A fitting memorial to Cavan’s lost leader

Book review

If you think you know a thing or two or even a lot about John Joe O’Reilly, you’re most likely wrong. I thought I did – and then I picked up George Cartwright’s meticulously-researched new biography of the Cavan footballing legend.

‘The Gallant John Joe – Cavan’s Millennium Man’, published by Ballpoint Press in hardback format and priced at €19.99 - is the new offering from the well-known Cornafean Gael and historian and is sure to a popular stocking filler among even those Cavan people – and there are a few, we are told – who have no interest in Gaelic football.

Because while the book naturally focuses heavily on O’Reilly’s football career, had he never kicked a ball, his would still have been an extraordinary, and tragically short, life.

It is likely that only a Cornafean man such as Cartwright could have done justice to the subject here. George’s affection and respect for O’Reilly – whom he endearingly refers to as “John Joe” throughout – is clear.

In June, 1964, the Cornafean club opened their new grounds, with Cavan taking on Galway in a challenge match. Cartwright was a small child at the time and recalls leafing through the commemorative booklet and being particularly taken with an article about John Joe and his brother, Big Tom, under the heading “Famed Cornafean Brothers”.

A lifelong interest in two of the Reds’ most famous sons was born. Big Tom, whom Cartwright interviewed in the early 1990s for his first publication, the official club history, is mentioned throughout and his life – a footballer of the very highest quality, a TD, a folk hero – would be deserving of a book of its own.

But John Joe’s legend is on a different level entirely. His stature as a universally-respected Irish army officer, one of the leading lights in the first generation of military men who were not aligned to either side in the Civil War, marked him out as something new and brilliant in the fledgling Irish Free State.

His achievements on the football pitch, his magnificent sportsmanship (exemplified when he refused to tap a penalty over the bar to secure a win in the 1947 Ulster Championship against Monaghan) allied to his kind-hearted manner – one anecdote relayed here tells of him going to the byre to say goodbye to the cows before leaving home, another has him defending schoolmates against bullies – made his legend. His death, aged just 34, enshrined it.

Cartwright covers all aspects with authority and sensitivity where required. Drawing on countless sources, both primary and secondary, he paints a complete picture of John Joe the boy, the man, the scholar, the soldier, the athlete, the father and, in the end, the lost leader.

The title of the book, of course, comes from Peter Albert McGovern’s iconic and much-loved song while the suffix is a reference to O’Reilly’s selection on the GAA’s Team of the Millennium.

All Cavan followers will know that John Joe was chosen on that team and also the Team of the Century in 1984. They will also be aware that he captained Cavan to two All-Ireland titles and that he died tragically at a young age but Cartwright’s great achievement here is to give the detail behind the legend.

In the foreword to the book, GAA President John Horan describes the author’s research as “painstaking” and that must certainly have been the case. Readers will be glad of it; it lends the book an authoritative air throughout.

The cast of characters sprinkled throughout the book is spellbinding. We learn about the influences on John Joe in his formative years, including John P Murphy, whose mother was a sister of John Joe’s father.

He was a brilliant football player and coach and had an illustrious career in the Irish Free State army and it is clear that the young, impressionable John Joe’s admiration for his cousin was something which swayed him into pursuing a military career as well.

The book is divided into 23 chapters which exhaustively cover his young life in the Derries, his time at Corliss NS and St Pat’s, the Curragh, his footballing achievements, his passing and, ultimately, his legacy.

The passages describing the grief which fell over the entire nation after his sudden death are particularly evocative and well-written.

The anniversary of John Joe O’Reilly’s passing, November 22, fell last Sunday and how fitting it was that the Cavan footballers reclaimed the Ulster Championship, which he won 11 times in his own glorious career. That victory will shorten the winter for many thousands of Cavan people, at home and abroad.

In a few decades’ time, there may even be a book written about it and if it is half as well crafted as George Cartwright’s most recent effort, it will be well worth picking up.

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