1981 was quite a memorable year in many ways. The Pope got shot, Ronnie Reagan got shot, Chas and Di tied the knot, the space shuttle was launched for the first time, Pac-Man made its debut, yer wan from Bucks Fizz got the skirt pulled off her in the Eurovision and The Specials had a No.1 with the mean, moody and marvelous Ghost Town, as race riots raged in Brixton and Toxteth. Up in the North, the Maze hunger strikers were dying and, down here, Charlie Haughey blew his first election as FF leader. And we won Connacht for the first time in twelve years.
For me, it was the first summer spent away from home, as I’d begun working in Dublin at the end of the previous year. Because of this, my memories of then are also those of my first year as an adult, with my upbringing in Mayo already falling away from me in the rearview mirror. With such an amount of time having passed since then, all of the memories I do have of then are obviously suffused with a too-warm glow – all of our memories become the stuff of nostalgia eventually – as I try to conjure up some recollections of that distant summer.
It’s all too long ago to have any precise recollections about then but one clear detail that does remain lodged in my mind was the long bus strike that lasted most of that summer in Dublin, forcing me and countless others to use their God-given legs to get to work. I lived on the South Circular Road then and I used to plod in to the office via the Coombe, with the sweet, nutty aroma from James’s Gate invisibly filling the air.
1981 was also the year where I established an emotional link to the Mayo football team that has, more or less, survived intact to this day. It’s probably no coincidence that this happened at the same time I ceased living in the county: anyone who has ever been (or, indeed, still is) an emigrant will know that you are never more proud of your country than when you’re not living in it and I suppose the same is true, to a lesser extent, about your county of birth. To everyone I came to know in Dublin, I was the guy from Mayo so I felt, for the first time, in some way proprietary about this link.
It certainly wasn’t because our footballers were setting the world on fire or anything. The last Connacht title we’d landed was way back in 1969 – an event I had only a very hazy and imprecise recall of – and, since winning our last All-Ireland thirty years previously, we’d only managed to get out of Connacht a miserly three times. The Seventies had been particularly bleak, with Galway ruling the roost in the early part of the decade and Roscommon at the other end. Sandwiched in the middle were Championship defeats to Sligo in 1975 (more on that one next week) and Leitrim the following year, with not a single Connacht title to celebrate over the course of the entire decade. We did, however, win the NFL at the start of that decade and we had All-Ireland success at minor (in both 1971 and 1978), U21 and vocational level but in the Championship we had precious little to shout about right through the Seventies.
Our prospects for Connacht in 1981 didn’t look all that hectic at the outset of the campaign either. We had made it as far as the league semi-final earlier in the year, causing a bit of a shock by beating Dublin in the quarter-final, but Roscommon had softened our cough in the semis, beating us by five points. These were the same Rossies who had only lost narrowly to Kerry in the previous year’s All-Ireland final and, undefeated west of the Shannon for four years, we knew that these ageing titans would be difficult to dislodge. If we had been in any doubt, that league semi-final defeat in April set us straight.
But the Sheepstealers weren’t the only problem facing us, as Galway were the newly crowned league champions, having thrashed Roscommon by nine points (1-11 to 1-2) in the NFL final. Moreover, Galway had beaten Kerry in the league semi and so were starting to be looked upon as one of the major hurdles the Kerrymen would need to get over if their four-in-a-row ambitions were to be realised. When the Herrin Chokers whipped Leitrim by sixteen points in the opening round of the Connacht championship to set up a semi-final date with us at McHale Park, a short and not-so-sweet campaign looked to be on the menu. The portents strongly suggested that we’d have to wait another year at least to be crowned kings of Connacht once more.
We were, however, able to congratulate ourselves on making history of some sort that year. 1981 was the first time that a Connacht championship match was played outside the country, with the lads trotting out in Ruislip on the last Sunday in May to beat London by 3-11 to 1-4. While the final result made it a handy enough win, London had only trailed by a point with a half an hour played and the other notable stat from the day was that we kicked 19 wides. History-making or not, that result didn’t augur well for our chances of toppling the Tribesmen three weeks afterwards.
It was, however, to be a year of shocks in Connacht. On the 14th of June in Markievicz Park, Sligo stunned everyone (including themselves, in all likelihood) by finally felling the provincial champions. They beat the Rossies by four points, 2-9 to 1-8, but, with Galway still in the race, the result didn’t turn the Yeatsmen into credible provincial contenders. Instead, Galway became even stronger favourites to beat us the following weekend and then to make short work of Sligo in the final three weeks after that.
On an amazing and sweltering hot day in McHale Park, however, we pulled off the second major shock in Connacht inside a week by beating the Tribesmen by two points, 2-8 to 1-9. Our main hero on the day was the unlikely figure of Willie Nally, who started at midfield ahead of the unfit Willie Joe Padden and who fetched ball after ball from the clouds all afternoon, till he finally gave way to Willie Joe at some point in the second half.
