Blue Moon over Breffni

An Irishman’s Diary about Cavan’s ‘annus mirabilis’

‘Only 22 years earlier, says Paul Fitzpatrick, the first news of Kerry’s 1925 All-Ireland victory was conveyed to Tralee by “carrier-pigeon”. Now, in the brave new world of 1947, most of the Cavan team flew to New York. So did some of the Kerry panel, although many went by sea.’  Photograph:  Keystone Features/Getty Images

‘Only 22 years earlier, says Paul Fitzpatrick, the first news of Kerry’s 1925 All-Ireland victory was conveyed to Tralee by “carrier-pigeon”. Now, in the brave new world of 1947, most of the Cavan team flew to New York. So did some of the Kerry panel, although many went by sea.’ Photograph: Keystone Features/Getty Images

Thu, Nov 14, 2013, 01:00

I don’t know when or why Cavan people earned a reputation for being tight. But as a book I’ve been reading lately explains, it wasn’t the fault of a family called the McDowells.

The McDowells came from the strangely-named townland, Caughoo, just south of Cavan town. It probably derives from the Irish cáthadh, suggesting a place where corn is winnowed.

But insofar as most of us have ever heard of it before, it’s only because of the eponymous horse that emerged from the fog at Aintree in 1947 to cause one of the biggest upsets in English Grand National history.

For most people, Caughoo was a no-hoper. Not for his trainer. Herbert McDowell, who bought the horse for 50 guineas and then sold it to his brother, had placed a £100 each-way bet on it at 100-1. So far, so much in keeping with the Cavan reputation for acuity.

But here’s the bit that should have earned the county a place in the annals of philanthropy. On the ferry home, McDowell first inquired of the barman how much his entire stock was worth. And when no definitive answer emerged, he handed him £200 and insisted that nobody else be allowed pay for drinks that night.

Nor did the largesse stop there. Back in Ireland, where the win had rendered his local bookmaker insolvent, McDowell lent him the money to set up again – although I suppose that qualifies as an investment.

It must be said that, strictly speaking, McDowell was a Dubliner. But he was a Dubliner who kept up close links with his ancestral home and named the horse after it. So Cavan must at least share the credit for what was then, apparently, the Guinness-recognised world record for a round of drinks.

Anyway, the tale of Caughoo features centrally in The Fairytale of New York, a charming and fascinating new book by Paul Fitzpatrick. It’s not the main act, however. “The story of Cavan’s finest hour”, as the subtitle puts it, is chiefly concerned with another big overseas sporting event of that year: 3,000 miles west of Aintree, in Manhattan.

The GAA’s remarkable decision to export the 1947 All-Ireland football final to New York was, at least nominally, as Fitzpatrick explains, a commemoration of the Famine. This was the centenary of “Black ’47”, after all, although it began as White ’47, with the worst winter on record. Then the snow melted. Thereafter, as the horse race may have foretold, 1947 turned blue.

If the location of the All-Ireland was nearly as big a shock as Caughoo’s victory, the line-up wasn’t. In the hierarchy of football counties then, Kerry and Cavan were about equally aristocratic. A measure of Cavan’s self-assurance was that they usually didn’t start training until after the Ulster championship.

But 1947 was a year of dramatic departures. With a bigger than usual prize at stake, and their provincial opponents – Antrim – hyped as serious rivals, Cavan took the drastic step of training before the Ulster Final, for once. A tough semi-final over Roscommon later, their ticket to New York was secured.

Then there was the question of getting there. Only 22 years earlier, says Fitzpatrick, the first news of Kerry’s 1925 All-Ireland victory was conveyed to Tralee by “carrier-pigeon”. Now, in the brave new world of 1947, most of the Cavan team flew to New York. So did some of the Kerry
panel, although many went by sea.

There was no danger of the sea-route resulting in puke football. Well-used to boats, the Kerrymen had no problems sailing. It was the flying landlubbers from Cavan who had a rough time, thanks to turbulence. Star forward Mick Higgins would claim afterwards that the flight was more “nerve-wracking” than the game.

Controversial at home, the showpiece’s export was portrayed as a gift to the emigrants. And the argument was justified if only by a single vignette in Fitzpatrick’s book. It concerned one Patrick McGovern, who had left Cavan in the 1920s, saying goodbye to a family that included his very young brother, Owen Roe.

By 1947, Owen Roe had grown to be a county footballer. But now an American, Patrick hadn’t seen him since and had no idea what he looked like. So on the day of the kid’s scheduled arrival in New York, the older McGovern paced the docks (Owen Roe was one of those who sailed), surveying the Irishmen as they disembarked.

Not recognising anyone, he finally approached a “stocky man [with] biceps bulging, a wide grin and wave of black hair”. “Where’s Owen Roe McGovern?” he asked the stranger, still looking around for someone who might fit. “You’re talking to him,” announced his long-lost little brother.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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