Blurred boundaries between Breffni and Royal counties

Cavanman's Diary

Ask a Cavan football fan which county represents our biggest rivals and the answer will depend on where they are based.

Along the west Cavan pan handle as far as Redhills, it could be Fermanagh, although for many Redhillians, Monaghan would be regarded as the noisy neighbours. That would go for Cootehill and Shercock people and some from Kingscourt, although Meath comes in there too and carries across as far as Mountnugent, via Tierworker, Mullagh, Virginia and so on.

Interestingly, though, while there’s some crossover with Monaghan – notably the Tavey brothers, who lined out against each other for Cavan and Monaghan in the late 1950s – the links between Cavan and Meath are extraordinarily strong.

In fact, there is probably no county boundary as porous as that between Cavan and Meath, strictly in GAA terms. The list of footballers who have played for both is a lengthy one and, inspired by the ongoing saga over the proposed transfer of Jordan Morris from Nobber to Kingscourt Stars, I researched it last week and the sheer number of individuals with divided loyalties amazed me.

The ultimate example, of course, was that of the Maguire brothers. In the 1952 All-Ireland final, Des and Liam played for Cavan and their younger brother Brendan lined out for Meath.

The family had moved to Oldcastle from Cornafean a few years earlier. The elder siblings switched clubs but not county but Brendan, a precocious talent still eligible for the minor grade, had moved from St Pat’s in Cavan to Gormanston College and maybe that swayed him.

Either way, he made the Royals’ team and, inevitably, the trio met in the All-Ireland final, Cavan winning in a replay.

In 2002, the surviving members of those teams got together for a function in the Hotel Kilmore.

Cavan captain Mick Higgins spoke about the ferocity of the rivalry back then, with Meath captain Paddy Meegan remarking: “The sincerity for the sport we love was something I know Cavan and Meath teams of 1952 have taken with them out of football.

“We had great respect for each other and over the years since we have hung up our boots, it has been a friendship that lasts and endures.”

Also lining out for Meath that day was centre half-back Connie Kelly from Mountnugent, who had been a sub when Cavan lost the 1945 All-Ireland final to Cork and, having been overlooked later, switched allegiance to Meath, where he was an outstanding number six in their 1949 All-Ireland success.

The Cavan and Meath rivalry was at its height at the time – other opposing players who lived within a couple of kicks of a size 5 of the county boundary were Mattie McDonnell (Ballinlough), Paul Fitzsimons (Maghera), Seamus Hetherton (Munterconnaught), Edwin and Paddy Carolan from Mullagh along with Kingscourt icon Victor Sherlock.

Around the time Kelly was on the move, the great Sherlock came in the other direction. Sherlock, who excelled in numerous sports, began his football career with Gypsum Rangers, a junior side in Meath drawn from the factory, and from there he earned his place on the Meath team, lining out at midfield when he won a Leinster SFC medal in 1947.

That same year, of course, Cavan won the most famous All-Ireland of them all in the Polo Grounds. At full-back was Brian O’Reilly, a native of Carnaross who moved to Ballinagh and captained them to two Minor Championships. He later took up work in White’s Shop in Killydoon and transferred to Mullahoran, where he was an integral part of their team, which dominated club football for a while.

In the 1960s, John Nallen, a Mayo native who also played for Galway, moved from Trim, where he won a Senior Championship, to Castlerahan. Success followed there and the popular Nallen, a bank official, ended up turning out for Cavan.

In the late 1970s, Navan native Dermot Dalton was an outstanding full-back for the county and a star player for Cavan Gaels, captaining them to the Senior Championship title. Prior to that, Oldcastle man Eamon Gillick had helped St Patrick’s College to their only Hogan Cup triumph, continuing a long tradition of Meath boys attending the Cavan Town school.

Many Cavanmen have played club football in Meath, too, including even the legendary Jim Smith who played for a club in Kells called Erin’s Own and 1960s star Tony Morris, who lined out with Navan O’Mahoneys. And the opposite is also the case, with Brian Ennis from Trim playing a leading role in Castlerahan’s Senior Championship successes in 2018 and 2019, joined, of course by Oisin Kiernan, more of whom later.

Maghera’s Damien Sheridan, an Ulster Minor medallist in 1974, later moved to Meath and lined out for them for a while in the 1980s; his son Joe was a top forward for the Royals some years ago, too.

In the mid-1990s, there was a saga around the transfer of Raymond Cunningham to Cavan. Raymond had won many Ulster and All-Ireland handball titles with Cavan but played his football with Kilmainhamwood, just across the border. Eventually, the switch was given the green light and he ended up starting at wing-forward as Cavan ended a 28-year wait for the Anglo-Celt Cup on that never-to-be-forgotten day in 1997.

Brendan (left), Liam and Des Maguire from Bingfield, Cornafean who lined out in the 1952 All-Ireland final.

In 1995, Cunningham’s clubmate Larry McCormack also featured for Cavan under Martin McHugh.

Larry’s father Sean, a Kingscourt native, was the Meath goalkeeper in the 1960s, winning an All-Ireland medal in 1967. Sean’s brothers Paddy and Larry also represented the Royals and Larry lined out at corner-forward for Cavan in the late 1960s as well.

The younger Larry played minor for Cavan but transferred to Kilmainhamwood, where he enjoyed success, and he subsequently lined out with Meath at senior level before declaring for the Cavan seniors.

In more recent times, Micky Brennan, who learned his football with Simonstown in Meath before moving to Cavan for work and joining up with Drumalee, represented the county for the guts of a decade, lining out everywhere from full-back to full-forward.

And a vital member of the most recent Ulster-winning team came from Ballinacree. Oisin Kiernan (above) switched allegiances to Castlerahan and developed into a star. He soon joined up with the county and was instrumental in that Ulster success, notably scoring one of the points of the championship in the closing stages of the Ulster final against Donegal.

I’m sure there are many other examples that I have missed but it all proves that there is probably no greater crossover between any two football counties than that which exists between Cavan and Meath.

“The rivalry of Cavan and Meath once spewed the hottest imaginable lava from its crater. The hostility that reputedly greeted Cavan supporters to and from games in Croke Park as they travelled through Meath is well documented,” Irish Independent GAA writer Colm Keys, himself a Simonstown man although his descendants lined out for Cootehill Celtic and Cavan back in the day, has written.

“It was the most active of football volcanoes. The rumbles still echo in the distance.”