Former Dublin chairman, responsible for bringing Kevin Heffernan in as football manager back in the 1970s, has an engaging personal memoir, titled Under The Bluest Sky
In the period of transition from the 1950s into the early television age, Dublin hurlers left a modest indentation on the national consciousness. Sixty-one years ago, they won the Leinster senior title in Kilkenny, beating Wexford, who were reigning All-Ireland champions.
While they would go on to lose the All-Ireland final to Tipperary by just a point, a defining moment of missed opportunity for Dublin hurling, at least the Leinster title meant they savoured the feeling of winning a championship. They had a tangible reward, but no glorious dawn was breaking. It is one of the moments relived in a recent autobiography of Jimmy Gray, now 92, the goalkeeper on that team.
The next provincial success would be in 2013 when Gray had the pleasure of presenting the cup to winning captain Johnny McCaffrey.
Jimmy Gray was 31 in 1961 when Wexford came to play Dublin in Nowlan Park for the Bob O’Keeffe Cup, having disposed of Kilkenny in the semi-final. The Wexford full-forward Andy Doyle had scored four of their six goals, but in the final, he was neutralised by Noel Drumgoole, who held Doyle scoreless. Dublin won 7-5 to 4-8 before a crowd of around 40,000.
Gray remembers an episode on the bus journey home. They ate in Carlow and were moving through Castledermot around 11 that night when two of the followers on board prevailed upon the bus driver to stop for a drink. Jim Prior and Ned Dunphy were friends and former Dublin players. Prior had been centre-back and captain on the Dublin team beaten by Cork in the 1952 All-Ireland final. Although closing time had passed, they claimed to know a local pub owner and felt they could persuade her to serve a drink to celebrate the victory.
Gray says most of the Dublin players didn’t drink and many had work the next day and just wanted to get home. In his book, he recounts the moment. “When they knocked on the door, the owner peeped out and said she could not let them in as there was a new guard in town and all the pubs were under surveillance. ‘Actually,’ she said, ‘he is up there on the bridge looking down at us now. If you want to go and ask him, that is okay with me.’
“So the two boys got the Bob O’Keeffe Cup and went up to talk to the guard. They explained that they had won the Leinster final and they just wanted one pint to celebrate. The guard was having none of it and, despite many requests, he didn’t change his mind. When the lads knew that there was no point in continuing the argument, Ned said to the guard, ‘You know what, guard, I’d love to f**k you over that bridge … into the river!’ When they came back to the bus, they were very uncomplimentary of every guard in the country. They were two great characters. Jim was a Tipperary man, but despite many requests to go back and play for Tipp, he remained loyal to Dublin, unlike many others. He could also drink for Ireland.”
Jimmy Gray has had a remarkable life by any measure. A son of Longford parents, he was on the Dublin football squad that lost the 1955 All-Ireland final to Kerry, a loss that had a profound and propulsive effect on Kevin Heffernan. Gray stopped playing football a couple of years later and became the Dublin hurling ’keeper until the age of 37, retiring reluctantly from the inter-county game in 1968. He carried away plenty of regrets. In the 1959 Leinster final, Dublin were within seconds of victory when Seán Clohosey struck the winning goal for Kilkenny. Two years later, they made amends when defeating Wexford.
“Looking back on the 1959 to ’63 era, I regret that we didn’t win an All-Ireland,” he says. “We were in four Leinster finals in my time — 1959, ’61, ’63 and ’64. And we only won one. For different reasons, we lost Norman Allen, Tony Young and Kevin Heffernan. They would have made a massive difference in 1960 and ’61.”
He was something of a GAA polymath. In 1969, he refereed the Leinster hurling final between Offaly and Kilkenny. By then, he had been a founding member of Na Fianna, and over his life, he has seen it flower into one of the biggest clubs in the country. Gray’s initiative as Dublin County Board chairman helped many clubs thrive from modest beginnings.
