Pride, passion and a bit of madness - football runs through Cavan’s soul

To understand Cavan people, football is the only starting place that makes sense

Cavan merchandise on sale in Cavan Retail Park in advance of Saturday's Dublin v Cavan game. Photo: Crispin Rodwell/The Irish Times

Cavan merchandise on sale in Cavan Retail Park in advance of Saturday's Dublin v Cavan game. Photo: Crispin Rodwell/The Irish Times

 

To understand Cavan people, football is the only starting place that makes sense. And even at that, information is no guarantee of enlightenment. There may well be Cavan people who don’t like football but there are none who ignore it. It would be like ignoring water.

Hugh Hourican runs The Boar’s Head bar in Dublin city centre. It’s right on the Luas line, taking up the corner between Capel Street and Mary’s Abbey. For GAA people, it is known far and wide as a non-denominational space, a haven where you’ll get a welcome regardless of jersey colour or prejudice of birth. Most of the time.

“I have had great fun here with players from Kerry and Dublin and everywhere else,” Hourican laughs in a week where he’s finally getting to open his doors again. “And I would put any flag up outside the pub for any group of supporters. But there’s no Dublin flags up here this week. No way. Cavan people are never afraid to show our colours or our pride.”

In this week of weeks, to describe Hourican as being in his element would be to low-ball it by a good distance. He is the high chief of Cavanalia, the first and last word on what it means to be a Cavan football person. Give him a broad question and he’ll find a way to wrap a nutshell around his answer. Eventually. Best just to wind him up and let him go.

“Pride, passion and a bit of madness,” he says. “That’s what it means in Cavan. Wait till I tell you a story. Thomas Galligan’s father Jimmy is a referee. Doesn’t believe in cards. Yellow cards, red cards, black cards, none of them.

“One time he was refereeing a league final and the county board chairman had to go out to him at half-time and tell him to blow the f**kin’ whistle once in a while. I rang him that night and said, ‘Jimmy, I heard you didn’t do a great job today. Where were the cards?’ And he says, ‘Aw, sure I left them at home for the children to play with.’

Cavan’s Hugh Hourican at The Boar’s Head Pub. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Cavan’s Hugh Hourican at The Boar’s Head Pub. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

“I talked to him the week after the Ulster final and he told me about Thomas that Sunday morning. Thomas was up early, bouncing around the house, lepping and jumping around the place telling his mother and father what he was going to do on the day. All the ball he was going to catch and all the rest of it.

“They rang his brother James in Singapore and they had him up on the laptop. Now, any final Thomas has ever played in, he got Man of the Match, be it club, minors, schools, whatever it was. And so Thomas says to Jimmy, ‘It’ll happen again, wait till you see, I’ll be Man of the Match again today.’

“So Jimmy says, ‘Fair enough, wait there.’ And he went into the living room and got a trophy off the mantelpiece and they did an award ceremony there and then for his brother in Singapore, presenting him with Man of the Match. This is at nine o’clock in the morning. The game wasn’t till four o’clock! Thomas made a speech and everything.”

Generations

Pride, passion, the bit of madness. It has been there in them down the generations. Cavan historian Brian McCabe has found reports of football being played in the county long before the setting up of the GAA.

It will surprise none of their neighbours to find that, “These (mainly oral) accounts seem to concentrate more on the physical aspects of the sport - and particularly its toughness - than on the progress, or even the results, of the contests concerned.”

In his essay The Road To The Star-Spangled Final: Gaelic Football In Cavan, McCabe writes that the first club in Ulster was founded in Cavan either in late 1885 or early 1886. The Ballyconnell JG Biggars were named after the local Member of Parliament. The founder of the club was Thomas O’Reilly, another political mover and shaker who would go on to become a member of Bawnboy District Council and chairman of Cavan County Council.

Bawnboy is a tiny village, a turn in the road between Ballyconnell and Swanlinbar. It’s one of those places on the border with Fermanagh where the strength of your phone signal might depend on the weather one day and maybe just the mood of the Slieve Russell mountain the next.

Pupils from sixth class in St Patrick's N.S. in Shercock at their classroom window which has been decorated for Saturday's Dublin v Cavan game. Photo: Crispin Rodwell/The Irish Times
Pupils from sixth class in St Patrick's N.S. in Shercock at their classroom window which has been decorated for Saturday's Dublin v Cavan game. Photo: Crispin Rodwell/The Irish Times

As well as providing the first ever founder of a GAA club in Ulster, it was also the birthplace around four decades later of Marion Collins.

