A golden era for Gaelic football in Connacht occurred between 1936 and 1956 and I’m delighted to welcome ontheroad back into the guest slot where he reflects on this success-filled epoch for the West.
“I pity the poor immigrant…” sang Bob Dylan many years ago. Sometimes the immigrant didn’t need the pity. He might have been glad of the fresh start and new opportunity. Not much of a song in that though.
Emigration and Irish people are like bread and butter, both go hand-in-hand. Frequently we bemoan the loss of this great footballer and that great footballer to the boat, plane or train. St Peter’s from Manchester knocked out Mayo’s Parke in the season gone by’s All-Ireland intermediate club series and were backboned by a third of the Achill team.
London had its foot on Mayo’s neck for most of their clash in this season’s Connacht Championship. Would London’s Paul Geraghty, Barry Comer or Tony Gaughan have lined out for Galway, Meath and Mayo respectively had they remained at home? Probably not. Gray’s Elegy Written in a County Churchyard contains one of the great lines in poetry “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen…” London allowed those particular flowers to bloom. At home they may have withered from the lack of sunlight.
We blame emigration for many woes. Often we are correct but if we take a look at Connacht’s most successful twenty-year era ever we see it sited in the midst of one of the worst economic and emigration eras ever in Irish history. The Thirties, Forties and Fifties were a blight on the Irish landscape. The western seaboard suffered the worst of the economic drain. Amazingly if we take a line from 1936 to 1956 which was bookended by Mayo’s 1936 All-Ireland win at one end and Galway’s 1956 All-Ireland win at the other, we find it the most productive and successful time ever in the history of Connacht football.
In those twenty years Connacht teams contested twelve of the All-Ireland finals played. Kerry won seven, but Mayo won three, Galway two and Roscommon two. Galway lost a three-in-a-row in 1940/41/42. Roscommon were thieved in a replay against Kerry in 1946 as Mayo were in the 1948 final against Cavan. The counties from Connacht were at the fore during that era, what is forgotten is that this was achieved as the Western seaboard was decimated of its population.
How come this happened? How come Mayo also won seven league titles in that era (don’t say the league doesn’t matter, it does in Kerry, they lead the winners list and they do ok). No doubt great players took the boat to Holyhead or the liner from Cobh to New York but the province was still in the vanguard as regards winning All-Irelands. I am not sure of a single particular reason.
Perhaps there arrived a crop of exceptional players whose time had simply come. We can discard divine intervention from enlightened county boards – Eamon Mongey opined that Mayo won their All-Ireland despite their county board not because of them. Transport was primitive as was equipment and yet those men prevailed against all the odds.
Roscommon had Bill Carlos, John Lynch, Bill Jackson, Jimmy Murray and Donal Keenan in their ranks. Mayo spilt across the greats of Paddy Moclair, Gerald Courell, Henry Kenny, Tom Langan, Sean Flanagan, “The Flying Doc” Padraig Carney, Peter Solon and John McAndrew in their squads. Galway had the great Bobby Beggs, Brendan Nestor, Jack Mahon, Sean Purcell, Frankie Stockwell collectively known as “The Terrible Twins”. Their end hailed the arrival of Mattie McDonagh, the only Connacht man to win four All-Ireland winners medals.
So, in the face of an emigration blizzard the men from the West held their own and more with the best out there. Mayo’s 1936 All Ireland was an 18-point annihilation of Laois. A year later a great Kerry side only beat Laois by a point in the semi-final. Galway added the Kerry scalp in 1938 and Roscommon topped the lot by taking the formidable heads of Cavan and Kerry in 1943 and 1944. Cavan were lords of football back then, Kerry were still kings.
Most emigration is forced and of necessity. Still we see that some of those who left had what might be considered good pensionable jobs. Bill Carlos was a Garda but left the job as a young man and went Stateside. Padraig Carney was doctor who had employment at home but chose to move to California. The clergy claimed more than its fair share. Peter Quinn, a year after winning his second All-Ireland at the age of 26, was a missionary priest in the Far East by 1952.
New York were the beneficiaries of some of the greatest. Looking through their teams in addition to Carlos we see that 1948 All-Ireland finalist and Bangor Erris man Big Pat McAndrew lined out at midfield for them. And still the home fires kept burning. Mayo could afford to allow John Nallen play for Galway in the 1951 Connacht final against them and still win. Dan O’Neill and Seamus O’Donnell – two future All-Ireland winners with Louth – were deemed surplus to requirements by the county such was the talent available.
Galway won the 1956 All-Ireland and that ended the era. We are in their debt since with the three-in-a-row of 1964-66 and the wins of 1998 and 2001 to keep the smoke funnelling upwards. Was it St Jarlath’s and Roscommon CBS that provided the fuel for those counties back then? Was it just coincidence or was it their allotted time to take centre-stage? Really we don’t know.
What we do know is that we have never replicated that era. Neither did Cavan. Times got better as did communications, food, transport and opportunities (present time excepted) but somehow or other we got disentangled from the train. We became bystanders. Connacht thrived with the three-way challenge from Mayo, Roscommon and Galway. Maybe that’s part of the answer. Maybe all boats need to rise, to drive each other on and that it’s not the preserve of a single entity.
Keith Duggan in an article after the 2004 All Ireland final about Mayo’s dark day wrote a soulful and balming piece that showed his generosity and understanding of a pained county. In it he asked a question and at the time I disagreed with his analysis. Since then I have come around to his side of the equation. And it’s this, Duggan (in referring to Mayo 1950/51) but applicable to all of Connacht posed the question: what was it about those men that made them swim against the tide of mediocrity and prevail? It’s a question we can still dwell on as we search for the answers.