Summer of ’69: When the city boys from Belfast brought All-Ireland glory to Antrim

 Séamus Killough, Liam Boyle, Gerry McCann, and Andy McCallin of the Antrim Under-21 team who won the 1969 All-Ireland Under-21 Football Championship pictured at Casement Park in Belfast. Photograph: Liam McBurney

Most evenings that summer, you’d see them outside the Florida after training; faces flushed, gear bags dumped at their feet, enjoying the dusk and the gossip. The cafe was just a few minutes walk from Casement Park and from their homes. They were local boys in a city that was about to turn molten and complex with violence even if, in 1969, nobody could have guessed at the black enormity the coming decades would hold.

Their world was still largely confined to the latticework of streets and cul-de-sacs encircled by the main thoroughfares of the Glen Road, Kennedy Way, Andersonstown Road and Shaw’s Road. “It’s like an island,” Andy McCallin says.

He grew up in a family of eight on the last house on Commedagh Drive. Andy was a wisp; slight, genius feet, prodigiously gifted at hurling and football and singularly devoted to practicing his craft. The elders reckoned he was better at hurling. The little drain holes in the low wall across from the McCallin house served as markers as he’d fire sliotars and footballs at them for hours, for days, for years.

“I had no choice,” Andy says sitting in his car and looking through the window at those same drain holes. It’s a crisp school day in early January: Commedagh is quiet and the sloping green nearby is empty. “My father was chairman of St John’s and, for me, he was the be all and end all.”

Andy would score 1-5 of Antrim’s total of 1-8 against Roscommon in the All-Ireland U-21 final that September. His mother would tell him that his father left Croke Park with tears running freely down his face. The man was overcome; overjoyed. He communicated this with his son the only way he knew how: by sitting him down at home to go through everything Andy had done wrong in the final.

The two words both speaker and listener were waiting on – Well Done – never came. Even now, McCallin can’t explain why that U-21 side came together and kept winning. Nobody was expecting it. Antrim were a non-entity. “That team,” Andy says “. . . it was a freak.”

It may be the only word for it. Antrim footballers had won 10 Ulster senior titles but nothing since 1951. They’d appeared and were defeated in the All-Ireland finals of 1910 and 1911. Other places were defining the winning of GAA competitions. Then, out of the blue, Tommy Hall got a squad together intent on making sure that, if nothing else, when the boys walked through the gates of Casement Park, the street noise would remain outside. For a couple of hours, they’d just play ball on a summer’s evening.

A derelict Casement Park in Belfast.
A derelict Casement Park in Belfast.

“It was an unwritten law,” Hall would tell the GAA’s oral history project in 2012, a few years before he died. “I got them all to mix. And I used to say if I wanted a packet of sweets, 10 would go. It became a good family situation.”

It was almost that anyhow. One third of the entire team had been knocking about as soon as they were old enough to leave the house. Gerry McCann, one of Andy’s best friends, lived on a terrace on Trostan Way. Daniel ‘Din Joe’ McGrogan was North Green: Liam Boyle lived parallel on Corby Way. Martin McGranaghan, whose family ran a chain of bookies, lived in a standalone house further up the Glen Road. It was, in spirit and in fact, a city team. Thirteen of the 15 players who started the All-Ireland final were from Belfast.

Even now, they’re not fully sure how they came to be selected. No official trials were held. They were just told to show up. So they did. The events of their first match, a preliminary round against Monaghan in Castleblaney are so obscured in their minds that none of them have the faintest memory of it. “Monaghan?” a perplexed Michael Colbert repeats down the phone when told that’s where the campaign had started. The others forgot about it too.

Outrage

Tommy Hall, though, would always see John Burns sprinting towards him a few minutes before the throw-in, his face lit with indignation. He’d overheard the Monaghan manager chatting with the Derry manager about where they’d play the next round. He was outraged at the slight. Hall smiled, pleased. Antrim ran riot that day. “It was,” Hall would say, “the spark that set the whole thing going.”

On paper, Antrim’s 1969 football odyssey was a litany of close run things: one-point wins over Derry, Down, Cork and Roscommon. Dermot Earley, the legend in full Technicolor even then, had an outstanding game in the final but Mickey Freyne screwed a late, long-range free narrowly wide as the Connacht men lost out by the narrowest margin. It was Antrim’s summer.

