From Corawillan to Croke Park
Remembering the late Johnny Cusack
One of the last survivors of Cavan’s All-Ireland winning team in 1952, Johnny Cusack, passed away last week. The following interview with the late Lavey legend was published in the Road To Breffni annual in 2013 after Paul Fitzpatrick caught up with Johnny at his home in Lavey.
It’s September 1947 and Johnny Cusack, a farmer and worker on the family mill in Corawillan, was sitting in the stand in Croke Park for the All Ireland semi-final between Cavan and Roscommon. A stocky 20-year-old, he was a member of the county junior panel at the time but was carrying an injury which would see him miss the entire 1948 season.
Little did he know that five years later, he’d be donning the blue himself in a senior final along with Mick Higgins, Phil ‘The Gunner’ Brady, Tony Tighe and Co as Cavan would pick up their third senior title in six glorious seasons.
The 1947 team had it all – the trip of all trips to New York for the final, their place in the pantheon of greats secured. The following year’s team rode the momentum of the Polo Grounds too but Cusack’s side of ’52 is one that is often over-looked.
Hughie O’Reilly, a player in ’33 and ’35 and trainer in ’47, ’48 and ’52, almost built a new team for the ’52 final and Cusack was a crucial part of it. Having missed out on two All Irelands, he and his new team-mates made sure of one when their chance came.
"That ’52 team was really the last of the old guard," remembers Johnny in his home in Lavey.
"Duke died in 1950, John Joe and TP [O’Reilly] was gone and McDyer was gone, he was on the ’47 team only. They were gone off the team. Gunner was centre-field on the ’47 team and he was put back in full-back and the Maguires came on and Brian Reilly and Paddy Carolan and Hetherton, there came on a lot of new players in ’52.
"All that was left from ’49 was Morris, McCabe, the Gunner, Sherlock, Higgins, Tighe... That was all that was left, the rest were all gone.
"John Joe Cassidy and Owen Roe McGovern and John Willie Martin were all the subs from America that came on to the team after. They had Terry Sheridan and Eunan Tiernan and a brother of Deignan’s and a whole heap of subs in America that never came on the team at all after, I don’t know what happened. Connie Lynch was a sub that time too and didn’t get to America and he played centre half-back for Meath then against us in ’52, from ’50 to ’54 he played centre half-back for Meath and was a great footballer."
Getting chosen to wear the Cavan jersey in that era was a massive deal. A card would arrive, signed by county secretary Hughie Smyth, and notifying a player to be at a particular place at a set time – there he would be picked up. You didn’t reply – you turned up, remembers Cusack.
No player wanted to incur the wrath of O’Reilly in any case.
"Hughie was a great trainer, a great man, they never won anything from Hughie O’Reilly left. His method was discipline, everyone had to go by his orders. He was only the manager, [Simon] Deignan was the man who did the PT and training, he was an army man.
"Hughie would march us up and down and anyone who had faults he’d point it out to them. If you were marching up the field and had your head down, he’d tell you to straighten yourself up.
"But there was no messing anyway, they were an agreeable set of lads. There was great camaraderie among everybody.
"Mick Higgins was a very shy man. Before a match he might say a few words but it was generally always Hughie Reilly. Higgins was only captain for ’52, it was John Joe the other years, he’d give a speech before a match and at half-time. Hughie Reilly did the most talking of them all."
Lavey hadn’t a tradition of producing county players at the time Cusack came on the scene. A Terry Reilly from Upper Lavey had played a few National League games in the ’30s before emigrating but that was about all; when Cusack, the youngest of four brothers, broke through, it was something new.
He first nailed down a place in 1949, picking up his first Ulster medal but losing the All-Ireland final in a replay against Meath.
"We were well looked after but not as well as now. In ’49, we drew with Meath and that time, there was no reception for the team or anything. The Cavanmen’s Association organised things. We drew with Meath in ’49 and the reception was in the Halfway House outside of Dublin.
"And on account of it being a replay, we were brought to a place called Mills’s Hall, some kind of place in Dublin and the bishop of Kilmore and bishop of Meath were there and the two teams were in the hall. There was a meal for them and that was the first time the GAA ever put up a meal after a final.
