Football, a family business handed down in Mullahoran

Story by Paul Fitzpatrick

Thursday, 29th November, 2018 1:38pm

Football, a family business handed down in Mullahoran

This Saturday is one of the biggest days in Mullahoran's history.

Mullahoran are one of the most famous football clubs in Cavan and the current team carry that tradition with them.

The year was 1977 and the Minister for Education was due to speak at a function in Trinity College. Belts were tightening; there had been education cuts and a large group of angry student activists were waiting to make their feelings known to the politician. 

The esteemed Provost of the institution, fearing things would get heated, approached the Minister - John Wilson - and suggested it might be a good idea to enter via the rear of the building.
Wilson smiled and explained that that would not be happening.

"No Mullahoran man," Wilson, a famed linguist, explained, "goes round the back way. You go straight in the front door!"

A few months later, Mullahoran - who had won seven Senior Championships between 1942 and 1950 - won the Intermediate Football Championship.

The early 1970s had seen the club's stock plummet but they rebuilt and would remain senior for 40 seasons until the last one, winning the championship in 1998, 2006 and 2012.

That latest senior triumph was a classic of the Mullahoran genre. At the outset of the season, they were not expected to win it – in fact, they were considered by some to be an old team who were past their best.

Yet, like an army slowly advancing, they ground it out and their march took them all the way to Breffni Park on the third Sunday in October and a replayed final against a fancied Kingscourt.

When Philip Brady hit the net in the 58th minute that day to send them into a four-point lead, the job was done, the cup was coming home and soon, the bonfires were licking the sky.

Mullahoran is a rural parish, circular in shape and rustic in nature. Gaelic football is the main social and sporting outlet and the club has been a leading light since the early days of the association in Cavan.

Now, different clubs have different characteristics. Some are flashy and hard to like. Others are small and resign themselves to defeat, others still tend to be rowdy or ratty.

As they are handed through the generations, these traits become more ingrained until they are second nature. A culture is formed.  

In Mullahoran, that manifests itself as a steely determination and a fierce pride in the jersey. Ask anyone and you will hear the same thing.

"It's a special club," said Aidan McCarron, a Tyrone man who wore the bainisteoir bib a few years ago, "you can tell that immediately when you get to know them."

This club pride themselves on their ability to come back off the ropes, to soak up pressure and rebound to deliver a knock-out blow. If they were a business, that would be their brand.

They play to their strengths, to that identity that they have inherited.They don’t go in for show, for one thing – never have.

The dominant occupation in rural areas when Mullahoran came to prominence as a football powerhouse was farming.

That was tough work, often for little reward, with the result that the traits inherent in small farmers mirrored those prized in defenders – a willingness to work tirelessly, to be physically strong, a contentment to do your bit in the shadows and away from the limelight.

So Mullahoran were always regarded as a typical country team, a team who would not concede much, keep it tight and, at the other end, have a few men who would come up with the scores when they were needed.

Proof? At the height of their greatest era, four men from the club started on the All-Ireland winning team in the Polo Grounds in 1947 – none of them were forwards.

Yet they have produced their fair share of talented attackers, too, and this year is no exception. Their five highest scorers – Philip Brady, Enda O’Reilly, Cormac O’Reilly, Sean McKeogh and Shane Sheils – have struck 10-103 in this 10-match campaign by our count, which is phenomenal scoring.

They have needed it. This has been a marathon, not a sprint.

This time around, Mullahoran's championship odyssey began against Killeshandra, when an injury time penalty save from Sean Briody salvaged a win; next time out, they lost by a point to Bailieborough. They had secured promotion in the league but their early championship form was not inspiring and some supporters questioned where the team was headed.

Hindsight, though, is 20-20. At that stage of the championship, the Dreadnoughts were still blowing out what Páidí Ó Sé once referred to as “dirty diesel”, with Killian Brady suggesting pre-county final that the engine was idling in the early rounds because of a hangover from 2017, some doubts still lingering when it came to closing out games.

That theory made sense, too. Because, lest we forget, last season was an annus horibilis for the Dreadnoughts, who didn't win a game all year long, in league or championship.

What exactly went wrong in 2017 is hard to say. There were close shaves and a few heavy losses but when Seanie Smith and his management team took over midway through the year, their aim was pretty clear – survive in the championship.

They almost managed it, too, blowing a lead late on against Ballinagh in the relegation final before losing the match in extra time. They were, it seemed, the team who had forgotten how to win.

Twelves months later, they have forgotten how to lose. As transformations go, it could not be more radical.

How have they managed it? The Mullahoran way. Re-treading older players and putting them back on the road, good as new. Elevating talented youngsters, boys who have been playing like men. And all the time tapping into that famed Dreadnought spirit which was most in evidence last time out against a fancied Banagher.

Since the drawn quarter-final against Belturbet, they have improved with each match, rising to meet the ever-increasing standard of their opponents in an under-rated Butlersbridge, free-scoring Cuchulainns, Down’s Bredagh and a Banagher side who had been installed as third favourites for the All-Ireland.

A notable feature of each match has been the size of the support following the team. There is a sense of togetherness that, if not unique, is at least very rare. And that, more than anything, is what underpins everything they stand for.

The jersey has been handed down through the generations, through the clans. It’s a family heirloom and those are precious things.

A glance through the faces and names is revealing. In goals is Sean Briody, whose father was on that ’78 team in the same position.

The captain, Killian Brady, is a Gunner – his uncle Ciaran is chairman. In turn, Ciaran’s uncle, Phil The Gunner, played on a championship-winning side alongside his own father Danny in the early 1940s. And Danny had won a Junior Championship in 1917. A century of history, family and football, in a couple of links...

On the sideline is Seanie Smith, captain in 2006, a cousin of Paul and Philip Brady’s, two more grandsons of Danny's whose father and uncles played on the 1965 SFC-winning side. Beside him, Damien O’Reilly (below), one of the greatest Cavan footballers of his generation and a senior medallist from 1998, is selector and his sons Cian, Cormac and William and nephews Liam Wilson and Callum Mussi are on board. 

Damien Donohoe, team trainer, is a Drumalee man by birth but of Mullahoran stock; his Dad, Peter, bleeds blue and yellow.

These are just a few of the threads which bind it all together; there are many more weaving their way through the story of this team and club. 

And a knot, bound that tight, is almost impossible to unravel.

Which brings us back to Wilson, one of the club’s greatest sons. In 1973, he was elected to the Dáil for the first time and speculation as to the make-up of the cabinet was rife.

The Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, was keeping tight-lipped but met Wilson – whom he had played against in the 1945 All-Ireland final – in a doorway. The Corkman saw his chance and surreptitiously handed over a note.

On it were two words which told Wilson all he needed to know: “Bí ullamh.” Be prepared.

Forty-five years later, he will be watching down on his grand-nephews and neighbours’ children this weekend. And if the latest group of Mullahoran men can go straight in the front door again, it might just be their greatest day of all.

An entire parish is behind them. As he would have said himself, tá síad ullamh.

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