A clipping of the 1969 All-Ireland Under-21 Football Championship showing the Antrim team who went on to beat Roscommon. Courtesy of Séamus Killough.
A clipping of the 1969 All-Ireland Under-21 Football Championship showing the Antrim team who went on to beat Roscommon. Courtesy of Séamus Killough.

At the whistle, a fair section of the Antrim crowd jumped the wire on Croke Park and chaired Liam Boyle, the captain, off the field. They carried him towards the Hogan Stand singing ‘We Shall Overcome’, the civil rights anthem. Liam was too caught up in the moment to even hear them. “Someone told me afterwards. But it was one of those games that was so tight and at the end, when the whistle went, I wasn’t sure of the score. Gerry Neillis came over to me and just said: ‘We’ve won it’. We were hugging each other and the next thing I know I was being carried to the stand. But yeah, the Antrim crowd enjoyed it and didn’t worry about the rules and regulations too much that day.”

What the moment in Croke Park represented was the illusion of normalcy, the wilful pretence that their daily lives were the same as those of the boys whose counties they faced throughout that summer. Being flown to Cork for the semi-final was a jape; a first plane ride for most of the team and a good laugh. But the reality was that the flight was reportedly organised on the edict of taoiseach Jack Lynch to make it easier for the team to get to and from Belfast.

Their city had been transformed physically and in atmosphere within the space of 12 months and the emergence of 130 odd barricades and a Citizens Defence Committee was dominating the August news. Everyone was guarded. The buses didn’t run after six o’clock. All of the streets around Andersonstown were barricaded and manned each night.

Exotic trip

Andy McCallin had started going with Josephine in ’68. She lived a mile and a half down from his house and to see her that summer, he had to climb over the barricade and walk down the Falls Road. “With the army and everything else. And I will tell you! There’d be evenings when there would be nobody about. It was empty. There were people being shot on the Falls for no reason. Five nights a week.”

Through all that, they trained, they wandered up to the Florida and they kept on winning. They received a mayoral reception when they landed in Cork on that exotic plane trip: unusual treatment for an U-21 team; further evidence that they were, somehow, special. Their Cork hosts probably imagined that Antrim’s journey would end there. When they were about to go out on the field, Din Joe McGrogan must have noticed Tommy Hall looking pensive because he approached him to offer some of his uncontainable zest and energy. ‘

Sure I’ll score two goals today

“Don’t be worryin’,” he said breezily. “Sure I’ll score two goals today.” Antrim won by 3-7 to 1-12. Grogan scored two goals. It was after two o’clock in the morning when they got home. When Tommy Hall arrived at the street where he lived after the Cork semi-final, he rolled down the car window and was told: “Well done Tommy. Great win today. But you’re not getting in this way.” He was told to go around to Cavendish Square where he encountered the same thing. The simple act of driving home after a football match was impossible. He left the car on the Falls Road and told a few young lads to watch it until the morning.

It would be foolish to suggest that their win was celebrated across the city – the saffron flags flying – but in the GAA enclaves, the fact that an Antrim team was doing well was something to celebrate. On their team bus journeys or dressingrooms, there were never any conversations about the firing of houses, the killings on the streets or how any of them felt about it all. They belonged to the generation of Belfast citizens whose childhood in the 1950s had been peaceful and offered no hint of the next 30 years.

Gerry McCann.
Gerry McCann.

There was the odd incident – Gerry McCann remembers one day himself and Andy were climbing trees down near Musgrave. A group of lads happened on them and instructed them to get down and say the ‘Our Father’. The pair started their recitation, read each other’s eyes and instinctively knew what to do. “We ran,” Gerry laughs. “That was the one thing we knew how to do well.”

Fear and tension

For Andy McCallin, the most difficult years came later, when the army took over Casement. For Andy, the ground was ‘theirs’: a local theatre of glamour since he was a kid, helping the groundsman. To him, the Troubles became what they were for the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland: a daily low-grade source of tension and fear and inconvenience.

Once, on a black, dark night near Blacklion after a league game, he felt truly frightened when a car full of the team was stopped and asked for identification. They were wearing Sunday suits: their driver’s licences were at home. “In the jeans in the bedroom after the Saturday night.” They were told to go outside. “And they stood there pointing guns. And I never saw darkness like it in my life.” In that moment, he didn’t know if he’d make it to the next. But he did. They drove home, shaken. The next day came. “I have never been involved or interested in my life. All I was interested in was football and hurling. Me and Gerry didn’t know anything about it. You wouldn’t have known if your own brother was involved. You just wouldn’t have known. That’s the way it was.”