"The Cavanmen’s Association or the Kerryman’s Association or whatever association would organise something, only for that you might as well get into your car and go home after a final.
"Now they have tracksuits and when the reception comes they are all dressed the same way, trainer and all."
In 1950, Cavan were stunned in Ulster by an unheralded Armagh side.
"We played someone in the semi-final in Clones and Percy McCooey of Monaghan was ref and he put off the Gunner and he was suspended. Liam Maguire went in full-back and Armagh beat us below. We should’ve beat Armagh, we would’ve if we had the Gunner. It was in Casement Park. Oh, a wet day."
Cusack lined out at corner-forward on that occasion but occasionally he would be brought back into defence, sacrificing his attacking instincts for the good of the team. If the opposition had a marquee forward who needed watching – such as Dublin’s Snitchy Ferguson or Tyrone’s Iggy Jones – Cusack, rugged and tough, was the man the selectors, who at that time included the captain, would call on.
In those days, football was zonal – you minded your own patch, defenders defended and attackers attacked.
"Football now, they’re all running with the ball," says Johnny.
" A full-back could go up and score a point. In my time, it was all your own area. They’re running from one place to the other now. I saw in Meath and Dublin, the Foley fella who was a back for Meath scored the winning goal!
"It was mostly all catch and kick that time. There are a lot of changes, a lot for the better. Long ago, if you were a forward and got possession and pulled own close to goal, it was only a 14-yard free. A sideline throw instead of a sideline kick was allowed at the beginning of my career. Frees were from the ground. And if the ball went in high, severals would run in and hit the goal-man - you can’t touch him now."
Times have changed, of course. The late ’40s and early ’50s was before electrification came to rural Ireland, before cars were commonplace. The past truly is a different country; they do things differently there.
When Cusack and his Cavan team-mates returned with Sam in 1952, the scenes were joyous, but the fuss wasn’t as great as it is now. How could it have been?
They didn’t enjoy it, though, any less. "Ah sure it was great," remembers Cusack of the ’52 homecoming.
“We landed in Cavan and had a reception there and most of them stayed overnight in the Farnham and the next day went to the college with the cup and around different places. We went to Paul McSeain’s that night in Cornafean. Nearly every night there was a reception. There was one in Bailieborough, Kingscourt, Ballyconnell…
"It’d go on till the spring. There were presentations, we got wallets in places, we got travelling bags and different things. Medals would be given out at a dinner dance or something, there might be a National League match or something and there’d be a meal after in the Farnham and they’d be presented there."
Cavan would never recover the glorious feeling they experienced on that September night. The following season, the fall started, although Cusack’s personal form remained good. In 1953, he made the Ulster Railway Cup team for the first time. "The first match would be in February and the Railway Cup would be the following spring," he recalls.
"I was only a sub the first time, Hugh McCarney of Monaghan got knocked out and I went on and we drew with Munster and they beat us in the replay and the next year Leinster beat us in Breffni Park."
He stayed on until 1955, when he landed another Ulster medal with a new-look team. Cavan drew the semi-final with Kerry, on the same day that Dublin drew with Mayo, but the Blues lost the replay heavily and sin é. Johnny "packed it in".
"Cavan were getting it tight enough in Ulster from ’46," he recalls.
"Antrim and Armagh and Tyrone and those teams were coming up. From ’27 on till the mid ’40s it was only a matter of walking out for the Ulster final. Monaghan were nearly the best in Ulster that time.
"Cavan were the kingpins in Ulster, they were winning all Ulster, till about ’46. Antrim came that time and beat them and after that Cavan had to train for Ulster.
“They used to only train for the All Ireland semi-final and final. In ’47 they went into collective training in Ballyduff for the semi-final against Roscommon and the final. And then after that there came out a regulation that they do away with it.
"So then 1955 was my last year and it was the first year Jim McDonnell played. That was the finish of the ’52 team. There come on a lot of new lads, Tom Maguire, Hubert Gaffney, Noel Maguire, Jim McDonnell. Hughie O’Reilly was there until ’55 but Mick Higgins came in after that [as trainer]."
