Colourful nonconformist Shane Curran always ready to think outside the box
Veteran goalkeeper’s story of life inside and outside the GAA in Roscommon makes for a fascinating autobiography
Shane Curran, right, and Damien Kelleher celebrate St Brigid’s victory over Ballymun Kickhams in the All-Ireland senior club football final at Croke Park. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
1971 is celebrated as a year of rare vintages – the prized Petrus in Bordeaux, the Brora single malt from the Douglas Laing distillery and, in the outskirts of Castlerea, a ginger youngster named Shane “Cake” Curran was born – he became probably the most uninhibited and certainly the most talkative Gaelic footballer to emerge from the haze of Charles Haughey’s Ireland.
This year he must be, at 43, the oldest man playing senior club football in Ireland. He will line out again for St Brigid’s in the Roscommon senior final on Sunday week, his fourth final since turning 40. He says his place is under pressure now from Shane Mannion, a cousin of Dublin footballer Paul Mannion and the Roscommon minor goalkeeper for the past three seasons.
But he doesn’t appear too worried about it either. Curran is an irrepressible bundle of contradictions. He is warm and easygoing but constantly buzzing, plotting, thinking. He is sharp as a tack but conspired to fail the Leaving Certificate and cheerfully admits that accidentally blowing up the science laboratory of Castlerea Vocational with misappropriated chemicals was his chief contribution to Irish education. He is ostensibly one of the victims of the building boom but never stopped smiling.
“It was cracked,” he assures you of that period. “Jesus, it was cracked. It was cracked stuff, now. It wasn’t a construction business as much as a destruction business. There was a 20-day working month. I can honestly say I didn’t have to work more than four, five hours a week. It was a party. It was great crack, like.
“The work was simple. I used to go around the small towns and villages and these estates going up left, right and centre. Cootehall! Tulsk! Frenchpark! Where were all the people going to come from? I remember saying to someone around 2004: ‘this thing is going to fu**ing blow up sometime. But hopefully not in the next 12 years and we will get a good touch out of it’.
“I was dabbling meself in property and you no more had a few pound made than you spent it on something else. And look, it did cause a lot of destruction. It has ruined lives. A lot of good people have . . . killed themselves on the back of pressure from banks and from having been high-fliers and not being able to cope with life on Mean Street. Money was too easy to get.
“I was two years in before I realised it. I remember this fella owed us a couple of hundred thousand . . . there was a better chance to get a 747 to come down O’Connell Street. He was gone: finished. It was like a tap that just dried up. People getting liquidated left, right and centre.”
Everything about Curran is in there: the energy, the humour, the sharp eye, the implicit understanding and a refusal to be beaten down. Curran is resolutely optimistic and forward thinking and yet, in outlook and reference points, is rooted the Ireland of his childhood, when 1970s Roscommon was still populated by living, breathing figures from the 1943/44 All-Ireland winning Primrose teams.
Larry Cummins, corner back on those teams, worked with his father in the power house of the psychiatric hospital.
“Everyone deferred to him, not just the men in the engine room but the medical staff and patients too – doctors, administrators, everyone.”
He was at the perfect age to be influenced by the aura which winning an All-Ireland medal can carry in counties where that feat is singularly rare. Stories of the county’s golden age must have fuelled his own ambitions when he wore Roscommon colours through more prosaic years, which he captures vividly along with the writer Tommy Conlon in his richly entertaining autobiography, Cake.
If you are going to write your life story, it helps to have the patent on one of the all-time great GAA stories and Curran’s first real brush with notoriety is just that. He made national headlines in the most unlikely theatre – the 1989 Connacht minor football final, in which Roscommon and Galway met in MacHale Park.
The Rossies were a point down in the last minute and were awarded a penalty. Jimmy Finnegan, the manager, indicated that Roscommon’s free taker Peader Glennon should pop it over the bar. Curran was unhappy: a dashing and free-spirited forward in those days, he wanted to go for broke. Lorcan Dowd, Roscommon’s best player, had been sent off and Curran doubted they would win the replay without him.
Glennon placed the ball and went through his free-taking routine. Galway’s Seán Óg de Paor, standing beside Curran, said to nobody in particular that the ball was going over the bar. “It’s not going over the fu**ing bar,” Cake advised him. “Watch this!” And overcome with divine inspiration, he dashed past Glennon and walloped a shot which flew past the stunned Galway goalkeeper for the most unexpected goal of the decade.
