As I mentioned the other day, The Road to 51 by James Laffey is being launched later on this evening at an event in the Courthouse Hotel, Ballina. To coincide with the launch, I’m delighted to welcome James into the guest slot where he provides an extract from the book relating to the formation of the great 1950-1 Mayo team.
A member of An Garda Síochána, Paddy had been stationed in Dungloe since late 1945, having played with Sean McDermotts in Dublin while at garda training school.
The Ballintubber man’s favoured position was midfield where he could use his physique and magnificent fielding ability to optimum effect.
Young footballers like Prendergast were afforded very few opportunities during the war years to demonstrate their natural abilities. Before moving to Donegal, Paddy’s football experience was restricted to club matches involving his native Ballintubber and West Mayo opponents like Westport and Castlebar.
“They were difficult years,” he recalls. “But we had marvellous support from the older generation, from people like Dick Feeney who had played for Ballintubber for years before that. How they kept a team going in a small parish like Ballintubber is amazing because they had to work very hard at it.”
Paddy never played for Mayo prior to his departure for garda training and knew very few of the county footballers.
“I had played against Tommy Hoban and I knew Eamonn Mongey and Mick Flanagan from Castlebar, but that was about it. We cycled to the matches back then and there was really no contact after the games. I wouldn’t have known any of the North Mayo lads at all because we would never cycle that far to play a match.”
On completion of his garda training, the Ballintubber man found a home away from home in the forbidding, Atlantic-drenched landscape of north-west Donegal. Dungloe had a fine senior team in those days, which was backboned by the legendary Donegal player Hughie Gallagher and Sligo-born Frank White.
The highlight of the year was the local derby against bitter rivals Gweedore, a game that ultimately decided bragging rights for the long, windswept, winter nights ahead.
“There was fierce enthusiasm for the football around Gweedore,” recalls Paddy. “We’d be travelling on the back of a lorry through Bloody Foreland and we’d go past a house and the woman would be standing in the doorway with a blessed candle in the window and the beads in her hand praying…not for us, of course! I remember the curate Fr McGettigan would bless the ball before the game at Mass and I always reckoned he’d bless three-quarters for them and a quarter for us.”
The Donegal derbies were gloriously tempestuous affairs where anything and everything was liable to happen.
“The pitch would be invaded with women on the day of a match,” recalls Paddy. “You’d hear them shouting ‘Maith an fear, Hughie’ and then when Hughie would give the ball away you’d hear ‘Feic é’!”
Sometimes the games were abandoned before the final whistle, especially if one team were losing heavily.
“There was a teacher from Gweedore, Green Trousers Magee we used to call him! When things would be going badly for Gweedore he’d take the team off the pitch followed by about 300 women!”
It was the sort of convivial, effervescent environment that was tailor-made for a genial, affable young man like Paddy Prendergast. Declaring for the Donegal senior team was an obvious next step for a footballer settling into life in his new community.
“I hadn’t been asked to declare for Mayo so I started playing for Donegal. It was something that just happened. There was a great friendship between the rival players on the Donegal team and several of us lived near each other in Dungloe. We’d meet up regularly and train together. Quite frankly I had no desire to go playing for Mayo. Why would I?”
In August 1947, Prendergast received a telegram at his lodgings in Dungloe from the secretary of the Mayo County Board, Finn Mongey.
“I was told that Mayo were playing in Ballina on Sunday. I was expected to attend because I had been selected to play. That was it! It was up to me to make my own way there.”
The journey to Ballina turned into a classic road-trip, taking the best part of two days.
“I got on a bus in Dungloe and the conductor didn’t charge me because he saw my garda uniform,” recalls Paddy. “The bus got me as far as Sligo where Tony Sheridan, a hotel manager I knew, fed me and gave me a bed for the night.
“The next morning I got another bus as far as Charlestown. I went into the garda barracks and I met another friend, Gda Joe O’Brien, who realised my predicament and organised a hackney driver to bring me to Ballina although I had no idea where I would stay.
“But Joe knew that Jackie Carney was involved with the Mayo team and he located Jackie’s house. Jackie and his wife very kindly put me up for the night and I became great friends with Jackie afterwards.
“To this day I have no idea how I got back to Donegal! All I know is that the county board didn’t contribute one penny to that long journey from Dungloe to Ballina. And I suppose if I had any sense or wit I’d have left Ballina, gone back to Donegal and said ‘farewell’ because it really was dreadful treatment.”
