'GAA Football Gold' is worth its weight in memories


ON GAELIC GAMES:The 1947 All-Ireland final in the USA led to a realisation that there was a big audience for Gaelic games highlights

TEN YEARS ago during a visit to a Donald Bradman exhibition in the South Australia state library in Adelaide I remember being struck by how much archive they had managed to unearth and preserve. Compared with what had survived of the early GAA, it was extensive and fascinating – going back as far as radio commentaries from the early 1920s.

Nostalgia looms large in the GAA but for a long time it was mostly in reminiscence and conversation. Since the association’s centenary year in 1984 that has gradually changed with the gathering of surviving materials, the exponential increase in Gaelic games-related publishing and the opening of the museum in Croke Park 13 years ago.

One of the great additions to the nostalgia industry over the past 12 months has been the Irish Film Institute’s release of their All-Ireland footage from the 1940s and ’50s. A year ago GAA Gold, the hurling finals from 1948-59, was released and proved a major success in the end-of-year market – ending up in the top three sales of sports’ titles.

This month the companion collection, GAA Football Gold, was released and it is even more interesting. There is, for a start, an additional final and a very significant one. The whole impetus to produce recordings arose from the famous 1947 Polo Grounds final in New York.

Then GAA general secretary Pádraig Ó Caoimh was one of the original directors of the National Film Institute of Ireland (the forerunner of the IFI) when it was established in 1945.

It’s not necessary to go through the slightly chaotic fashion in which the 1947 All-Ireland ended up being played in the USA to commemorate the centenary of the Famine but it led to a realisation there was a big audience for Gaelic games highlights.

Ó Caoimh observed as much when the 10-minute highlights package filmed by New York production company Winik, and which begins the coverage on the current DVD, played to huge crowds in cinemas around the country. It was this that prompted him to facilitate access to All-Irelands so that the NFI could produce similar highlights films each year.

For more than a decade these productions became the only consistently recorded moving images of the GAA’s big match days. The initial camera work was the work of Georg Fleischmann (whose name is dutifully rendered in Gaelic script in the credits for one of the years’ finals – in the tradition of Simon Axworthy, the Cavan player whose name his then manager Eugene McGee had to struggle to translate for match programme printers).

In these sometimes disjointed recordings (the camera was able to load only two minutes of film at a time) is a wealth of history and personalities, who are part of the game’s fabric, can be seen and in some cases an idea of their greatness gleaned from the limited glimpses. Bill Doonan of Cavan is commended by Micheál O’Hehir for “a magnificent clearance”.

Doonan is remembered in Breandán Ó hEithir’s Over The Baras summing up the GAA when as radio operator (on the other side of the war to Fleischmann) he disappears during the battle of Monte Cassino only to be discovered up a tree tuned in to the 1943 All-Ireland final.

One of the umpires is identified as Gerry Arthurs, the long-serving Ulster Council secretary (1934-76) after whom the stand in Clones is named. This was presumably part of the same cost-cutting agenda that had Arthurs’s colleague Leinster secretary Martin O’Neill refereeing the match, as it would save on the cost of bringing out an additional official. O’Neill was a respected referee (and had coincidentally officiated at finals won by both Cavan and Kerry) but by 1947 had retired.

Matches pass into history and legend and the sense of contemporary excitement can be lost when watching the footage over 60 years later but the early crisis for Cavan in the Polo Grounds final impresses – O’Hehir observes, “many fans were wondering how Cavan got to the final”.

Throughout the DVD Ó Caoimh’s understanding of the role of the films is clear with ringing declarations by Ó hEithir at the preamble to each year, scripted to underline the GAA’s view of itself – as can be heard in the scene setting for the Mayo-Louth final.

“In the 1880s the Gaelic Athletic Association is founded with the fostering of Ireland’s games as one of its chief objects. It is an association destined to play a major part in the life of the country. Time and endeavour have deemed that now in 1950 the GAA occupies a leading place in the life of the nation.”

One aspect of the games in those years is the frequency with which contemporary players act as referees (not in the modern sense but as actual match officials). Simon Deignan plays for Cavan in 1947 and ’48 and then referees the 1950 final.

Peter McDermott, Meath’s “Man with the Cap” who passed away only a few months ago, plays in his county’s first All-Ireland win in 1949, referees the 1953 final and is back a year later to play his part when Meath defeat Kerry. In ’53 his linesmen are Dublin players Des Ferguson and Norman Allen. One of the umpires is Willie Goodison, who played on the last Wexford team to win a Leinster title (in 1945) and who referees the famous final of two years later.

The raw materials of history can sometimes appear underwhelming. The 1955 final between Dublin and Kerry, widely seen as the starting point for the great modern rivalry, is shorn of context. There’s no reference to Dublin’s reputed “scientific football” nor can there be any inkling of how that victory remains one of the most loved of the county’s achievements.

We do see the seminal figure of Dr Eamonn O’Sullivan, who coached Kerry to eight All-Irelands between 1924 and 62, slipping out onto the field for what was to be the ultimate vindication of his traditional, fixed-position tactics. The man who was most influenced by the final, Kevin Heffernan, is playing in a misfiring Dublin attack and who 21 years later will finally have his revenge.

Heffernan and team-mates from the era Paddy O’Flaherty, Jim Crowley, Mick Moylan, Seán “Yank” Murray, Cyril Freaney, Cathal O’Leary, Norman Allen and Johnny Joyce all attended the launch of the DVDs earlier this month. Heffernan’s successor, Pat Gilroy, was also in attendance with the latest of Dublin’s Sam Maguires, bridging a 16-year gap just as the county did in 1958.

It mightn’t have the drama and resonance of Bill Doonan in the upper branches of his tree but that launch also sums up the GAA. Croke Park is changed completely since the golden age of the 1950s when attendance records were set and surpassed but the presence of different generations of players testifies to the continuity.

Their deeds and those of their contemporaries have been preserved for all to see and the life force of the games and their history endures.