So that summer, the training, the championship, offered a bit of light relief. It wasn’t at all solemn. Their recollection of the matches is hazy; the fun stayed with them. Michael Culbert elected to skip the Ulster final so he could go on a hostel tour of Ireland with his girlfriend. “As you do,” he says drily. “Young love.”

He was dropped for the semi-final and came on as a substitute. “Not sure who I impressed because I hardly saw the ball. But I was back in for the final.” It was different then. They knew of other players by reputation or by what they read in the newspaper. The coverage was smaller so imagination took over. The players never thought too much about what was happening - what they were doing – until the night they found themselves in the hall in St Teresa’s with the Clarke Cup and this new fact that distinguished them: the first Antrim team to win an All-Ireland football championship.

That evening, they were entitled to predict a heady few years. But it never worked out that way. Some stayed immersed in the game – Andy McCallin would go on to become Antrim’s first and – so far – only football player to win an All-Star award in 1971. Both he and Gerry McCann are still deeply involved in their club, St John’s. Others faded out of sight.

Liam Boyle spent two decades in Seattle and has only recently returned home. Din Joe Grogan was killed when a bomb went off in a pub on the Andersonstown Road on a summer’s afternoon. Séamus Killough, the full back, graduated from Queen’s in dentistry and left the city. Billy Millar made a life in Canada. Aidan Hamill became head of the Northern Ireland Education Board. Jimmy Mullan disappeared entirely. Michael Culbert became a social worker and, ultimately a Republican activist who served 16 years in prison.

My politics evolved and probably climaxed in Bloody Sunday

“We all had our own backgrounds,” Culbert says now. “Take my family . . . my family was very pro-British. I am named after my grandfather who never came home from the first war. And my uncle Jack lived in Bombay Street and was burnt out of it. He had one arm – he lost the other in the first world war. So it is not as if I was raised in a Republican cauldron. But my politics evolved and probably climaxed in Bloody Sunday.

Andy McCallin.
Andy McCallin.

“There is never a one thing. Accumulatively, people come to their own conclusions about stuff. And I came to mine. I wasn’t a kid. I was a social worker, my wife a school teacher when I went to jail. I was nobody’s mug. I was no victim of circumstance. But the only thing we had in common on that team is that we were playing Gaelic football. What was happening was never part of our conversation. We just played.”

Out of their skins. And when the whistle blew in Croke Park, on September 14th, Antrim were champions of Ireland; a good news story at the end of a disturbing summer, a young team with it all ahead of them until, magically, inevitably, 50 years slipped by.

Childlike delight

Andy McCallin is already sitting in the social club in Casement Park when the others arrive. Raymond, who runs the bar, has served up coffee, a plate of kitkats, bakewell tarts. Normally, he doesn’t open until the evening but he has made an exception. Just after 11am, Liam Boyle, Gerry McCann and Séamus Killough dander in. “We’re out standin’ in the cold and youse in having coffee,” someone shouts.

McCann and McCallin see each other frequently but Andy hasn’t seen Liam in many, many years. He hasn’t seen Killough for a long time either. If you were to describe Séamus Killough’s face in repose, then ‘childlike delight’ is the only phrase. He’s a huge, genial, cheerful man, relishing sending himself up as the country bumpkin among slick Belfast kids. He’s plainly thrilled to see them all.

“I hadn’t seen this man for 40 years,” he says nodding towards Liam Boyle, “until I met him in a chemist in Ballycastle a few days ago. Now, I’m seeing him twice in a week. What’s going on?” And he fills the room – all of Casement, in fact – with this gargantuan laugh. The former team-mates are meeting up to try and make sense of what they achieved that summer. McCann and Boyle are still greyhound-slender, McCallin retains the efficient, elusive movement and Killough looks fresh-faced even if they are all in and around a landmark 70th year.

Seamus Killough.
Seamus Killough.

It’s clear none of them see age in each other, though. Once the coffee’s poured, they tear into it and one another, rifling through old newspaper clippings, momentarily stunned by the few photos from that summer they’ve managed to preserve and fuzzily trying to summon the bare bones of those games. In the empty lounge, the voices merge.

“Wasn’t it Fermanagh in the first round?”

