It started with a routine cleaning out of a taxi 150 miles and 20 years away – and ended with a footballer holding in his hand a long-lost medal, 62 years after he won it.
Exactly a year ago last week, the following short article appeared in this newspaper:
“A kind-hearted retired taxi driver from Galway is keen to reunite a Cavan footballer with a long lost medal,” it began.
“The man, who doesn’t wish to be named, discovered a Cavan Minor Football Championship medal from 1955 in his taxi after picking up a passenger from the Galway Races in 1994.
“He put it away for safekeeping and only found it again a couple of years ago – and now he’s on the hunt to find out the owner!
“'I cleaned the taxi ever morning and this one morning I came across the medal,' he told The Anglo-Celt.
“'I thought it was from a lady’s chain at first but when I looked closer I realised it was a football medal. I put it away and then it went out of my mind totally for 20 years before I found it again when tidying at home.”
Fast forward 12 months and, amazingly, the medal's owner has been found – and it's all thanks to the man from Galway, taxi driver Francis Churm and his friend Noel McGrath, as well as Anglo-Celt employee and Crosserlough native Margaret McKiernan and famed Crosserlough football star Sean Byers, who kept on the hunt even when the trail went cold.
The winners of the 1955 Cavan Minor Football Championship were Crosserlough and the owner of the missing medal was Pat Lynch, who joined Sean – captain of that team – to meet Francis, from Corofin in Co Galway, and his pal Noel recently.
Francis takes up the story.
“In 1994, I found it in my taxi when I was cleaning it one morning. It was race week and for safekeeping I put it away. And I put it away so safely that it wasn't until I was moving house and tidying up 20 years later that I found it!
“And when I did, I set about finding out where the medal was found first, with the assistance of Noel here beside me, who informed me it was Crosserlough in Co Cavan.
“And then I rang [Crosserlough official] Charlie Galligan, through his mother, and met him here in the Hotel Kilmore and he told me he'd find out whatever he could for me.
“And when that didn't work a neighbour moved in where I'm living, he's from Cavan [Fintan McKiernan from Bawnboy], and he said 'why don't you try the Anglo-Celt, a newspaper that covers all of Cavan?'. He gave me the number and a lovely lady called Margaet McKiernan gave me all the information she could.”
And as the staff here in The Celt will tesitify, Margaret was just the woman for the job.
“So, then I made a second trip then and called to the Celt and brought the medal with me. Then I heard nothing for a while bar the odd text from Margaret, there was a lovely piece in the paper on it but lo and behold about six weeks ago Margaret rang me and told me to get in contact with Sean Byers and Pat Lynch. And here we are today.”
And so they are, laughing and joking at the wonder of it like old friends.
At one point, it seemed unlikely that they would meet at all. At first, you see, Byers's investigation hit a dead end.
“Margaret rang me and I checked out a lot of horsey people because it was lost at the Galway Races but we couldn't track down the owner,” he explained.
Enter the story, then, Pat Lynch, a Ballymachugh native who lined out in goals on that team and now resides in Dublin, where he is a high-ranking tennis official and a mountaineer of international renown.
“I saw the little article in the Celt,” smiles Pat, “and it didn't strike me at the time but I knew that my medal had finished up with a sister of mine in the north of Ireland who has since died.
“I remember asking her maybe 20 years ago or more if she still had the medal and she said that it had gone into a charity shop with other stuff in Cavan. So I presumed that was the last I would see of it but thankfully not!
“But then I was down in Cavan about three weeks ago and I dropped into the Celt and Margaret and I looked up the article and we got the phone number for Francis. I was going to go down to Galway and meet up with him but he said he'd come up and we'd meet here.”
While he's not a diehard football enthusiast, Churm knew a man who was and Noel, a member of the Killererin club, immediately recognised the 'Cros Ar Loc' engraving.
“I had heard of Crosserlough before. Sean Óg Ó Ceallacháin one time used to read out the results on the radio on a Sunday night and I was familiar with the name since then,” he explained.
The Crosserlough team of 1955 was trained by Brian Beglin from Mullahoran and was an amalgamation of sorts, with players from numerous clubs. In the final, they defeated a star-studded Butlersbridge team by 2-4 to 0-4.
“Butlersbridge almost had the other half of Cavan, they had most of the minor county team, including Con Smith and Charlie Gallagher,” recalls Pat.
“I saved a penalty from Charlie that day. Charlie and I were in college together and were very friendly after. It was a twice-taken penalty.
“As soon as the match was over – I had travelled with Pat Givney and John Magee - they grabbed me and I ran in and changed as fast as posisble and out and into the car and home - we were going out shooting pigeons!”
Remembers Byers: “That night that we won, I drank my first bottle of Guinness at seven old pennies in Paddy Reilly's in Kilnaleck.”
At the time, Ballymachugh played on a rushy field at Clonlohan and had no team of their own. As the memories come flooding back, the men discuss old times, “great days” as they say.
“I feel great to get it back. It's quite emotional, it brings back old memories,” said Pat, who was delighted to see Ballymachugh win the Junior Championship recently.
“It's amazing how things have changed, it's just great to see it,” he says, referring to the Hughs' win - or maybe it's the medal.
“It's an amazing story,” adds Byers, pointing to Churm. “Only for that man there... many a lad would have thrown that medal aside. But to come back all the way from Corofin in Galway, to make three trips over that medal... It's amazing, just amazing.”
And that comes from a man who is himself the holder of nine SFC medals along with two minors and one junior. Does he still have them all?
“I lost a couple of them over the years but I have most of them.”
Perhaps the missing ones will show up in a taxi driven by a kindly man from the west, you suggest.
“Ah wouldn't that be great,” he hoots.
“T'would,” replies Francis, surely the happiest Galway man this side of the Shannon, with a wide grin.