'John Joe left an indelible mark'
An estimated 1,000-strong crowd descended on Cavan Town for the unveiling of the new statue in honour of football legend John Joe O’Reilly in the Market Square.
The piece was sculpted by Clareman Seamus Connolly, who admitted to plenty of anxiety in the preceding days.
“Coming up to it, you’re very anxious. The family had seen it first and in fact Larry McCarthy had seen it and they were all really pleased with it, so when the family were happy I was reasonably happy but it’s still a very anxious moment,” he said.
“This is my third day in a row coming up from Kilbaha to Cavan, it’s a fair spin, to get the holes drilled and then to actually place the statue in place, and then for the actual opening.
“You’re only hoping that everyone is going to like it and appreciate it. As I look here in the square, it’s now a feature of Cavan Market Square, it’s quite a thing.”
Connolly spent six months working on the project.
“There’s always a concern that everything goes right on the day and the statue is square to the rock and all the logistical concerns. But I had a very good friend with me, Shane, and the committee helped out with the teleporter and all the gear required and it all went off smoothly in the finish.
“It’s my latest piece and it’s the one I’m most happy with at the moment. I’m delighted.”
The statue was unveiled by GAA President Larry McCarthy, who spoke about Cavan’s place in the association.
“You were the first county to win the Sam Maguire in Ulster and the most successful in Ulster but to rate your impact on the GAA in terms of trophies would be wrong, I would suggest. You’ve always been synonymous with great footballers and producing great footballers and you do that continuously.
“I have fond memories of the great Charlie Gallagher who scored eight points in the 1967 All-Ireland semi-final against Crok.
“John Joe left an indelible mark not just on the county but on followers of Gaelic football everywhere. He’s also forever linked with that great match in ’47 when you defeated Kerry. The Polo Grounds has disappeared, long swallowed up by my semi-native New York City, but the deeds and the exploits of the men of ’47 will never, ever be forgotten.
“He was central to your retaining of the trophy in ’48 when you beat Mayo and in so doing, he became a member of a very, very special club, men who have received in successive years the All-Ireland trophy.”
The highlight of the day, said committee member Lochlann Egan, was the presence of Kerry great Mick O’Connell. The former Kingdom midfielder spoke without notes about John Joe O’Reilly and Cavan.
“In my young days, growing up in Valentia Island off the coast of Kerry in the 1930s, the name John Joe O’Reilly was synonymous with Gaelic football,” he said.
The broadcasts of “the great Michael O’Hehir” inspired him and countless others to play the game, he added.
“In George Cartwright’s book, one of John Joe’s colleagues described John Joe as a man who could field the ball high, could kick it left and right and could deliver it with accuracy. That epitomised all that is good about Gaelic football since the start of time. That was what gave us the idea of how the game should be played and I am thankful to John Joe and the men of his era.”
Cathaoirleach of Cavan County Council and the John Joe Statue Committee is Cllr John Paul Feeley, who gave some background to how the project came about.
“Around Christmas 2020 I innocently tweeted that I had just finished reading George Cartwright's book.
“I quickly received a message from Paul Fitzpatrick pointing out that there was no proper acknowledgment of John Joe O’Reilly anywhere in our county.
“I suggested to him that a group should come together to promote the idea and assured him, as any good public representative would, that I would do everything I could to help such an initiative.
“I did not have any intention of taking a role on another committee and most certainly not ending up as the chairperson. Clearly Paul already had a plan. Soon thereafter, the first of many online meetings occurred, initially with Paul, Arthur Sullivan and Lochlann Egan.
“We had preliminary discussions with the Council about how we could take this matter forward and made quick decisions on a possible location, a sculptor and with some preliminary consultation, agreed a broad plan.
“Obviously, given he had only just published his encyclopaedic work on the life of John Joe O’Reilly, George Cartwright was an obvious early addition to the committee. He immediately agreed to liaise with the family and did an exceptional job throughout.
“We were then joined by Mark O’Rourke and Susan Brady who ably represented Cavan County Board. Jimmy Finlay also joined, bringing a new level of enthusiasm to our efforts.
“I don't think anyone on the committee will be offended when I single out Arthur Sullivan and Lochlann Egan.
“Arthur liaised throughout with Seamus Connolly and did all of the work in bringing together the magnificent souvenir publication for today's event.
“He and Lochlann really spearheaded the funding efforts with the early online appeals which were then followed with a more targeted approach to businesses throughout our county and indeed further afield. Lochlann dealt with virtually all of the finances and much of the practical arrangements for today; between them they were the powerhouse that drove this project. These are two people who anyone would want playing a lead role in any organisation, event or campaign!
“Jimmy Finlay and his friends in Dublin topped off fundraising with the event in the Helix.
“Uniquely, today is the first time this committee has been together in the one place at the one time. All our meetings, which were always businesslike and to the point, were conducted online.
“I actually think the fact that much of the work was taken on during the Covid lockdown meant that it moved much more quickly than had it all been done by meetings in person with all of the travel and time that that would entail.
“The tremendous workers on this committee meant that I, as Chair, had a very easy time. I want to sincerely thank all of them for their help, their courtesy and their extraordinary hard work.
“I hope that all of you enjoy this afternoon, that you appreciate this wonderful addition to the public art in our county and particularly here in the heart of our county town.
“I believe we have created a wonderful monument to John Joe O’Reilly and, through him, to a whole generation who have inspired so much. I also hope that this will be an inspiration to others to emulate his example as a sportsman, as a leader and as a citizen of this country.”
John Joe’s daughter Sarann also spoke about how much the statue and the event meant to her family in a heartfelt address. Lt Col Stephen Morgan from the Defence Forces talked about John Joe’s military standing.
“It was a very surreal day in many ways,” stated Arthur Sullivan.
“The vast majority of the time we have been working on this project was focused on the statue and the process of fundraising and you never really had the time to think about what an unveiling might look like until the last few weeks, you wouldn’t dare to start thinking about an unveiling day when you didn’t have the money for the statue.
“We didn’t have much time other than in the very recent past to plan the day but it couldn’t have gone any better I think. The biggest thing we wanted was to have all the strands of his life represented and I think it’s fair to say that would be football, family and the army and they were all well represented. His brother was there, his two daughters and a huge number of the extended family and they seemed to really enjoy it.
“You’re celebrating his life, his legacy and the fact that you have this monument but you also have to commemorate as well and remember that he died a very young man in very tragic circumstances.
“The Defence Forces brought an awful lot to it and it was very important for us to have them involved. They really added a lot to the pageantry and sense of occasion, it gave it a sense that this was a national event and a serious moment for our county and I personally was very emotional during the Last Post and I could feel the crowd standing to attention at that point.”