“I remember Adrian McGuckin crying after the Derry game. They were some team.”

“Meself and Gerry and my younger brother went touring Ireland after the Fermanagh game.”

“Down had won the senior All-Ireland the year before. They had Colm McIlarney, Peter Rooney and a few more from the senior team. And we beat them by a point.”

“I was in Casement Park once ever before I played my first county match. And I remember being absolutely astounded by Jim McCorry from Glenade.”

“Jungle Jim”.

“I never saw legs the size of them in me life.”

“Gerry Donnell’s the only man I ever saw who’d go into a shower with a cigarette in his mouth and not get it wet.”

“This boy decided to stay on to do a Masters cos he didn’t want to leave Queen’s. So he came up with: Street Lighting in Belfast. Sure by 1972 there wasn’t a street light left.”

“The only thing different about the All-Ireland final is that we trained on the Saturday beforehand. Other than that, it was like any game.”

“I don’t remember us having tactics, really. Like what were the tactics?

“Get the ball to Andy.”

“It was like a bit of craic. There was never any pressure or tension that you see in teams now.”

Ye were bloody good footballers

“That was down to Din Joe. But in all seriousness: what was ahead of me on the field. Ye were bloody good footballers. That was obvious, One of the papers said we were favourites for the final. I can’t remember that.”

“I felt sorry for Dermot Early after that game. He was one of the best players to ever take a field, I thought.”

“Aye, and Dunlop had the audacity to say to me afterwards, “Séamus, he never got a kick of the ball.”

As they warm to it, Din Joe McGrogan’s name keeps fizzing about the room.

“He was a special character,” Gerry McCann explains. “Din Joe was like a split personality – three ways: he was Din Joe, he was Denis Law and Elvis Presley. He had red hair and the quiff. Loved Elvis. If you went into Din Joe’s wardrobe and had a look at his ties, they were about one inch long because he fucken cut them off after the knot. He didn’t like the bits sticking out at the end. He’d be up and down the bus singing. He was very quick. He was very sharp. Din Joe didn’t ever just score a goal: it was a sensational goal. He didn’t like a high ball. He’d say: don’t be giving me any suiciders.”

Clippings of the 1969 All-Ireland Under-21 Football Championship which saw Antrim beat Roscommon. Courtesy of Séamus Killough.
Clippings of the 1969 All-Ireland Under-21 Football Championship which saw Antrim beat Roscommon. Courtesy of Séamus Killough.

“He more or less won that game for us against Cork,” says McCallin.

The photograph of the ’69 team has been removed from the wall in Casement. Some of the frames were taken down when the stadium was closed and boarded up for the £80 million redevelopment that has since become mired in a planning and political stalemate.

“See that place out there,” Gerry McCann says. “We don’t have a base and that is a travesty. When you were a kid the big ambition was to play in Casement.”

You can still see the floodlights as you approach the park but inside, it has become an eerie skeleton of a football stadium. It must be the loneliest place in Belfast. The posts and nets are gone, the yellow bucket seats gone and the field turned to knee-high weeds and strictly speaking, the field is out of bounds: boarded up and off limits. It’s a place that means a lot to the Andersonstown group. “Without being too nostalgic, it was where we always wanted to play,” Liam Boyle says. “It was our Wembley.”

“It was a big auld place to run around, mind,” Séamus Killough counters.

“Lap after lap,” sighs McCallin. “In the muck and shit.”

“Jesus, I always wanted more running,” says Boyle.

Moving on

In his GAA oral history, Tommy McDonnell remembers two things about the All-Ireland final: the tussle between Boyle and Earley at midfield and Killough’s hour at full back.

“At that time you had everyone stuck to their positions,” he said. “We changed it a wee bit with Andy McCallin, who was very clever. But anyway, Killough was tremendous. There was one particular save in the last few minutes of the game where he caught a ball in the square and next thing: bang. He was on the ground. I ran onto the field and he just looked up at me as if to say: I am taking a rest. So the ball was cleared out and who gets it but Earley. They had a free very late on. The referee said: this is the last kick. He emphasised it. And it just went wide. People went . . . mad. And that feeling never left me. It did Antrim good.”

Could it have been more? The 1969 team was, Andy McCallin thinks now, unusual. “We weren’t the best team in the world but it had this mismatch of personalities and abilities. The way things had gone, it looked as if we were going to win more.”