His 11 years in the chair are best remembered for his role in getting Heffernan in to manage the struggling football team. By then, he considered Heffernan a friend, although someone who always kept a certain distance. They met first on a bus after both had played an under-16 schools match on opposite sides. Gray decided to start a conversation and Heffernan’s first response was to offer him a cigarette.
The Heffernan appointment had massive ramifications for the GAA in general, but Gray was also instrumental in setting up an independent committee that provided recommendations which would transform the way Dublin ran its affairs. The report included the appointment of the first full-time county officers in the early 1970s. Later Gray spent three years as Leinster Council chairman and three years as Dublin hurling manager.
“Soccer was the main interest of the sporting public, particularly English soccer, and as a consequence, interest in Gaelic games was very low,” he says of the time he took over as Dublin chairman. “Attendance at games was very poor. The financial situation was not healthy, with a deficit of approximately £70,000, and little prospect of doing anything about it.”
He formed a committee of non-board members, many young people, including Paddy Costello, who worked with him in the Irish Sugar Company. They took a year to draw up a report. The two full-time officers appointed were Jim King, who, in effect, became the CEO, and Donal Hickey, who became Development Officer due to the committee’s recommendations. Gray is grateful for the support shown by GAA president Pat Fanning at the time in helping to fund the initiative.
“I get a lot of praise for the appointment of Kevin Heffernan as Dublin manager in 1973, but I feel my biggest contribution to the GAA has been the total reorganisation of the Dublin County Board I helped bring about,” states Gray in his autobiography, which he collaborated on with former Dublin hurling manager Michael O’Grady.
Heffernan refused the job offer at first, declaring himself committed to St Vincent’s. The events are charted in Gray’s book. “Seán Óg Ó Ceallacháin was the GAA correspondent of the Evening Press. He rang me one day and enquired how progress was going with the appointment of a new management team. I told him that I was doing everything possible to get Kevin Heffernan to take over. The following Wednesday’s Evening Press headline was that Kevin Heffernan was to take over the Dublin job as manager.
“The following morning, Kevin rang me and his exact words were, ‘Where did they get you from?’ I said I had nothing to do with it. I won’t quote what Kevin said next, but he added, ‘I suppose I can’t back down now! Anyway, thanks, I appreciate being asked!’”
The deficit of £70,000 that existed in 1969 was cleared in ’74, the year Dublin won their first All-Ireland of that era.
Last year, Gray’s club, based on St Mobhi Road, reached a first Dublin senior hurling final against Kilmacud Crokes in Parnell Park. On the same Saturday night, several of the surviving members of the ’61 team were paraded for the crowd to mark the 60th anniversary. Gray says that the group had only met once in the intervening years.
Only a short time before the county final, Des ‘Snitchy’ Ferguson, part of the full-back line that protected a slight-framed and nimble-footed Gray, died. Before him, the full-back and captain Drumgoole, who would later be a founding member of Na Piarsaigh in Limerick and a Limerick county hurling manager, and the formidable left corner-back Lar Foley, had passed on. All of the full-back line and the two wing-backs, Liam Ferguson and Shay Lynch, were from St Vincent’s.
“We really should have won the game. We had a poor start, but we had a wonderful second half and a lot of neutrals would say that we were the better team on the day even though Tipperary were hot favourites,” Gray recalls in his book. “Tipperary were given a point when it was well, well wide. The umpire was a Down man and I challenged him but to no avail. Lar Foley and myself would rotate the puck-outs, and Lar took the next puck-out … and brought the hurley well back in the hope of making contact with the umpire.
“Lar got sent off later on. Tom Ryan pulled on a ball and hit ‘Snitchy’ Ferguson by accident. Lar wasn’t impressed and clattered Tom … both got sent off. Noel Drumgoole would keep an eye on Lar during the game and would be constantly saying, ‘Shut up, Lar!’ I could write another book about Lar if I could only remember half of the stories. We could have won that game, but we didn’t really believe it. Tipperary were a great team at the time and we probably had an inferiority complex going in to that game.”