All the while, Johnny had been an outstanding club footballer with Lavey, who earned a unique achievement.
They won the Junior Championship for the first time in 1950, a final which wasn’t played until 1951 and which Cusack still rates as the highlight of his career. Later in ’51, in their first year in senior, they went all the way. Heady days. A smile crosses his lips at the memory. "I had a great game in the senior final against Mullagh," he grins.
Footballers finished up earlier in those days and Cusack was still only 28 when he hung up his inter-county boots. He still talks about his playing days, and the ’47 team he watched from the terrace.
It’s still the same with Cavan – ’47, the magic of the Polo Grounds, the fairytale of New York, shines brighter than any other light…
"Well the ’47 team outshone everything. They were the team, there was no word about any team only the ’47 team nearly. Because it was in America.
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“They got to America for the final and they got back again after 50 years along with the present Cavan team. Cavan won the ’52 All-Ireland but we never got to America, we never got to Croke Park 25 years after winning.
"Sure ’47 was the thing, over to America for a fortnight and the celebrations when they came home, sure it was the match. It goes very hard on the Kerry people to have it to say they lost that one. It was the final."
As a young man, he had watched the rise of the team with interest.
"In ’43 Cavan drew with Roscommon and Joe Stafford was put off. He hit some fella and there was a bit of a ruck, Barney Cully and a few of them were in it. Sure the replay came then and they hadn’t Stafford and Roscommon beat them well.
"Roscommon won then in ’44 as well and they were in the ’46 final, Kerry beat them. Jimmy Murray got knocked out that day and they took him off and were doing him up to get him up for the cup and Kerry got two late goals and won it.
"Then in 1947, some paper in the spring time, there was a match, and the prize was travelling bags. And the heading said "last year’s All Ireland finalists and probably this year’s All Ireland finalists in Croke Park". Roscommon and Kerry. It was sometime around Easter.
"Roscommon had a great team but Cavan beat them in the semi-final. They thought after beating Cavan so often before and after the bit of a ruck before it, that they’d win it but it was a great victory for Cavan to get their own back on them."
One of the heroes of his youth was Big Tom O’Reilly and he recounts discussing the merits of various Cavan teams with him in later years.
"Congress was in the north somewhere a few years ago and Jack Boothman got elected as president and they had a reception for him in Cavan. The whole county team and everyone was invited and they put on an address of welcome for him. I was beside Big Tom and Patsy Lynch, who had been on the good teams in ’33 and ’35. In fact, Patsy Lynch holds the record as the youngest player ever to play in an all ireland final, he was only 16 years of age, he played full-back for Cavan in 1928 against Kildare. He was chairman later and was rep on Central Council in my time.
"Anyway I asked Big Tom, ‘you were on the ’33 and ’35 and all those teams, what team would you say was the best?’
“My brothers used to say that the ’33 team was the best ever Cavan had. ‘Oh,’ he says, ‘the ’47 team was the best’.
“How would you say that?’"
“‘Well, in our time,’ he says ‘there were great backs and centre-field but we were depending on MJ McGee from Killeshandra for scores. All the Cavan forwards in ’47 could score. All six of them could score.’"
Maybe only the forward line of the ’60s could compare to that of ’47. Whatever happened, no Cavan footballer has got his hands on a Celtic Cross since Johnny Cusack and his pals 60 long, hard years ago.
The man himself doesn’t have the answers to the riddle, either.
"I don’t know," he says, shaking his head.
"A lot of people blamed Crover. Crover started discos. Long ago in my time you went to a dance and it started at 8pm and you were home at 12 that night. You weren’t allowed to go outside the diocese, if you went to a dance after 1am the clergy said it was supposed to be a sin.
"So when the discos started to run for the youngsters in Crover, they went on till 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning. Lord have mercy on Tom Dowd, he used to cut silage for me here, he was telling me about some young fella they brought to play for the county team. And he played and Tom said to him, ‘now you did very well today, you’ve a chance now, you should look after yourself and stay out of Crover’. ‘Ah,’ he says, ‘I’ll go to Crover anyway!’”
Times have moved on, but some things never change. As long as there as men like Johnny Cusack, the association won’t go too far wrong.