Wembley in the summer of '63
Football people mark their days against the milestones in the season. They rarely change; McKenna Cup in frost, National League in wind and sun, Ulster Championship in early and sometimes high summer, club championships from August to October.
Like all rituals, there’s something comforting in all of it. The odd time, it is disrupted. Sometimes, it’s for unwanted reasons like the recent pandemic and resulting lockdowns. At other times, there’s something novel that brings the football follower to new places and shows them new things.
That was the case 58 years ago this week as the Cavan team defeated Down in Castleblayney to book their tickets to London for the annual showpiece at Wembley on the June bank holiday, where All-Ireland champions Kerry lay in wait.
While London was a lot closer than New York, obviously, and methods of travel had advanced, there were shades of 1947 about the event. For one thing, emigration and the diaspora were at the heart of both.
John F. Kennedy would visit Ireland in the same month. “Most countries send out oil or iron, steel or gold, or some other crop,” he famously said, “but Ireland has had only one export and that is its people.”
At this time, two in every five workers in Ireland was employed in agriculture but this way of life was in decline. Ireland and East Germany were the only two countries in Europe to see their population fall in the 1950s; it has been estimated that half of all Irish people born in the 1930s and three out of every five children who grew up in the ’50s emigrated at some stage, the vast majority to Britain.
And Cavan was one of the worst-hit counties. Between 1946 and 1956, it had the sixth highest rate of depopulation of the 26 counties.
And while others steadied and then began to recover in the ’60s, Cavan’s population continued to fall — between 1966 and 1971, it was one of only six counties to see a decline in population, a trend which would not be righted until the late 1990s.
Emigration was, according to a government commission, just “a part of the generally accepted pattern of life”. Some rural areas, it said, appeared “dull, drab, monotonous, backward and lonely”.
While Ireland was changing, there was still what historian Paul Rouse described as “huge conservatism”. Wages were poor – a fraction of what could be earned across the water – and a glance through the archives of this newspaper from those couple of issues alone is instructive, and sometimes darkly comical.
The death of Pope John XIII dominated the front page of The Anglo-Celt on the week Cavan returned from London. The opening lines – “Pope John XIII is dead” – were re-worked 31 years later when Big Tom O’Reilly, of Cornafean and Cavan football fame, died and the first par on page one began simply, “Big Tom is dead.”
Religion, football and emigration were the constants, the latter two entwined.
“Some young priests played football,” John McGahern wrote, “and I had heard serious debates as to whether it was permissible or not to shoulder-charge an anointed priest within the rules of the game.”
On the week Cavan beat Down, a Monaghan man was fined for shooting a pheasant out of season. Asked to produce his gun licence in court, he handed the judge a piece of paper. On examining it, it turned out to be the errant poacher’s birth cert. Asked why he submitted it, the man reckoned he had picked up the wrong cert.
In Leitrim, an undertaker appeared in court, accused of using his hearse to transport bags of cement. Hearses, it turned out, availed of a lower rate of tax than other vehicles of similar engine size on the strict condition that they be used to ferry solely the remains of people who had passed away. But times were tight and, in rural Ireland, ingenuity was required to make ends meet.
Across in England, turning a shilling was a little more straightforward, not that it was any easier per se. The majority of those who left Ireland went to Britain; a large proportion were essentially unskilled.
Naturally, they took their customs with them. By 1966, RTÉ would run a special news item on emigration across the Irish sea. “Mass at the beginning of Sunday and dancing at the other end,” began the script.
“In their relaxation, that’s one way of recognising the Irish, which is not always in the bottle as some would have us believe. In places like this, they create their own little piece of Ireland.”
The GAA was a bedrock of the Irish community in Britain. A crowd of 42,000 turned out to see Cavan play Kerry, the largest attendance ever recorded at a Gaelic football match played outside of Ireland, paying 21/- for the stand and 5/- for terrace tickets. The visiting players were treated like royalty, with old and not-so-old Cavan players and supporters keen to meet up and get a taste of home. The Celt reported on the Cavan people who turned up to greet the team.
Donal Kelly, who had captained Bailieborough to the county title against Cootehill six years earlier, was there, as was Eamon O’Reilly from Belturbet, who had played senior football for Cavan a couple of years earlier.
Kevin Blessing, a Cootehill man, who had lined out with the Cavan minors in the 1959 All-Ireland final alongside our friend on these pages, Larry McCluskey, called to the hotel on Friday evening, having finished his day’s work at an insurance firm.
Kevin, it was reported, was, by then, playing his club football with London’s Shamrocks, where the manager was Fr Seamus Hetherton, an All-Ireland winner with Cavan 11 years earlier.
The team was billeted at the Royal Hotel in Russell Square. After a banquet in the Irish Centre in Camden Square on the Friday night, they enjoyed some sight-seeing on Saturday. Sunday was game day and Cavan were ready for Kerry.
In the match, Cavan were eight points up early on but Kerry, featuring the legendary Mick O’Connell, who had arrived from New York on the Friday, pulled it back and won by five.
That evening, the party was entertained at a function in the stadium attended by Irish Ambassador to London, GC Cremin, and Minister for Social Welfare Kevin Boland, who had thrown in the ball. Some of the group made the trip to the dogs at White City, where Cassius Clay — in town for his fight with Henry Cooper a few weeks later — was in attendance, drumming up publicity and soaking up the comic boos from the crowd.
“A character is this Cassius,” wrote PJ O’Neill, then Sports Editor of this paper,, “but a charming one I found when my escort introduced me to him after the din had died down. ‘He falls in five,’ he said, and I was picking no argument with him because whatever about some of the footballers I had seen in action earlier, this was one fit and dedicated man.”
The Cavan party returned on Monday and, with an Ulster title to defend, got back to work at their training base in Virginia that week.
Three days later, JFK landed in Ireland , where he addressed adoring crowds; five months after that, he was dead.
Rural Ireland and the world was changing forever.
Main pic: The Cavan team prepare to fly to England for the Wembley tournament in 1963. Standing on runway (from left): Con Smith, P.J. Gorman, Tom Galligan, Joe Quinn, TP O’Reilly (chairman), Tom Lynch, Jimmy O’Donnell, Mick Higgins (team trainer), Sonny Galligan (Asst. secretary), Gabriel Kelly, Matt Lynch (masseur), Hughie Smyth (secretary). On stairs (from top): Seamus McMahon, Simon Deignan (selector), Charlie Gallagher, Ray Carolan, Joe Stafford (selector), Tom and Mrs Maguire, Jim and Mrs McDonnell, Paddy Donohoe (county board), Andy O’Brien (county board), Jimmy Stafford, James Brady, Donal O’Grady, Seamus Gilheaney (county board), Sean Óg Flood, Tony Morris and Mick Brady.