When Cavan banned their best forward for playing soccer

Cavanman's Diary

Researching the history of the All-Stars last week, I came across the criteria for the original All-Stars, called the Cuchulainn Awards, which were presented for the first time in early 1964.

One of the guidelines, surreal and hilarious as it seems now, was “loyalty to the GAA”. Then again, this ominous-sounding principle was in keeping with how those in authority dealt with those subservient to them at the time, as we have seen of late – on a completely different scale, of course – with the scandals uncovered in the Mother and Baby Homes.

Back then, the Catholic Church in Ireland effectively embraced Jansenism, which has been described as “rigid, lacking sufficient humanity… emphasising the dark side of human nature.” God, it was taught, was angry and sexuality was something to be ashamed of.

The GAA, through ‘the Ban’ which outlawed playing or attending foreign sports, mirrored this authoritarian approach in ways. Rule 27 forbade the playing, promotion of or attendance at ‘foreign games’, namely soccer, rugby, hockey and cricket, but also barred GAA clubs from running any event at which “foreign dances” were permitted.

What the harm in that was, at this remove, it’s hard to say but it was another by-product of the dysfunctional morality at play in Ireland at the time. In some counties, ‘vigilance committees’ were even set up, whereby members would spy on other members and report back if they had been, for example, spotted entering a rugby international at Lansdowne Road or, heaven forbid, lining out as a ‘ringer’ with a soccer team.

In Cavan, bans were widespread. The great Barney Cully, one of the best full-backs in the country in the 1940s, missed out on the Polo Grounds All-Ireland having been banned, supposedly, on the word of high-ranking GAA official Alf Murray, for attendance at a rugby match.

And in 1960, the Cavan County Board themselves suspended the best forward in the county, Charlie Gallagher.

The news of Gallagher’s involvement in a soccer game in UCD broke on the morning of November 6, 1960, when Cootehill Celtic were due to play Cross in the Junior Championship final.

A first-hand account of how it came to light was relayed to me in 2019 by the late Sean Foy, who was Cootehill’s team trainer at the time. Foy attended early Mass and, ambling home, encountered the glowering Hughie O’Reilly, who had been involved as player or manager in all of Cavan’s five All-Irelands.

“Call a meeting,” he told Foy, “in Connolly’s pub in half an hour and get as many of the committee as you can to come to it.”

So, Foy got to work and rounded up half a dozen committee men.

“We landed in. ‘What’s this about?’ Hugh Murray asked. “‘Well, I’ll show you now,’ says Hughie and he pulled the Evening Herald out of his pocket and there was a photograph of UCD after winning a soccer competition and Charlie Gallagher standing proudly in the middle of them.

As evidence goes, it was damning. Eleven soccer players and one official and, in front of them, a cup. “The Dental team with the Independent Cup after they had beaten the Mater in the final of the Hospitals’ Soccer Cup at Bird Avenue yesterday,” read the caption. There were no names but none were needed. Kneeling, second from the right in the front row, was Charlie Gallagher, that unmistakable grin beaming off the page. The committee members looked at each other.

Sean recalled “'Ah', I think it was Andy Brady says, ‘not many people read the Herald, they won’t see it'.

“‘I don’t care who sees it,’ says Hughie, ‘he’ll not be playing and that’s it.’” Cootehill decided not to play their star man, pre-empting the inevitable action that would come from the county board, and they won the game – which was absolutely filthy by all accounts – anyway.

“Nature in the raw had its fling,” noted the Celt of fans encroaching on to the pitch. “When a spectator rushes on to the field with his blood up and his brains behind him to kick a player lying on the ground, he deserves to be lined up against the end wall and shot.”

TP O'Reilly (centre) flanked by Jimmy Dalton and Mick Higgins.

Eight days later, at a county board meeting, came the verdict. The chairman of the county board, solicitor TP O’Reilly, had won All-Irelands under Hughie’s management in 1947 and ’48 and was a stickler for the rules.

The first case heard on the evening was that of Tom White, a former Cavan player from Belturbet.

The chairman himself was bringing a similar ‘foreign sports’ case against White and, even though the board had accepted White’s evidence, it wasn’t enough. A public cleansing was needed, a renouncement of this grievous sin.

White was to be given a chance to publish a mitigating letter in the Celt, stating that he was no longer engaged in these games before any penalty was imposed.

The player had written to the letter to the county board but gave no authority to have it published. The board felt he hadn’t done enough to purge this foul deed, however. There was no mercy. Verdict? Six months.

That it wasn’t enough to punish someone for breaking a rule says a lot about the prevailing attitude in the association at the time, even among widely-respected figures like the great TP. The culture in the GAA was that, if you did not toe the line, it wanted its pound of flesh and that included public humiliation, a tactic also used, incidentally, by the Chinese Communist Party under Mao Tse Tung and at times later on by the Provisional IRA.

Harsh ban

As for Gallagher, his was an open and shut case. “A lot has been said from time to time about photographs and other proofs but this player’s photograph had appeared in an evening paper dated November 5 as playing with a soccer team,” stated TP.

“That is good enough for me,” he said, imposing the suspension for six months to run from November 4, the day of the match and commending Cootehill for not playing him in the junior final.

Charlie wouldn’t kick a ball again until May by which time he was completing his finals in dentistry anyway.

Cavan suffered a first-round defeat to Armagh and were at what was felt to be the county’s lowest-ever ebb after six years without an Ulster title during which Tyrone, Derry and Down had all come from nowhere.

The following year, though, they rose again and reclaimed The Anglo-Celt Cup under the brilliant captaincy of Jim McDonnell – but the Ban would remain a contentious issue right up until it was ditched in 1971.

Main pic: The offending photo, with Charlie Gallagher circled in red.

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