When cavan and down were kings of ulster

Wednesday, 25th February, 2015 11:15am

When cavan and down were kings of ulster

The Cavan team which beat Down in the 1969 Ulster final.

Paul Fitzpatrick

Put events in a modern context and they're easier to understand. Imagine if Cavan had won five All-Ireland senior titles between 1986 and 2005, while winning Ulster titles without even needing to train.

And, suddenly, the success drops of. In 2014, imagine they lost the first round for the first time in living memory and apart from a hard-earned success in 2008, the Anglo-Celt Cup doesn't winter among the drumlins for the next six years and counting. And fans are devastated!

It's hard to believe that such a heavenly scenario was positively hellish back in 1959, as Cavan were going through an inevitable transition after two and a half golden decades.

Tyrone, Derry and Down stepped in to fill the void, with the Mourne men, especially, rising up and sticking it to their oppressors.

Because that's what Cavan were. Famous Down official Maurice O'Hare has described Cavan as “a dragon lying in the path of every other Ulster team”. The feeling back then was that the rest of Ulster could hope, at best, for a final appearance but Cavan would be insurmountable once they got there.

But all of that changed. Cavan's hiatus allowed new teams to emerge; Armagh got to an All-Ireland final in 1953, Tyrone and Derry won their first Ulsters in the late 1950s and then Down, the best of the lot, ascended to the throne.

Cavan had won Ulster in 1955 after a three-year wait but by the dawn of 1962, they had gone six years without a provincial title for the first time since 1915.

In 1959, Down beat Cavan by 2-16 to 0-7 and The Celt’s headline the following week — ‘Too bad to be true’ — told its own story. It was the first time the Mourne men had beaten Cavan in championship and the Breffni football world almost spun off its axis.

“Cavan have had a lean time in the football world,” noted Anglo-Celt Sports Editor PJ O’Neill at the time, “and the up and coming northern teams have gained in confidence with Cavan’s downfall.”

They became obsessed with beating the Mourne men, but it took time. In 1960, Down would beat Cavan in the delayed National League final and win Ulster and their first All-Ireland.

By the start of the 1960s, Cavan’s stock was at a low ebb. At the time, the GAA magazine Gaelic Weekly ran its own tournament, and Cavan were regular participants. But, in early 1960, the publishers wrote to the county board to tell them, in effect, that they were no longer wanted. Sure who, wondered the magazine, would pay to see Cavan play?

“We no longer require Cavan’s participation in our tournament, “ read the letter, read out by county secretary Hughie Smyth at a board meeting. 

“We feel that following Cavan’s heavy defeat in the [1959] Ulster final, they would no longer be a ‘paying proposition’.”

Hughie’s reaction? “I think they should be told where to get off. The cheek of them...”

The journos were right, though. Cavan looked to be going nowhere. While they pushed Down in that league final and in a Wembley tournament semi-final, they struggled in the Ulster Championship against Fermanagh, Donegal and Derry.

“With all their 43 Ulster titles [that figure has since been revised] behind them, it is getting to be a long time now since Cavan last held the honour, way back in 1955, and it is high time that their legion of faithful followers had another one to talk about. Undoubtedly, the talent is there to win this one, but as so many of the players have at least two ways of performing, it is hard to name them [as winners] with any degree of confidence,” noted the Celt’s O'Neill.

He was spot on; by the time the Ulster final came round in Clones, Down got through for a couple of early goals and ran out 3-7 to 1-8 winners. Down had come from nowhere and had beaten Cavan four times in 12 months – the Breffni men looked further away than ever.

n 1961, Cavan never even made it as far as a crack at them - Armagh inflicted the county’s first opening round defeat in 56 years and the mood was despondent.

“We had taken hammerings from Down in '59 and '60,” recalled Jim Mc-Donnell, then one of the best footballers in the country and a regular on the Cavan team, generally in the half-back line.

“There was one particular game I remember in Newry in the McKenna Cup around about that time. Of course Down didn’t put out their full team. That time you could put on as many subs as you wanted and by the time it was nearly over, they had their full team on! We went down mad to get at them of course. We beat them anyway and it was a great boost, at the time we thought we couldn’t beat them. It was around ’61.”

That game took place in April 1962 (Down were understrength but Cavan shocked them in Newry, winning by five points) but what was even more interesting was a result the following month. A junior team featuring Charlie Gallagher, Tom Lynch and a pair of schoolboys, Ray Carolan and Jimmy Stafford, beat the same opposition to win a first Ulster junior title in six seasons. Suddenly, Cavan were on the march again.

They qualified for the Ulster final in 1962 with half a dozen graduates from that junior team, who had no fear of the mighty red and black jerseys.

“Down were heroes at the time. I was playing in the middle of the field in the final and caught it and came down with it and I never saw anybody. And I got such a fright I nearly dropped the ball!” remembered Ray Carolan, who was playing in his first Ulster final as a teenager and saw off five different markers.

“And the second ball came out and I went up and caught it and I sort of looked around to see where the hell where these fellas. And then you start to think, 'Jesus, I'm better than these fellas'.”

Were they? Cavan folk of that era would say they were. The Blues would go on to beat Down in four Ulster finals in the 1960s, twice when the magnificent Mourne men – backboned by the brilliance of Sean O'Neill, Joe Lennon, the Macartans and Tom O'Hare - were reigning All-Ireland champions. But the rub was that Down could get the job done in Croke Park.

They landed All-Irelands in 1960, 1961 and 1968 – Cavan threw it away against Roscommon in '62, were well-beaten by Kerry in '64, lost by a point to Cork in '67 and lost a replay to Offaly in '69.

After that, the team broke up. It would be three and a half decades before a simialr rivalry emerged in the province, with the rise of Tyrone and Armagh, but supporters of a certain vintage remember with fondness the magical Cavan and Down teams of the era, when men like Gabriel Kelly, Carolan and Charlie Gallagher were in their pomp.

Cavan haven't had a team like it since – Down, though, have produced another amazing side to win two All-Irelands in the meantime. Neither side may be seen as All-Ireland contenders at present but the good work is continuing.

A revival of the storied rivalry in the coming years? Stranger things have happened.




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