All-Star (and Ulster) Scot – An Irishman’s Diary about The Runner McGough
John McGough: he grew up fast
If there was a prize for the GAA’s most authentic-sounding club name, the shortlist might include Blackhill Emeralds in Co Monaghan. Located just west of Castleblayney, it nestles among drumlins that look green to the untrained eye but, in poetry and Irish, can also be termed black, from sun deprivation.
Patrick Kavanagh’s Shancoduff, a few miles south, is probably the most famous, for having “never seen the sun rising” and being condemned eternally to look “north towards Armagh”.
But the actual townland in which the GAA club sits is Tattygar, and there is no place locally called Blackhill. Instead, according to one tradition, the name Blackhill Emeralds may have been borrowed from very unpastoral origins: a suburb of Glasgow.
And therein lies a fascinating tale – involving not just Monaghan GAA, but also Glasgow’s Old Firm soccer clubs, the Olympic Games, an infamous match-fixing scandal featuring Manchester United, and the 1947 All-Ireland football final in New York.
Tying all these threads together is a man named John McGough, who in fact was born in Armagh in 1881. Pre-empting Kavanagh’s poetic logic, McGough’s parents had already abandoned the Monaghan drumlins in the hope of a better life in the nearby cathedral city. But when that didn’t work out, they moved again, this time to Scotland, with their new baby.
It was in the tenements of Glasgow that John McGough was reared, and there too that his father drank himself first into a lunatic asylum and then the grave, aged 42. The boy, meanwhile, grew up fast, and stayed that way. He left school at 13, becoming a messenger, then a postman, while still in his teens.
But along with walking many miles a day, professionally, he was by now also a runner, of ever-increasing local fame, frequently winning silverware at athletic meetings held in Parkhead and Ibrox, homes of Glasgow’s rival soccer giants.
A measure of McGough’s range was that, at the 1903 Scottish Championships, he won the half mile, mile, and four-mile races on the same day. But his best distance was the mile, in which he was his adopted country’s champion for a decade. It was in the metric equivalent, 1500m, that he won an Olympic medal, silver, at the “intercalated” games of 1906 in Athens.
The 1906 Olympics was also the one where Irish long-jumper Peter O’Connor shinned up a flagpole to replace his team’s official flag, the Union Jack, with a green one bearing a harp, shamrocks, and “Erin go Bragh”. McGough made no such gesture. But as a “Scoto-Irishman” (the Glasgow newspapers’ description), he represented both nations, depending on circumstances, regularly attending the GAA’s athletic events too.
As the sun set on his running career, McGough – pronounced “McGeow” in Monaghan – reinvented himself as a masseur, learning that trade first via the Celtic football team. In time this extended to a role as assistant trainer with Manchester United, where the dizzying salary – £2.50 a week – persuaded him to give up his post-office job.
Alas, the move south was badly timed: August 1914. United were struggling anyway. And as war escalated, the future of the football league itself was in doubt. By 1915, some professionals were thinking they might need pensions soon. So the Friday of Easter Week, in an early version of the Good Friday Agreement, a group of United and Liverpool players met in a Stretford pub and decided that their forthcoming game would end 2-0 to the home side.
Spectators at the subsequent charade were suspicious, but not as suspicious as the bookies when they did their sums. A commission of inquiry followed. In the meantime, football as a whole was suspended in favour of war. Though innocent of the fix, McGough was out of a job.
That’s when he moved back to his ancestral homeland, helping found the Blackhill Emeralds. It also set him on a path that, 30 years later, would lead him to the ultimate sacrifice for a Monaghan man. No, I don’t mean death. I mean helping Cavan win an All-Ireland, at New York’s Polo Grounds in 1947.
Mercifully, I don’t have space here to dwell on that tragedy. Suffice to say it was the culmination of an era in which McGough and others brought a level of science to GAA team preparation that might surprise modern readers. But this and the rest of his remarkable life are detailed in a new book called The Runner McGough: The Untold Story, by Tommy Maguire. For anyone who loves sport, it’s a truly fascinating tale.