967, hammering them in Pearse Stadium. Prior to that game, a young Mayo journalist, made a bold promise.

"I'll walk bare-footed from Pearse Stadium if Mayo are beaten. There are no ifs about it. Call it what you will. I lay that much confidence in Mayo's ability to whip the champions," wrote Sean Rice in the 'Connaught Telegraph'. Mayo 3-13 Galway 1-8, so no shoe-less walk was necessary. A year later, he struck a different tone after Mayo lost the Connacht final to Galway, refusing to report on the game.

"I refuse to become involved in the analytical chaos born out of the confused minds of Mayo footballers on Sunday. When the Mayo players decide to grow up, to become men, to show some signs of determination in their play and approach, I shall be glad to report on their games. Until then, I simply refuse," wrote Rice.

That was the 'Connaught Telegraph's entire take on a game that Mayo lost by one point.

Laffey's 433-page book, which is available in bookshops in Galway and Mayo, Dubray Books in Dublin and, is laden with insightful stories from a different era but given a modern context by linking them to the big challenges still facing so many parts of the country.

"We badly need the west to be reawakened all over again and only the GAA - the last bastion of rural Ireland - can do it now," he writes.

A visit from Sam Maguire would surely help the cause.

Irish Independent

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