Only Seán Kilfeather, there to cover the senior match for The Irish Times, noticed what happened next. “The referee recovered the ball from the net, placed it on the penalty line and crossed his arms in a gesture which nobody understood. He then took the ball and ran from the field, hotly pursued by the several Galway players who believed he had awarded the score.”
That belief was general. The ecstatic Roscommon teenagers were presented with the cup, watched the senior final – which ended in a draw – and made their way to the Travellers Friend for a victory banquet. Soup had hardly been served when two delegates from the Connacht Council materialised – “blazers and good bellies and red faces on them”, Curran recalls in the book – and without any explanation took the cup and left the room.
It turned out the besieged referee had produced what Kilfeather described as “the fastest referee’s report in the history of the game”. He had decided, because free-taker Glennon had been standing within 13 metres of the ball when Curran hit it, the score must be disallowed. The team headed back to Castlerea, literally in the dark, where they were hailed as martyrs. They were in Fitzmaurice’s pub when the nine o’clock news came on and Curran was shocked to see it was the lead story. “This was when the IRA was going fairly well. You wouldn’t expect it.”
The outrage – and fun – was only beginning. Roscommon was up in arms. Everyone wanted to solicit Curran’s view on the matter. “I wanted to just hide at that stage. My mother was besieged at the house so we went to a disco on the Sunday night. Then there was a rally at the Hyde. The senior team were threatening to pull out of their replay in solidarity.”
Galway offered a replay: Roscommon won it thanks to a last-minute goal from Eddie Ennis, a young player Curran has never met since.” It was the 25th year anniversary of that episode this year,” he marvels now. That story somehow contains the kaleidoscope of all the glories and perversities which are the life blood of the GAA – the passion, melodrama and sheer bedlam running concurrently with precise and obscure rules.
“I didn’t think about it that way but yeah, the politics and the drama and the bullshit,” Curran says, buttering toast on a damp morning in the Hodson Bay hotel. “I do think similar incidents could still happen. To a certain extent you don’t understand it or want to understand it. And I suppose it has defined my career to a degree.”
It certainly made him a household name around Connacht, as if the flame hair and flamboyant attacking style were not enough. The book is piercing on the pure brutality habitually meted out on Gaelic fields in the late 1980s. The atmosphere at club games is described as “toxic” and in one passage Curran describes a sickening incident in which a team-mate was so badly injured by a thump off the ball that he never played the game again.
But kids like Curran were fair game. Eamonn Sweeney of the Sunday Independent recently wrote a wonderful description of Curran’s fondness for embellishing his attacks with off-the-cuff commentaries a la John Motson, even as he was on the ball. It may at least partly explain why so many leaden-footed, ageing defenders felt the urge to hit him a clip.
“It was thuggery,” he says seriously. . . There is a parochial level of jealousies that it is a part of Irish life, be it sport, politics or business. If certain people don’t measure up to skills or standards, they will find a way of trying to down you. . .
“I do think the GAA has changed – although when you see what happened to Paul Galvin you would wonder. In the late 1980s though, there was a lot of pure . . . thuggery is the only word. It was ugly. There were guys masquerading as footballers who just wanted to take guys out of it. I would have been one of the better players in Roscommon then and the level of dogging you got was unnatural – auld thumps around the back of the head, no manliness to it. . . . And in my mid-20s I lost my edge. I couldn’t get up for a game. Referees seemed to take delight in seeing you bet around the place. And if you did retaliate then they would take greater delight in showing you a red card.”
The constant attrition may have helped his move to goalkeeper, his first choice as a soccer player with Athlone Town. And it was from there he acquired the flair for eccentricity that culminated in the famous tribute by the comic actor (and former Roscommon minor goalkeeper) Chris O’Dowd: “He was gangbusters.” He brought to keeping goal in wintry National League games the kind of manic energy which Robin Williams brought to big screen movies. On his day, Curran could tower over the occasion itself, with disguised kick-outs, alarming sallies upfield with the ball and spectacular saves .
