Sport and songs and stories

“Nothing is so good it last eternally. Perfect situations must go wrong.” So say the opening lines of the Elaine Paige/Barbara Streisand hit I Know Him So Well. Or, to borrow a few lyrics from Baz Luhrmann “Prices will rise, politicians will philander and you, too, will get old”. In other words, things change. Now read on…

In many ways, Meath GAA followers have been spoiled for a very long time. Allow me to explain. I’ve written a fair bit in recent years about the progress made with hurling in the county during the last two decades or so. When it comes to football, however, our county has been blessed relatively speaking at least with the amount of success those in green and gold have garnered.

Going back as far as 1939 when a team including Tony Donnelly, Mattie Gilsenan and Hugh Lynch became the first from the county to contest an All Ireland SFC Final, in the guise of a ‘proper’ county team, where they lost to Kerry. It must be pointed out, though, that a Pearse O’Mahonys (Navan) side had contested one against a club side representing Tipperary before that.

The Meath team which contested the All Ireland Final of 1939.

Thereafter, Meath contested at least one All Ireland for the next seven decades in a row. Winning in 1949, ’54, ’67, ’87, ’88, ’96 and ’99. There were reversals in between all the triumphs as well, of course. Indeed, the nine-point defeat to Galway in 2001 has turned out to be our last run-out in the showpiece as of now.

Special Connection

Most will know at this stage of the special connection this corner was lucky to share with 1949 captain, the late Brian Smyth. In that, not only was he heavily involved with our club when I was growing up and just becoming involved with the club myself, but he was also the person through whom wheelchair tickets were obtained when wheels carrying me first began to park up at Meath matches.

Indeed, over the years I’ve been extremely lucky to have got to know at least one member of each of Meath’s All Ireland winning teams. Brian was still there in 1954 of course, where he was joined by Dunboyne’s Jim Reilly. From the 1967 team, there has always been a particular fondness for Pat Reynolds given the farming and football overlap.

Mattie Kerrigan and I didn’t exactly get off on a great footing. For the first couple of years I was involved with the club, the former centre forward was in charge of his native Summerhill. Our paths crossed numerous times in a very short space of time. The old saying goes that familiarity breeds contempt and while it could never have been said to have become that hostile between us, sparks certainly did fly on the sideline a few times!

However, like a lot of things in my life, things were set straight in Brady’s of Dunboyne. It became something of a tradition that Mattie, Brendan Cummins of LMFM and I would meet in what used to be my second home, after Meath games in Croke Park. Visits to either place have, to much heartache, become a rarity now.

Anyway, Brady’s was also the place where a friendship was formed with 1967 winning captain Peter Darby. It’s unknown whether it was a conscious policy decision by Tom Dermody and others in what is now Britvic Ireland to employ GAA stars as their faces on the road. but, from that avenue were the likes of Cormac ‘Spud’ Murphy and Sean Barry and Larry Murphy and Richie Power (x2) and, of course, Peter, were encountered through their peddling of Bulmers and minerals!

Furthermore, hearing all the stories of the days of yore deepened my love affair with all things GAA and at times sustained it one was playing into the wind in life, away from the world of sport.

What never would have been foreseen was having an equally treasured link with the year of ’39. There was a time when the height of my knowledge about 1939 had nothing to do with sport. It didn’t extend beyond Ronnie Drew’s famous citation at the beginning of McAlpine’s Fusilliers

Twas in the year of ’39, when the sky was full of lead. When Hitler was heading for Poland, and Paddy for Hollyhead. Come all you Pincher Laddies, and you long distance men, don’t ever work for McAlpine, for Wimpey or John Lang.

For You’ll stand behind a mixer, ’til your skin is turned to tan, and they’ll say ‘Good on ya Paddy, with your boat fare in your hand. Well the craic was good in Crickelwood, and you wouldn’t leave the Crown. With glasses flyin’ and Biddys cryin’, sure Paddy was goin’ to town.

Oh mother dear I’m over here, and I’m never coming back, what keeps me here is the rake of beer, the ladies and the craic. I come from County Kerry, the land of eggs and bacon. You may think I’ll eat your Fish & Chips – by Jaysus you’re mistaken!

The one and only Ronnie Drew

Obviously the significance of that season regarding, as mentioned above, Meath’s first appearance in an All Ireland Final had been heard. Yes, I’d been fortunate enough and very honoured to meet Mattie Gilsenan several times over the years as well. Pat and Brendan Cummins – sons of Jack – have been valued friends of mine for many years, while it was also known that Tommy ‘The Boiler’ McGuinness was a figure of legendary status in that era.

Little was it realised that the twists and turns of life (which in this instance were admittedly initially viewed as a negative) would end up with me having an even more personal link to the men who succumbed to The Kingdom all those years ago. That there now is gives testament to the old adage about everything in life happening for a reason. Mention was made here a few times in the last couple of years about the persuading job that Megan, my wonderful Occupational Therapist had to undertake in order to get me to ‘Sign up’ for the local RehabCare Centre.

However, once I gave in to her persistent encouragement, apart from the obvious mental and physical and mental health benefits, and reconnecting with some cherished old ones (One of whom is sadly no longer with us) and – it goes without saying – making some new ones. In one case it took about 40 seconds for myself and Declan Lynch to click. Once he mentioned his late dad Hugh was one of the men of ’39, we had common ground.

From there, we’ve pinted and punted and constructed and gardened. And the best part is that the instinct here suggests that the best may yet be ahead. After all, Cheltenham week is nearly upon us!

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