Marion is 93-years-old now and among the many things she accomplished in her life, she also happens to be the grandmother of the golfing Maguire twins of Ballyconnell. In June 2018, Leona and Lisa Maguire were making their LPGA debut at the Shoprite Classic in Galloway, New Jersey when what do they see only a troupe of royal blue GAA jerseys with Kingspan logos standing outside the ropes.

“We didn’t know them from Adam,” says Leona, “but their mother had grown up in Bawnboy. So they knew our granny was from Bawnboy or they had seen it on some sort of Cavan group on Facebook or something. They knew nothing about golf but they came down in Cavan jerseys waving a Cavan flag. It was just surreal to be walking down the fairway so far from home and see these jerseys.

“And when I was talking to Mam afterwards and told her their names, she was like, ‘Aw, they’re so-and-so from down the road. Sure you know them.’ And I was thinking, ‘Em, well they live in New Jersey…’ But you’ll always run into Cavan people somewhere. And there’ll always be a football connection.”

Like all kids in Cavan, Maguire twins grew up with football. Their father Declan coached teams in the school and the local club and brought them everywhere to watch games. When they were in their early teens, their achievements were such that they always ended up doing the rounds of the end-of-year sports awards.

Cavan fans in Clones in 2019. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Cavan fans in Clones in 2019. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

But they were kids so they obviously couldn’t go alone. And though it was lovely to be asked to go, it still meant long nights and loads of speeches and a drive home in the dark to Cavan afterwards. Declan Maguire found his own way to deal.

“The big thing for Dad going to these things wasn’t even whether we’d win anything or not,” Leona says. “It was that he got to meet all these great GAA people. He’d meet Mick O’Dwyer or Brian Cody and he’d be there talking to them the whole time. I remember he met Micko one time and Micko was going, ‘They’re getting good at the golf, mind their hands now, mind their hands.’ So once Mick O’Dwyer said that to Dad, that was good enough for him.

Anytime I ring home these days, I get a lowdown on all the GAA results, whether I ask or not

“Dad wouldn’t have been delighted to be having to go to all these awards shows. The novelty would wear off a bit after a while. But as long as he was sitting near a GAA person, it wouldn’t matter if they were from Kerry or Donegal or wherever. He’d be straight in going, ‘Well, what are their chances next year? What was yer man at? God, the ref was awful hard on yis.’”

Cavan is history, Cavan is lore. Cavan is breeding and glory and success long ago. They have 40 Ulster titles now, Monaghan are next on 16. They have five All-Irelands, the joint-most of any Ulster county. Down have five as well but they’ve only been to six All-Ireland finals. Cavan have been to 11.

“It’s so embedded into the culture,” says Josh McClorey, former lead singer of Cavan band The Strypes. “In places like Cavan, where people live and breathe GAA, you grow up not really knowing a time when football isn’t prevalent. Even for somebody like me where music is absolutely my life, football is still everywhere. With a place like Cavan, where we hadn’t won Ulster since I was one-year-old, there’s that longing for it.

“And even with an All-Ireland you have to go away back about 70 years or whatever. But there’s such a rich history there and such a specific history. Every kid in Cavan grows up hearing about the Polo Grounds and you always have that weird kind of feeling that history matters. That there is always a chance that history might repeat itself.”

For a few years there, The Strypes were the next big Irish rock band. They put out three blinding albums, the first two while still in their teens. They played support to everyone from The Killers to Foo Fighters to the Arctic Monkeys. They lived in a world about as far removed from Breffni Park as you could imagine. But it was still a touchstone, always.

“We often used to say that support we got from people in Cavan was as if we were county players. That’s always how I would have looked at it. People were so lovely and so encouraging and genuinely we used to look at each other and go, ‘This must be what it’s like to be a county player.’ And even at that, we would never have got near what they’ve experienced over the last couple of weeks. And deservedly so!”

The Strypes parted ways in 2018 and McClorey has been finding his own path in the two years since. He moved to London in 2019 and found his attachment to the Cavan football team deepening with distance. The pandemic brought him home to live with his parents again so he has lived and breathed this campaign as a totally unexpected delight.

Separation

Cavan is small. There are virtually no degrees of separation. McClorey has known Luke Fortune since they were five-years-old, Thomas Galligan was a year ahead of him in school. Leona Maguire used to sit in the stands with Danielle and Louise McKiernan, older sisters of Gearóid, who her father coached.