When Dublin last won the All-Ireland hurling title in 1938, Jim Byrne was the only native on the team. By the time Gray made it onto the Dublin hurling team, there were a handful of players from outside the county still involved. But by the time of the ’61 All-Ireland, only full-forward Paddy Croke, a Tipp man, was from outside Dublin from the starting team. Croke scored three goals in the ’61 Leinster final.
“I remember coming back from a Leinster Council meeting about 2 o’clock in the morning one time,” says Gray. “I was going down the Long Mile Road, nobody out, and I saw this figure walking in the middle of the road with about five greyhounds behind him. Paddy! A good hurler, a very good hurler.”
Eight of the starting 15 that played in the All-Ireland hurling final in ’61 have passed on. With five points from the sweet striking Achille Boothman and a powerful performance in the middle of the field by Des Foley (the best midfield man after Lory Meagher in the opinion of long-standing Kilkenny secretary Paddy Grace, as told to Gray), Dublin led by two points with 12 minutes to go, having trailed at half-time. But Tipp weathered the storm.
“The match reports were very complimentary and said that Dublin hurling had a bright future. We are still waiting for the big day to come … when we win the Liam MacCarthy Cup,” says Gray. Over 60 years have passed without Dublin reaching another final, the nearest they came in recent times being the semi-final losses in 2011 and ’13.
Even though hurling remains the game he cherishes most, Gray’s role in the revitalisation of Dublin football is widely acknowledged. His influence in administration runs right to the present day, having been a mentor to John Costello, encouraging him to pursue the role of CEO. But the rebirth of Dublin took place during his time as chairman, his hands all over the county’s football renaissance.
Modernising Dublin met with some resistance from Heffernan when Gray suggested that profits from the National League might go towards much-needed repair work on the dressing rooms in Parnell Park. “The building was cast iron with a few leaks here and there. We made a few bob in the National League later on, and I said to Kevin that we should build new dressing rooms in Parnell Park and his response was, ‘You will not, we got two All-Irelands out of the ones that are there, and we may get a third one yet!’
“He was afraid that the players might get too soft if the facilities were upgraded. After training, the only food the players got was a bottle of milk and a few biscuits. Imagine if a manager today suggested that for his team. He was a great judge of a player and he knew the type of player he needed for each position.”
The move to an open draw in the Leinster Football Championship took place during his time as Leinster Council chairman amid fears that it might leave the council bankrupt, especially when Dublin and Meath were drawn in the first round in 1991. But the reform gods were smiling down on them. The four-game epic needed to decide the winner provided a financial windfall; the promotional value was incalculable.
“The thing is, Irish institutions are reluctant to change,” says Gray. “What we did in the past has been successful, so why change it [often being the prevailing attitude]? It’s a better organisation now, a hell of a lot better than it was. Some great people went into it. Peter Quinn, Pat Fanning, a very good president, Liam Mulvihill, he was very quiet, but he was a very good Director General.”
Born in 1929, Gray’s life story is enjoyably conveyed and covers a multitude, delving into some of the characters whose lives intersected with his own. They include Mick Leahy, a team mentor in 1961 with the Dublin hurlers, who, as a boy, attended the match in Croke Park on Bloody Sunday. Leahy missed out on the 1938 All-Ireland due to injury.
Jimmy Gray dedicates the book to his wife Gretta, a native of Bannow in Wexford. They married in the late 1950s and had their honeymoon interrupted when he got a call to report to Kilkenny on a Sunday for a Walsh Cup final. When he told Jimmy Nolan, the team mentor, of his whereabouts in deepest west Kerry, Nolan brushed it off saying, ‘Sure, it’s only up the road’. They drove back for the match with his wife’s blessing. His appreciation of the support she offered him over the decades leaps off the page.
He has covered a lot in his time, but he’d be the first to say that he couldn’t have done it alone. His autobiography, titled Under The Bluest Sky, is an engaging personal memoir. It is also a tribute to all those people who helped him along the way and enriched a wonderful life.