Tuesday 24 April 2018

Sporting all-rounder transformed ailing fortunes of GAA in Dublin

Members at Clontarf GC always hailed the giant in their ranks, says Dermot Gilleece

When word filtered through to members of Clontarf Golf Club that Kevin Heffernan had been removed early this month to the Hospice in Raheny, enquires about him adopted a more anxious edge. "Any word on Heffo?", or "What's the latest on Kevin?", his many admirers wondered.

This was the man who had been their long-time golfing colleague, away from his activities in the GAA as a distinguished player and later an iconic manager. And there were former team-mates who, like him, found competitive expression in the royal and ancient game when their playing days with Dublin had ended.

Men like Norman Allen, who was reduced to tears by the plight of his friend; Jimmy Gray, who served as chairman of the Dublin County Board during the unforgettable 1970s, brother-in-law, Jimmy O'Neill, and Cyril Meehan, who had shared his passion for our national games. Others gave first-hand accounts of his ready and invariably generous response to those in difficulties.

During recent years, Heffo's visits to Clontarf GC were somewhat removed from sporting endeavour. His familiar black Toyota Camry could be seen facing the first tee, usually in the space reserved for the club professional. If the windows were opaque from cigarette smoke, its owner was sitting inside. If they were clear, he was in the clubhouse lounge, probably perusing the Racing Post over a cup of tea.

But there were other, more active times. Most memorable among these was his victory in the captain's prize in 1974. Typically, Heffo declined to talk about the achievement when I sought to interview him, so I turned to the first-hand memories of Meehan, his successor as president of Clontarf GC in 2003/'04.

Winning a captain's prize is the ultimate achievement for a club golfer, the equivalent of a Major championship for a tournament professional. Though there would have been no argument about Heffo having the competitive qualities for such a distinction, the manner of his success in Dr PJ Smyth's prize of 1974 made it one of the most memorable in Clontarf GC history.

"By arrangement, Kevin, another member named Seán Brennan and myself were first off the tee at 6.30am on captain's day," Meehan recalled. "This had to do with the fact that Kevin had a rather special assignment that afternoon. And as things turned out, he played really well. My recollection is that he birdied the last two holes to finish with 42 stableford points. Though we didn't dare mention his score to anyone when we finished at around 10, my feeling was that Kevin had a great chance of winning.

"While I changed and headed home for lunch, Kevin put on his other hat as manager of Dublin and set off for Croke Park and a Leinster semi-final assignment against the favourites, Offaly, who had been All-Ireland champions a few years previously. Dublin, incidentally, had started that particular campaign as no-hopers, but were now about to upset the odds in spectacular fashion. I remember Leslie Deegan scoring a crucial goal that day, and he also got the last, winning point."

As it happened, this Dublin performance led to the most improbable outcome of an All-Ireland triumph that year.

Meehan dared not consider such thoughts, however, even with Heffo at the helm. "I remember being at home that evening when I got a phone call telling me that Kevin had won the captain's prize," he continued. "To be honest, the Dublin win was far more of a surprise. Anyway, a group of us and our wives headed down to the club for the presentation. John Behan and Pauline (Kevin's sister) were there, along with Kevin and his wife, Mary, and my wife Lynn. And we celebrated a truly memorable double at Clontarf and Croke Park."

Heffo was about eight when Meehan met him for the first time and they went on to appear frequently together in St Vincent's and Dublin inter-county teams. "Kevin was a very determined golfer," said his friend. "He got down to single figures and competed in the Lord Mayor's Cup. But that captain's prize was his finest golfing achievement."

Another memorable occasion was a St Vincent's four-member team event at Clontarf about 20 years ago when Heffernan, Des Foley, Tony Flood and George Hurley (Heffernan's nephew) won with an outrageous score of 108 points. "As I remember it, we had 13 birdies and Kevin knocked great fun out of ribbing the also-rans about it afterwards," recalled Flood.

Further raising of eyebrows occurred at Clontarf in 2001 when Heffernan, as club president, took charge of the Best Cup campaign for players of 19 handicap and over. Serious attention to detail characterised the campaign, along with a demand for 100 per cent commitment. Despite having Heffo in charge and Meehan as his right-hand man, however, the team failed to emulate the triumphant Best Cup side of 1983. Yet participants retained the view that it had been a very interesting experience.

Though there were many who would have claimed friendship with Heffernan, he was essentially a very private person. "When we talked about a year ago, he told me he had made only a few friends in his life and that I was one of them," said Gray. "Yet I never really got to know him. I always found him to be a deep fellow who didn't suffer fools gladly.

"When I was chairman of the board and he was Dublin manager, all we ever discussed were matters relating to the team. He talked about having three basic requirements of a player: brains, courage and skill, in that order. He never deviated from this, though I'm sure he had to make compromise choices along the way."

Like most youngsters living on the north side of Dublin, I was totally in awe of Heffo as a dual player of rare quality. His own, ultimate exponent of such versatility, however, was Des Foley, whom he described to me as "a very interesting sportsman; extraordinarily gifted." He talked of the outstanding part Foley played in the 1961 All-Ireland hurling final in which Dublin lost by a point to Tipperary. And two years later, he captained Dublin to an All-Ireland football title.

"I also remember the 1959 Hogan Cup final (with St Joseph's, Fairview) as a classic exhibition of all the qualities that characterised Des as a sportsman," he said. "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 goalline, to create havoc in the opponent's square. My lasting memory of that match is of him, travelling the length of the field, exhorting everyone to effort, and finally succeeding. I was fortunate enough to have had Des as a lifelong friend and I still miss him."

Though Heffernan's influence extended to national level, he had a huge impact on youngsters in the north Dublin area. I remember Simon Behan telling me before his untimely death early in 2009 that his heroes as an aspiring player were Heffernan, Cathal O'Leary and Lar Foley. "They were the ones who fired me with the ultimate ambition of wearing the Dublin jersey," said the winner of an All-Ireland medal in 1963.

"Such were Heffo's skills that he could have managed Manchester United, comfortably," said Jimmy Gray. "The fact that Dublin were relegated in the National League in 1973 indicates the extent to which he transformed the county's fortunes. He was truly a giant in the GAA."

Which is a stark measurement of the void he leaves.

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