In fact, the young garda would have probably rejoined Donegal for the championship of 1948 had he not received an impassioned letter from one of his future colleagues.
“Liam Hastings wrote me a letter and it was an appeal from the heart: ‘You must declare,’ he said, ‘the others have declared.’ It was full of passion, full of love for the county. By the time I’d finished reading it I could nearly see Mayo walking around Croke Park on All-Ireland final day. I didn’t know Hastings at all but I suppose he invoked this strange sense of loyalty we all have for our county and I felt I couldn’t ignore it.”
Shortly after Hastings’ letter dropped through the letterbox, Paddy Prendergast declared for his native county. The green and red would be the only colours the Ballintubber man would wear for the remainder of his illustrious inter-career.
A new Mayo team was emerging in the early months of 1948. Hastings and his Dublin-based cohorts were summonsing the lost sons of Mayo, convincing them to throw in their lot with the county that bore them.
The UCD duo encountered Billy Kenny at the Sigerson Cup tournament in late 1947.
Kenny was a Mayo man by birth; the son of Jack Kenny who wore the green and red in the 1920s.
The Kenny family left Claremorris in the late 1920s, moving first to Galway before eventually settling in Limerick. Billy Kenny played championship football for Limerick in the mid-1940s and was good enough to make the Munster Railway Cup team in 1947. He was also the captain of the football team at University College Galway, where he was studying medicine. If anyone was ready to answer the Mayo call it was Billy Kenny.
“Billy was a wonderful man,” recalls Dr Mickey Loftus. “I was only in UCG a day or two when Billy came looking for me. He’d heard I was on the Mayo minor team and wanted me to play Sigerson Cup. Billy was a real mentor to younger students like me. He had us so fit for the Sigerson we were like greyhounds.”
Mayo’s star minor from two years earlier, Seán Mulderrig, was persuaded to return from London where he had been playing outstanding football. Mulderrig had two school-friends from his days in Bangor Erris – the McAndrew brothers – who were students in Dublin. Both were talented footballers but had been overlooked by previous Mayo selection committees, possibly because they were not playing for one of the established senior clubs in the county. But there was now a new dispensation sweeping Mayo football, the players’ revolution having toppled the club cronyism of yesteryear. The McAndrews were invited into the panel.
Gerald Courell and Jackie Carney were appointed as the team’s trainers. The Ballina duo would still have to bow to the county board on team selection but had a free hand to do what they liked when it came to pre-match tactics.
These two shrewd football men immediately set about making changes that were subtle yet highly effective. Peter Quinn was converted from a half-forward to a half-back in a move that proved ingenious. Quinn would never again play in any other position: he had found his natural habitat.
Peter Solan was drafted in from the minors and had an immediate impact, scoring 1-1 in a league play-off against Kerry in February. It was the senior team’s first competitive tie in Croke Park since the league final of 1941, and although it ended in a three-point defeat, there was general satisfaction with the display.
Paddy Prendergast made his debut at full-back in a challenge match against Galway in May. There were only weeks to go before Mayo began their championship campaign and he was literally being thrown in at the deep end.
“I hadn’t the foggiest idea what full-back play was about,” he confesses. “I was up against Ned Keogh and in the first few minutes Ned gets the ball 20 or 30 yards out, runs up, sidesteps me – which is not a difficult thing to do when you are running towards a guy – and bangs the ball to the net with his right foot. A few minutes later there’s a repeat performance with his left foot, at which point Flanagan comes over to me and says: ‘Paddy, what in the name of Christ are you doing in here?’ And I said quite frankly: ‘I DON’T KNOW!’”
Mayo scored 7-9 that day but conceded 4-8, including 2-2 from Ned Keogh in the first-half alone. Paddy Prendergast was convinced his Mayo career was over before it had even begun.
“I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised if I was told that evening ‘Sorry, you came down and tried but you didn’t make it.’ I would have understood it.”
But Seán Flanagan had seen something in the Ballintubber man’s display that convinced him all was not lost. He immediately set about coaching his new colleague in the art of full-back play.
“The match was hardly over when he had me in the back of some pub in Ballina with a foolscap page and a pencil,” recalls Paddy. “He went though every aspect of defensive play from A to Z. It was something I had never seen before in my life and it was an approach to defensive play I knew nothing about. I was impressed, very impressed.”
When the Mayo team was announced for the first round championship tie against Leitrim, Paddy Prendergast was selected at full-back. Flanagan’s tutorial would be put to good use in the long, eventful summer that lay ahead.
© James Laffey, 2011