“Even now,” Leona says, “if you ask Dad about how a Cavan match went, he wouldn’t be long into it before he starts saying, ‘And Gearoid did this and Gearoid did that.’ He’d be comparing him to what he did in a mini-sevens when he was 12 or whatever.

“Anytime I ring home these days, I get a lowdown on all the GAA results, whether I ask or not. Who played well and who didn’t and all the rest of it. And a lot of the time, even when I’m playing, Dad will use all these analogies that will refer back to GAA. If he’s telling me to be patient, he’ll go on about some match in the past where such and such a team or such and such a manager lost three finals before they ever won one. It all comes back to football in Cavan.”

Cavan fans celebrate their 1997 Ulster final win. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Cavan fans celebrate their 1997 Ulster final win. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Always has. The most famous passage in the most famous GAA book of all time concerns Bill Doonan, who won an All-Ireland minor title with Cavan in 1938 but left home at the age of 22 before he could be called up to play senior, heading off to fight in World War II. When Breandan Ó hEithir was looking for an anecdote to finish out his 1984 classic Over The Bar, it was Bill Doonan’s story he told.

“In the autumn of 1943,” he wrote, “the war in Southern Italy raged and Bill Doonan was radio operator with his unit, One Sunday afternoon in September he was no longer to be seen. He vanished as if the ground had swallowed him. It was considered unlikely that he had been shot as there was a lull in hostilities at the time.

“It was a mystery. A search was mounted and they found him at last. Even when they did, they found it difficult to attract his attention. He was up a tree on the side of a steep hill and seemed to be in a trance. And, in a way, he was, for after much effort and experimentation, Private Doonan had eventually homed in on the commentary of the second-half of the All-Ireland football final between Roscommon and Cavan from Croke Park.”

But though the people left, football remained a core part of life

Pride, passion, the bit of madness. Doonan came home in time and played corner-back in the Polo Grounds in 1947. The wing-back who played in front of him was John Wilson, who went on to be a TD for two decades, a minister in seven different departments and Tánaiste between 1990 and 1993. Wilson was a Gonzaga-educated classicist and polyglot with a gift for oratory, who wore his Cavan and Mullahoran background like a sergeant’s stripes.

In Paul Fitzpatrick’s wonderful book on the Polo Grounds match, The Fairytale In New York, the story is told of a Mullahoran match that got out of order one time that led to the club being faced with fines and suspensions the like of which no club had never seen or been threatened with. Nothing would do but they had to get their best man in to plead their case.

“Faced by a hostile room of delegates and officials and given little hope of earning a reprieve for his club,” Fitzpatrick writes, “Wilson took off, speaking at length, as Gaeilge, on the situation. Mullahoran were innocent, he said, of the charges. They were simple people, just playing a game, keeping a tradition alive…

“The mood changed in the room. To sum up, he delivered the matador’s final thrust. ‘Who dares,’ he asked, scanning the room, ‘to throw mud at the little whitewashed cottages of Mullahoran?’

“Case dismissed.”

Cavan’s last All-Ireland came in 1952 and the decades that followed were lean. Various reasons were put forth, chief among them being emigration. As Brian McCabe points out, Cavan had the fourth highest rate of population decline between 1946 and 1966. In just five years between ‘56 and ‘61 the county of Cavan lost almost nine per cent of its total population, with the greater part of them being aged between 18 and 35 and from the rural football strongholds.

But though the people left, football remained a core part of life. Though success was increasingly out of reach, the love for the game couldn’t get away that easy. Hourican grew up going here, there and everywhere for matches, whether Cavan were playing or not. It was just what you did.

Cavan players celebrate after their Ulster final win over Donegal. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Cavan players celebrate after their Ulster final win over Donegal. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

“The amount of Cavan people that used to travel to Munster finals to watch Cork and Kerry would amaze you,” he says. “It was a ritual that they would do every summer. It was a given, carloads of them heading off down to Killarney or to Cork. My father had a van and he used to put a couch in the back of it and seven or eight of them would get into it and head away off down to the Munster final every year. They went for years. Just because they were die-hard football fans and they wanted to see good football. I know plenty of Cavan people who still do it.”

They would have flooded the city today, of course. Dubs or no Dubs, six-in-a-row or no six-in-a-row. They’d have come up last night and The Boar’s Head would have run dry and they’d have gone to Croker in full cry, hupping and harooing away and flying their flags and putting the curse-a-Jaysus on the ref. Wherever they are at teatime this evening, they’ll be doing it all anyway.

Playing it the only way they know it. Proud, passionate and quite, quite mad.

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