His closing act in last year’s Connacht club final was the quintessence of Cake-ness: a burst up to the 50-yard line with the ball where he is clattered by Richie Feeney and pulls a hamstring, a fast hobble back to goal where seconds later he executes a sensational diving save which does for his other hamstring and sees him collapse in agony and, after prolonged attention, is unceremoniously carted over the end line by a combination of players and officials with such lack of due care that those watching must have feared he had expired.
Curran accepts his approach is unusual but is earnest in his explanation that it was never for show. “See, anything that is different is seen to be off the wall or mad. I scored a 1-1 in the championship in 2004. I think I am still the only goalkeeper to score a goal in the All-Ireland championship. I saw an article afterwards in which the journalist was saying that this was just wrong, immoral: to have the temerity to kick scores. Six years later and Stephen Cluxton is doing it and it is applauded. Rightly so!
“The game will change and the goalkeeper’s role will change. You will see far more goalkeepers doing what I was doing then. In 10 years’ time you may not see a dedicated goalkeeper in Gaelic football – and you certainly won’t see one in hurling. People say my style is mad and eccentric but analyse it or talk to managers and I have never really cost my teams scores.”
He won a Connacht senior medal in 2001 when Gerry Lohan scored a last-minute goal for Roscommon. But Curran’s book is a portrait of life with the underdog and is brilliant on the stink and security of the dressingrooms where he has served so long. There are times when the hurt of losing with Roscommon can be plainly heard on the page and Curran is terrific when describing his frustrations at seeing the talents of team-mates going unnoticed, particularly Frankie Dolan.
“He would be held in the same regard as the Gooch. Absolutely. The greatest players I ever played with were Pádraic Joyce and Frankie. I remember going back 30 years ago two great hurlers in Roscommon: Tommy Dolan and Frank Carthy. Brilliant stick men who made Railway Cup teams when Galway won All-Irelands. Had they been born in Kilkenny, everyone would know them. Had Henry Shefflin been born in Roscommon, who would know about him? He would still be an outstanding hurler but wouldn’t have 10 All-Irelands. And I think the same argument can be made for Frankie and a couple of other players who are just genius with a football . .”
Anyone who knows the rough trajectory of Dolan’s career will understand the sense of manifest destiny about his nerveless late score which secured the All-Ireland club championship for St Brigids in 2013. That long march included an unblinking semi-final collision with Crossmaglen, the standard-bearers of club football.
Curran’s influence was immense in both a positive and negative sense: he followed a virtuoso moment of goalkeeping improvisation by goading Kyle Carragher until the young Crossmaglen forward snapped and punched him and was promptly dismissed.
I could be argued that what Curran did was just as reprehensible in its own way as the kind of intimidation worked on him 20 years ago. He will argue it has to be set against the context of a sporting lifetime spent watching the other guys win.
“I don’t care if he was 14,” he says. “It doesn’t matter. Okay, you are picking on a cub but not in a way that is going to destroy his life with a box in the jaw or something like that. Sometimes you say things in games you wish you didn’t have to say. But it gives you that extra cut or edge.
“When you have been a loser for so long, that edge hardens. You can’t condone it. But it is warrior stuff. I got a lot of criticism around the county here from ex-players saying I shouldn’t have done what I did. When he did hit me – I may say not hard but enough to put me down – you are lying there with one eye open. Two minutes have passed, they are down to 14 and you are in the dying embers of the game . . . I would apologise to nobody for it because it may have been the difference between us winning and losing.”
His only clear recollection of the aftermath of the match is of his wife Sharon approaching him in tears of joy and of Aaron Kernan facing a few irate Cross’ men who wanted words – and possibly more. “The Crossmaglen boys were brilliant, so magnanimous,” he says now.
That win – along with Kevin McStay – steeled them into believing they could be champions of Ireland. The rise of St Brigid’s ran parallel with the end of Curran’s property business and the advent of a new idea which literally dropped from the sky and now has a global potential. Through it all, his spirits never dipped. “You’d wonder at times how we got through it but I’ve a great wife and parents and if you are healthy, you can move forward and . . . I don’t take life all too serious.”
At lunch time, he moves on, to go for a swim, make calls and organise a book launch in the Hodson Bay – ideally on the night of the county final. “It should be a good night,” he promises. You forget to ask Cake Curran if he’s a maniac on the dance floor. But you can probably guess.
Cake by Shane Curran (with Tommy Conlon) is published by Penguin Ireland (€16.99) and is on sale now.