The day the season that changed the GAA nearly started

Exhibition looks at Dublin’s All-Ireland win in 1974 under legendary manager Kevin Heffernan

Kevin Heffernan pictured   in 1989. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Kevin Heffernan pictured in 1989. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

It should have started today but it didn’t. Friday May 19th is the 43rd anniversary of when the season that changed the GAA nearly got under way. It was that date in 1974 that should have seen Dublin’s first match of the Kevin Heffernan era, in a championship that would – judged by their status at the outset – sensationally conclude with the capital city’s team as All-Ireland champions.

To clear up the ambiguity, Dublin’s Leinster first round against Wexford was due to be played on the above date at Croke Park.

Two days previously however, a major bomb attack on the city with explosions in Parnell Street, Talbot Street and South Leinster Street left 26 people dead. On the same day, another bomb in Monaghan town killed seven – making it the worst loss of life on a single day in the entire Troubles.

Dublin’s match was unsurprisingly called off and re-fixed for the following Sunday as the curtain raiser to that year’s NFL final between Kerry and Roscommon.

There was little in the defeat of Wexford to suggest that a new era was at hand. The Irish Times didn’t even have a staff reporter at the Dublin-Wexford match but whoever got the marking wasn’t impressed by either side, although Dublin had clearly been better in a 3-9 to 0-6 victory with a late scoring flourish indicating the team’s improving fitness.

“There were however moments when Dublin’s neater forwards were just as guilty as Wexford of some scandalous attempts to land points. There were at least a couple of guffaws from the mainly Roscommon-Kerry interested crowd on the Hogan Stand.”

One of the Wexford team that day was the well-known hurler Martin Quigley, who was also a less well-known dual player – and had been on the 1969 team that won the Leinster minor football title, beating Dublin in the final. He told The Irish Times in 2014 that he remembered the match quite well.

“I actually do,” he said. There’s not too many I remember but that day stands out. We were on before the league final so there was nobody in Croke Park when we were playing. I was at centre back on Tony Hanahoe and I remember looking up the far end – I was about 50 yards from the goal – when the ball came back down and when I looked around Tony was on the 14-yard line.

“That became very familiar as Dublin progressed. They’d bring Bobby Doyle out and Tony Hanahoe used to drift. Most of the time I hadn’t a clue where he was; he certainly wasn’t a traditional number 11. I just remember that feeling: ‘where the hell is he gone?’”

Quigley had a hurling season to look forward to afterwards and a career which earned him the bittersweet reputation of being one of the best hurlers never to win an All-Ireland.

Was he surprised at Dublin’s success?

“I would have been. Whatever about Leinster I’d have thought both Cork and Galway would have beaten them.”

The resonance of that year is the subject of the exhibition, Heffo’s Army: The rise of Dublin GAA, showing at the Little Museum of Dublin until Sunday May 28th.

Curated by the well-known sports historians Paul Rouse and Mark Duncan, it tells through memorabilia, timelines and video the story of how Heffernan’s team and its legacy impacted on the GAA in Dublin.

The GAA in Dublin was revolutionised in the 1950s when Heffernan’s club St Vincent’s insisted on players being local and this policy radiated out to the county team that would be from the early 1950s on be irreversibly connected with Dubliners rather than availing of the temporary allegiance of people from other counties.

As a player he pioneered a modern role for the full forward, roaming out the field in defiance of the fixed-position orthodoxies of the time. He captained the team that won the 1958 All-Ireland title, the first won by the county since the emphasis on home-grown players.

Another All-Ireland followed in 1963 by which stage he had retired from playing but he was involved as a selector. It would be another 11 years until he was given full autonomy to ‘manage’ – even the term was unusual in the GAA of the era – the county team.

It’s hard to think of a comparable All-Ireland to that won by Dublin in 1974. The county hadn’t won Leinster for nine years and the landscape for Gaelic games had changed from the heady days of massive attendances in the 1950s and ’60s.

Soccer had always been a competing presence but on a local level. From the mid-1960s, television began to transmit the wider world: the 1966 World Cup broadcast on RTÉ is credited with creating new interest in the game and the dawn of English league coverage ramped up the identification of Irish followers with cross-channel clubs.

Soon the lack of success of Dublin as an intercounty force was being felt in the growing indifference to the games. John McCarthy, father of current player James, was corner forward on Heffernan’s team and recalled in David Walsh’s seminal 1989 profile of the side that “lads in the street would ask, ‘was he still playing that gah?’”

Had Heffernan not re-established Dublin as a force, would someone else eventually have done so? Maybe but the fact that an alternative history of the GAA as an organisation operating wholly beyond the Pale never unfolded was greatly to the benefit of all.

The progression from indifference to celebration had practical consequences with the development over the past 40 years of Gaelic games on the south side of Dublin picking up momentum to the point where instead of barren soil, the south county has become fertile territory.

That it is an organic story can be seen in the fact that since the exhibition opened, Cuala – the Dalkey club founded with a certain symbolism in 1974– have become the first Dublin side to win the All-Ireland club hurling title. And if the county is prepared for less encouraging portents, the league final, which saw Kerry’s first knock-out victory over the Dubs in eight years.

If anything, the exhibition is conservative about the long-term importance of the era in recording the All-Ireland of 1995 as the first post-Heffernan title.

The management in ’95 reacted sharply to the congratulation that they were the first to win the Sam Maguire for Dublin without Heffernan’s influence since the 1940s. “You couldn’t say that we weren’t the product of Heffernan’s influence,” said one of the selectors.

Even in today’s time of plenty the legacy remains. After his first final, an O’Byrne Cup defeat by Kildare on the weekend that Heffernan died, current manager Jim Gavin acknowledged as much.

“We mentioned inside before the game the virtues and what Kevin brought to the game of football,” he said. “He was a visionary, a strategist and those guys stand on his shoulders. Certainly I, and the guys there, wouldn’t be where we are in Dublin GAA without the vision of Kevin Heffernan.”

Heffo’s Army: The rise of Dublin GAA is included in tours of the Little Museum of Dublin until Sunday May 28th. Further information on www.littlemuseum.ie

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