We bossed the first half with Aghamore’s Jimmy Burke smashing in a goal and we led by five at the break. Galway hit the front with a Stephen Joyce goal with twenty minutes to go but a second goal from an Aghamore man – this one from Jimmy Lyons – got us going again. It remained tight and tense all the way to the end and while much of the match’s detail is lost to me in time’s haze (this précis comes courtesy of a re-reading of the match report in The Irish Times archive), the game’s defining moment does remain seared in my memory. Time was running out and we got a free within range out on the right. Substitute Ger Feeney took it and I remember we were sitting right behind his line of fire as he prepared to take the placed-ball kick. The ball sailed through the air in an arc from out on the left, curling, curling, curling all the while into the Bacon Factory End and over the bar to a tumultuous roar from the home supporters. Two up with seconds to go and we had claimed a highly implausible win.
My other memory of that game was arriving back in Hueston station the following day off the morning train and seeing a tabloid headline (did they have tabloids covering Gaelic matches then?) which screamed “Willie Joe KO!” Was that because he hadn’t started the game or that he had had a hand in the shock win? The latter I suppose, but I didn’t stop to think for long: I had some serious bragging to be getting on with.
And it wasn’t just that we had beaten the Tribesmen. All of a sudden, the road to Croke Park was opening up for us because, even though Sligo had claimed a more recent Connacht title than we had (beating us and all), our unexpected felling of Galway meant we were now installed as huge favourites to prevail in the provincial final.
I remember the week before the Connacht final getting a bit tanked at some piss-up or other after work, so much so that I confidently predicted to a guy I knew from Monaghan that not only would we beat Sligo that weekend, we’d have at least ten points to spare on them. A small wager was agreed, which I forgot about till he reminded me the following day but, in my hung-over state, I agreed the bet should stand.
I lost the bet, of course, but not by that much: we beat Sligo in the final at McHale Park on 13th of July by 0-12 to 0-4. I was on the terraces behind the goals where Ger Feeney had scored that free against Galway three weeks previously and my memories are of a poor match, which we won comfortably without looking anything as good as we’d done when beating Galway. Sligo had plenty of chances in the first half but they somehow failed to open their account until just before the half-time whistle, by which time our lads, although decidedly out of sorts, were almost out of sight. There was no visible improvement from the Yeatsmen in the second half and we did more than enough to keep them at bay, with three late points boosting the winning margin close but not close enough to one that would have won me that wager.
The loss of a nominal bet was, even in those impecunious times, a small price to pay in order to see us claim the Nestor cup for the first time since the late Sixties. This was the team that bridged the twelve-year wait for a Connacht title that day:
M Webb; M Gavin, A Egan, A Garvey; H Gavin, M Kearney, M O’Toole (0-1); WJ Padden (0-2), W Nally; J Lyons, J Maughan (0-1), M Carney (0-5, three frees); T Reilly, J Burke (0-1), J McGrath (0-1). Subs: T O’Malley (0-1) for Nally, G Feeney for Carney.
It obviously felt great to win but the warm glow was chilled somewhat by the knowledge that our opponents in the All-Ireland semi-final in early August would be that now legendary Kerry side of Sheehy, Power, Spillane and all the rest. I wasn’t at that game (not that many were – a crowd of only 25,000 turned up for it: Good Old Days, my hole) as it clashed with another great cultural event that weekend, namely the Ballisodare Folk Festival. I felt bad about missing the match but knew, not so deep down, that we hadn’t a prayer and so I lost myself in a weekend of Clannad, Freddie White, Scullion, Moving Hearts and all the rest.
Up in Croker, our lads – attired in the provincial colours for the benefit of those viewing the action on Black and White TV sets – battled gamely for the first half, with Willie Joe putting in another performance that would propel him ever closer to the iconic status he enjoyed later in the decade. We trailed the Kingdom by 2-8 to 1-6 at the break but Anthony Egan’s departure through injury early in that half meant that whatever hopes we had of curbing the Bomber Liston were likely to be in vain. Kerry upped the ante early in the second half and they were soon out of sight. We failed to score at all in that second half which quick enough became reduced to shooting practice for Kerry’s star forwards.
It ended 2-19 to 1-6 and, although the hedonistic weekend I’d enjoyed was spent well away from the game, I still wasn’t walking that tall once I’d made it back to Dublin where, more than once over the coming days, I was – as the resident guy from Mayo – called upon to account for what had happened to us at Croke Park. And in doing so, I learned a valuable early adult lesson: bragging about Mayo’s prospects can be a dangerous business.
Next week: 1975.