Football has always been an important part of my life ever since primary school days. I was also a pole vaulter but that’s another story.
Although football was not played at Calry National School during my time there in the early 1950s, my brothers and I always had a kick-about with the Branley lads next door, on the road or in the fields. After sixth class in Calry N.S., I went to the Marist Brothers school on the Mall, then known as St Mary’s. The Marist’s other school was St John’s on Temple Street near the Fair Green.
The first time I ever played in goals was for St Mary’s in the mid-1950s. At that time there was great rivalry among three local Gaelic football teams – St Mary’s, St John’s and Calry. Paddy Coen, Eamon McGauran and Danny Gilroy from Hazelwood were also at St Mary’s and we also played handball as the school had an alley. I spent one year at St Mary’s followed by two years at Summerhill College and finally, another two years at the Technical School (the “Tech”) on Quay St.
My first senior game as a goalkeeper was when I played for the Sligo Mental Hospital (St Columba’s) Gaelic team alongside other Calry lads – Seamus Cummins, Pat Branley and the two McMoreland brothers – Jodie and Johnny. St Columba’s had a great team back then and there was an informal league among the regional Mental Hospitals which was taken very seriously by all the teams. I remember one game in particular when we played against Castlerea and I got injured when a fight broke out on the pitch. It was certainly not a pleasant experience. As I wasn’t employed by St Columba’s I had to play under an assumed name. I suppose that would be illegal now!
In the early 1960s, the late Mervyn Strain from Raphoe, came to Calry and started a soccer team called Calry Bohemians – popularly known as Calry Bohs. We wore a white strip and later a strip with black and red striped jerseys. As goalkeeper I always wore black. At that time, Calry Bohs did not have a home ground so all the Calry lads played both Gaelic football and soccer in the Pond field near the Deerpark entrance.
Calry Bohs did not enjoy major success but we still had a good team drawn from a fine squad of players that included several competent goalkeepers such as the late Pat Branley, his cousin Charlie Branley, and myself. Pat played in goals before me, and Charlie and I shared goalkeeping duties. If I was in goals then Charlie played full back and vice versa. Paddy Coen also played in goals for Bohs. John Lee, who was a few years ahead of us, was also a great goalkeeper and played for the Sligo county GAA team.
Jim Branley was an outstanding player – an absolute all-rounder who played with the Sligo county team and with the Dublin minor team when he was there with the Air Corps. He was also a very good pole vaulter. Tom Kennedy was another class player with the ability to play both centre forward or centre half if called upon. Seamus Cummins was a towering mid-fielder. Jimmy Flynn would let nobody past him in defence. The late Alan Henry was another good all-round athlete who excelled at several sports including soccer, rugby and athletics. We had other good players such as Robbie Irwin, Jim Paterson and Bobby Cunningham from Drum. In hindsight there was a lot of talent in the Calry area and good sportsmanship.
Nancy Callaghan, who was a staunch Sligo Rovers supporter, had great time for the Calry lads and was always there to cheer us on whenever we were playing a match. On one occasion, Calry were playing Dromard in a 5-a-side and our goalkeeper, Pat Branley, collided with a huge man from Dromard. Both men went down with a terrible crunch but Pat got up first. I was glad that I wasn’t in goals that day or I’d be in ICU.
There was a prestigious FAI soccer competition called the Oscar Traynor Cup that involved teams made up from clubs playing in different regional leagues such as Sligo-Leitrim and the Midland District League. It fact it is still part of the FAI competition calendar today. I remember one memorable game in 1963 or thereabouts when Sligo-Leitrim played against the Midland District League in the Oscar Traynor Cup at Tullamore and I was goalkeeper for Sligo-Leitrim. Tom Lally, who later played for Sligo Rovers, was in goals for the opposition that day; so were Thurlough O’Connor and his brother – both excellent players. At half time we were 3-0 down but frankly I was not at fault for any of the goals. We just got off to a bad start, never settled into the game, and the opposition wiped us off the pitch during the first half. Then the second half began and the game took a massive turnaround. I saved two penalties, Donal McLynn scored a hat trick, and we ended up winning 6-3 to everyone’s surprise and to the delight of the Sligo-Leitrim supporters.
In another game in the same competition we were beaten 2-1 by Waterford at St Annes Park, Sligo. Waterford had a great team back then with the three Fitzgerald brothers on their side. All of these games in the Oscar Traynor Cup involved a lot of long-distance travel by bus which was tiring. Then you had to get off the bus with stiff legs after a long journey on bad roads and perform to the best of your ability. The changing facilities back then were non-existent.
