Cavan and Monaghan: a bitter rivalry dug deep into the land

For as long as there has been football, there has been enmity between counties


Even allowing for the usual vagaries, the 1995 Ulster Championship was a spin-the-wheel job. Down came into it as All-Ireland champions and were finished for the year before May was out. Derry were favourites for Sam until they fell to 13-man Tyrone. Having beaten Down by six points – and instantly become All-Ireland favourites themselves – Donegal melted next day out to a hiding from Monaghan. Anarchy went into bat and took guard for a long, untroubled innings.

Heading into the Ulster semi-final against Cavan, therefore, it wasn’t like Monaghan hadn’t been given fair warning. Everyone was talking about the possibility of a Cavan ambush. The problem was getting someone to listen.

The pupil-popping high of beating Donegal got mixed in with the fact that Cavan hadn’t beaten them in their last four attempts – the longest streak of Monaghan dominance over their neighbours since the 1920s. As Cavan goalkeeper Paul O’Dowd remarked with pure glee afterwards, “Monaghan thought they were in the All-Ireland final”.

Harooing crowd

Soundtracked by what Seán Moran called “a great harooing crowd of Cavan people”, the underdogs bit and tore Monaghan’s year to chunks. That they went on to lose the Ulster final is probably worth a mention. But you wouldn’t want to overstate it either.

“A member of my own club,” remembers Cahill, “an elderly gentleman from Cross[-Mullagh], ran into me the Sunday after we lost the Ulster final. He met me coming out of the chapel after Mass and took me by the elbow. ‘Don’t have a long face on you, young Cahill,’ he said. ‘It was a good summer. We got the hay in and them f**kers from Monaghan was bet.’”

In the pantheon of great GAA rivalries, Cavan and Monaghan wouldn’t be minded to make any grand claims for theirs. Mostly, that’s because their interest in what the outside world makes of the occasional skirmish between them would be limited in the extreme. They haven’t met in an Ulster final since 1952 and for most of the intervening period, they’ve been two bald men fighting over a comb. But Homer made The Iliad from such a local row.

Cavan and Monaghan hold the record for the number of draws between two counties in championship football. They’ve met 54 times – 27 wins for Cavan, 14 for Monaghan, 13 draws. For context, Cork and Kerry hold the record for matches played at 111 but have only finished level 11 times.

That said, numbers don’t reveal very much of anything about the flavour of the rivalry. It’s more dug into the land than scrawled onto scoreboards. Denis Carolan’s History of Monaghan 1660-1860 refers to intercounty football matches going back to the late 1700s. “Large crowds attended and great excitement prevailed over the district affected,” Carolan wrote. “These games were very coarsely played and many permanent injuries were received at them.”

Plus ça change, as they say out around Shercock and Carrick. For as long as there has been football, there has been enmity between the counties. Maghera (Cavan) beat Inniskeen (Monaghan) in the first Ulster final in 1888, although it took three games to find a winner, the first of them scoreless. Though the GAA in Ulster first took root in Cavan, it was a pair of Monaghan administrators – Eoin O’Duffy and JP Whelan – that modernised the Ulster Council in the 1910s.

Invited a Nazi

General Franco

Cavan beat Monaghan in Clones by a point but a Monaghan goal was apparently disallowed by Cavan umpires. On top of that, Monaghan supporters were in high dudgeon afterwards about the encroachment of Cavan fans onto the pitch while Monaghan had the ball. O’Duffy, who was Ulster secretary at the time, demanded the result be overturned at the next meeting of the Ulster Council.

The Cavan delegates, not unreasonably, told him what he could do with his demands and refused to send anyone to the meeting. They didn’t bargain on Whelan, in his role as Ulster president, approving O’Duffy’s request and awarding the title to Monaghan. The brazenness of the stroke from the two Monaghan men earned them a rebuke from Central Council, who overruled them and declared Cavan champions.

