The first GAA matches I ever reported on were in Cavan (I had covered some Junior Soccer in Longford before that).
It was the mid-1980s and it was a great baptism – I quickly discovered that I had landed in a GAA hotbed.
It wasn’t as if Cavan were going well at the time either; in fact they were in a depressing GAA rut, haunted and held to ransom by their glory-filled past.
Of course the longer the Cavan famine went on, the more ravenous they became.
Within a few weeks of my beginning work at the Cavan Leader, it had become crystal clear to me: this was truly an exceptional GAA county.
Firstly, I became aware (for the first time) of Cavan’s magnificent GAA tradition. Then, I experienced at first-hand the incredible obsession, irrespective of the absence of major success in the modern era, that so many locals had with Gaelic Football.
In the Cavan Leader office, we were meant to be working – and we did get the job done every week – but every single day was punctuated by football talk. It was by no means only the county team that provoked debate; the club scene was and is extremely competitive in Cavan. Someone would come into the newspaper office with an ad or a news item, and everyone would ‘down tools’ and engage with the ‘customer’ in football talk.
The club scene was very lively and passionate, but the county team was actually failing to make a breakthrough year in year out in Ulster. Not landing the long-awaited Ulster crown couldn’t stop the debates, reduce the passion, diminish the faith, dampen the loyalty. Back every Sunday, every season. It was the hope that was threatening to kill them/us, but it never had a chance!
I began to report on Cavan’s intercounty games. Our boss at the Leader was Eugene McGee, who also happened to be the manager of the Cavan team. Interesting! (In fairness, never an issue). McGee improved Cavan, brought them agonisingly close to Ulster glory, but not quite over the line.
Meanwhile, back in the office, Ciaran Mullooly and I mixed mischief and (I think) original and good newspaper output, all in the shadow of the imposing, gigantic seen-it-all-before Anglo Celt. And the Celt had seen it all before, including Cavan’s five All-Ireland wins between 1933 and ’51, not to mention a remarkable 38 Ulster senior titles by that point in time.
The Celt had seen John Joe Reilly, perhaps part-created him; I had only imagined him. His legend, and that of many more Cavan greats, genuinely seemed to hang in the air in Cavan in the 1980s, a backdrop to many GAA conversations. These were ghosts from the past whose shadows the players of the present struggled to escape from.
It was a joy, covering games in Cavan, taking the long walk to the turnstiles in the historic Breffni Park, stepping in the footsteps of legends. A football temple.
The Cavan fans were passionate and hungry, quite like the Mayos. It’s not hard to see why – the older amongst them had actually witnessed greatness in Cavan colours, those who came after them had been reared on tantalising tales of the incredible days when Cavan footballers ruled the world. Five All-Irelands in less than twenty years, 38 Ulsters (a 39th title finally added on in 1997).
When I moved to the Roscommon Champion in 1988, I went from one GAA-mad county to another. Another county where the people dreamt of hope and history rhyming. Happily, Martin McDermott led Roscommon to Connacht titles in 1990 and 1991, and my pen was busy recording good times. Thirty years after leaving the Cavan GAA press boxes, I retain an unbreakable affection for Cavan GAA folk and that county’s majestic football heritage.
The Cavan folk come to Roscommon on Sunday with a bit of a swagger just now, their team on fire. Two great GAA tribes meet. Greet them and enjoy them, they are very like us. They are truly great GAA people.