In the mid-1960s, I got a job as a carpenter/joiner at GWI (Gowna) in Collooney and stayed with them for a few years. GWI had a good soccer side that played in the McArthur Cup which was a very competitive trades competition in Sligo with many good teams participating. Dennys had a great side back then with a lot of good players, some of whom had played for Sligo Rovers.
In 1967 I emigrated to Canada and from there to the USA, where I settled in New York. My sister Hannah was already there and was married to a Cavan man, the late Patsy Kindelan. New York in the 1960s was an exciting place to live and the construction industry was booming with high-risers going up all over Manhattan. The work was hard and often dangerous, but well paid, and the Irish workers were well respected by employers. In general, you did well for yourself if you were hard-working and committed to your job.
I played Gaelic football most of the time but there was also a soccer league which was very competitive and close to League of Ireland standard. I joined a mixed Irish side and we played against other teams that would have had a European ethnic background. I remember one tough game we played against a strong German/Hungarian team and we were well beaten.
At that time in New York, doors opened for you if you were a good football player. Gaelic football was hugely popular and Gaelic Park in Riverdale, The Bronx was the Croke Park of New York. The park was leased from Manhattan College in 1926 by the New York GAA and it was controlled by John “Kerry” O’Donnell for fifty years from 1941 to 1991. All roads led to Gaelic Park on a Sunday if there was a big match taking place, and it was an important meeting place for Irish immigrants especially if they did not have family ties when they arrived in the “Big Apple.”
The Irish community in New York was close knit, but there was healthy competition and strong inter-county rivalries among the teams because everyone took enormous pride in their origins back in the “Ould Sod” and supported their county teams with a passion.
Although I played a few seasons with Sligo, I played mainly for Cavan because my brother-in-law, Patsy, was from Bailieborough in county Cavan. At that time Hannah and Patsy lived in The Bronx and owned a bar called The Hideout on 233rd St in Woodlawn. I had some good nights in it.
Gaelic football was taken very seriously by the county teams playing in New York and teams would fly out players from Ireland for important matches. Cavan were in the New York championship final twice but failed to win. Clancy’s the bar chain in New York brought out star players from Ulster – about nine players – for our final against Monaghan and we lost. Kerry beat us the other year. They were always a good side and had a big squad of players. John “Kerry” O’Donnell always made sure that Kerry brought out the pick of players from back home. Cavan also brought out Ulster players like Colm McAlarney, who was a great midfielder, and we became good friends. Some of the players that came out to New York stayed on because they needed jobs. All the top players worked for Clancy’s bars.
The GAA community in New York also organized a GAA World Series match which, like the baseball world series, was played over two legs. Teams that played in this competition included New York, London, Australia, and prominent Irish county teams such as Monaghan, Sligo, Down and Kerry. In one World Series final, I was goalkeeper for New York but we lost to Down who had many good players including the legendary Sean O’Neill. New York won the first game 1-9 to 1-8, while Down won the second game 2-11 to 1-9. The total aggregate score was: Down 3-19, New York 2-18.
When I returned from the USA, I re-joined Calry Bohs and by that time they had almost a whole new side with many younger players such as the McNassor brothers – Joe and Tommy, the Cunningham bothers – Martin, the late Micheal, and Joe, and Noel Carr. We had a great back line made up of stalwarts such as Jimmy Flynn, James Kennedy, Kieran Murphy, Sean Murphy and Martin Cunningham. As a veteran goalkeeper, I felt very well protected with that cast iron defence in front of me. Some of them also played on the Calry gaelic team, and the Devaney brothers – Paul and Gerry – were also skillful players.
By that time I was almost 40 years old but still holding my position as goalkeeper for Calry on both the soccer and Gaelic pitches. One of our favourite soccer referees was Kevin “Neighbour” Fallon who put up with no nonsense and always kept the Calry boys on the straight and narrow with many warnings being handed out during a game, but nobody was ever sent off. Afterwards we would have the craic with “Neighbour” in Verdon’s pub on the Mall.
I really enjoyed this special time back in Calry with my old friends and neighbours during the twilight of my playing career. Like Mohammed Ali, I hung up my gloves in the early 1980s after a career spanning four decades of competitive football, most of it spent between the posts.