The row very nearly had far-reaching consequences. Cavan wanted the two Monaghan men kicked out of the Ulster Council on account of their rank and obvious bias but O’Duffy and Whelan dug in and kept their posts. So enraged were Cavan by this that they tried to break away and set up a fifth GAA province.

They invited Meath, Louth, Westmeath and Longford to join them and proposed to call it Tara. It didn’t fly in the end but it’s as close as the GAA has come to genuine structural change in all of its 131 years. All because Cavan and Monaghan couldn’t play nice.

On the pitch, they were peers for a while in those early days but from the 1930s onwards, Cavan soon put clear water between them. Monaghan didn’t win a single game against their neighbours between 1932 and 1988, during which time Cavan won their five All-Irelands. Monaghan, by piffling contrast, have been in one All-Ireland final ever. It gets mentioned.

“The goading is relentless,” says Nudie Hughes. “When we were going well in the ’80s and winning a first Ulster title for 41 years, all you heard from Cavan people was their glory years. You’re never let forget it. You’re standing up one end of the pitch waiting on the ball to come down to you and all you’re hearing is, ‘How many All-Irelands have you?’

“This was from boys who weren’t even born when Cavan were winning All-Irelands. They mightn’t even have been born the last time they won Ulster. But that glory years stuff is in their DNA. Those Cavan people will always have that over Monaghan people until Monaghan win an All-Ireland. Even though it’s all past tense, their ancestors have five All-Irelands and that’s the beginning and end of all conversations as far as they’re concerned.”

The incidents have been legion through the years. In 1924, the Monaghan crowd rushed the press table and knocked it flying. In 1958, supporters from both sides chased the referee into the dressing room after a drawn replay, causing him to cancel extra-time and order up a third match to separate the sides. Games in the ’80s and ’90s broiled with tension and stray boots and elbows.

Physically marked

Eugene Kearns

“My first game for Cavan,” remembers Cahill, “I was playing on Ciaran Murray who had won an All Star only a year or two before. I got a great punch that day off my own man, Jim Reilly. Ciaran’s reflexes were better than mine and he was able to duck out of the way and Jim caught me full in the face. Players like Declan Loughman would absolutely eat you without salt. You got tough or you got killed.”

If the quality was never overly high, the ache for a result was constant. Monaghan arrived in Breffni Park in 1987 considered as one of the five best teams in the country only to lose by a couple of points. Hughes nearly got trampled in the rush of supporters onto the pitch afterwards.

A year later, he was carried shoulder high from the pitch in Clones as they finally ended a 66-year wait for a victory against them. Shoulder high after an Ulster first-round match on May 22nd. Madness.

“That’s what it meant to beat your neighbour,” he says. “Often, it didn’t matter what happened for the rest of the summer. You could be walking off the pitch thinking, ‘Well, we might not win Ulster but at least now they won’t either.’ That was the big thing, even in the years when we didn’t meet each other – who was going to be knocked out first?

“The Ulster title means nothing this Sunday. You’re playing for pride. You’re playing for your history, your heritage and your people. You’re playing to keep your neighbour down. That’s the long and short of it. This is Ulster Championship, yes. But on Sunday, it’s not the Ulster title they’re going for.

“This is what it’s about. It’s about putting your own imprint on the history books, to be able to say long into the future when people look back that we, the 2015 generation of footballers, we beat Cavan. We did our bit, just as we did in 2013. We were fortunate to get away with it in 2013 but that doesn’t matter – the result is the result. Monaghan will take that again on Sunday.”

The day after the 1995 game, Cahill started a new job in Monaghan town as a financial advisor. Midway through his first morning, a client came in and started making small talk with one of his colleagues, oblivious to the new recruit sitting a few feet away.

“Well, what did you think of the match?”

“Ach, we’d have been alright if it wasn’t for that f**ker Cahill.”

And the Cavan man laughed, revelling in the only sort of compliment that counts for anything between the two tribes. Back-handed, unwitting and totally, brutally sincere.

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