The following summer, five of the side were on the Antrim senior team that made it to the Ulster final. Gerry McCann remembers Eamon Grieve ripping into them for laughing and joking as they got off the bus in Clones. The lightness was all they knew. There was something stirring in the city game in the early part of the decade. The county won further Ulster U-21 titles in 1974 and 1975. It was clear that there was latent talent scattered around the city and county.

Assembling them remained a problem. Jimmy Ward was managing the senior team around then. “Jimmy was the best manager I played under for Antrim,” says Andy. “I hated his guts because he tried to kill me on the field but he had us moving in the right direction.”

Séamus Killough’s easy assuredness at full back saw him fast-tracked to the senior team but life was pulling him in other directions, He married Sinéad a week after graduating from Queen’s and they were settling uneasily into professional life in Belfast. A killing nearby – a ladder used to gain entry to an upstairs window – convinced them that it was time to move. “We were either going to New Zealand or Wexford,” he tells the others.

“Bit of a difference,” Gerry McCann says.

Then an opening came up for a dental position in Ballycastle and that was it. Killough didn’t play for Antrim again. Liam Boyle was interned for a period and when he returned to his first training session, he nearly got sick. “I thought I was in kind of good shape.” Liam was thinking of heading to the USA that summer when he circumstances changed and he was imprisoned for 11 years. His Antrim career ended there.

Liam Boyle.
Liam Boyle.

Din Joe McGrogan was due to head to Newcastle in Co Down for his summer holidays on the Friday that he was killed. He had popped home to visit his mum and then went down to place a quick bet. He stopped into the Whitefort Inn on Andersonstown Road for a pint and was there when a bomb exploded. He was one of three people killed. It was July 29th, 1976. By then, such deaths in the city and across Northern Ireland were everyday occurrences.

“It affected us all, yeah,” says Gerry McCann. “But it killed his mother. She didn’t last too long after it.”

Things just fractured

Grogan was still kicking football for the Johnnies that summer. His death reaffirmed at once how trivial and vital playing GAA was during those times. It was almost impossible for Antrim to field what could have been its best ever team during the 1970s. When the group is asked how Antrim football would have been like without the violence and civil strife, they are stumped. It’s like asking players from the west coast of Donegal what it would have been like to train without rain and wind. The violence became part of the elements. “Things,” Gerry McCann says, “just fractured.”

Results man

Do All-Ireland medals truly matter? One thing the 1969 players learned quickly was that winning altered or changed nothing. They were feted for a week in the areas of the city where Gaelic games held tradition and currency but it was a sharp time. Mickey Culbert says now that he was “grossly underwhelmed” by it all in those weeks. It’s only years later that he has begun to think about what it meant. His 16 years in prison in the Crumlin Road and, later, Long Kesh was for being charged, in the Diplock judicial system, and found guilty of the murder of a UDR officer in Lisburn.

“Well, I was never proven guilty of it. I’ve never denied being an activist and I’m not crying poverty or anything else but you have to bear in mind that Castlreagh, the Diplock courts, it was very easy to put people away. But yeah, I am very up front about my Republican activism.”

In prison, Culbert was the results man. He’d swallow a cellophane note with all the Antrim GAA scores and became expert at reproducing it at haste – the method dependent on the importance of the championship games. It was probably daft but those scorelines were like a voltage back to a lost normalcy. Culbert remains deeply involved in Antrim GAA, managing both football and hurling teams. His St Gall’s team play Oranmore in the Intermediate club hurling semi-final this very weekend. When he is asked why the 1969 victory didn’t lead to further triumphs for Antrim, he pauses down the phone.

“That was the assumption made. That we’d win more. Why it didn’t take place? Was it the conflict? It was difficult to move around for training and all that, yes. All those wee things are factors as to why Antrim didn’t come through. You’d probably need a psychologist to work that one out. And: maybe we weren’t good enough. Maybe there wasn’t enough investment.

“But see those fellas you were talking to? They were quality footballers. McCann and McCallin – I was normally the fella delegated to chase them around the field. Liam Boyle and Séamus Killough . . . those boys were really fine footballers. I, in all honesty, was a journeyman. But those boys could really play. And I think that was it. A manager can only do so much. There was just some very good players there. And I’m proud of having that medal. Now, in talking about it . . . I don’t actually know where it is. My wife would know where it is.”

All of their medals have led a precarious existence through the five decades since. Gerry McCann landed home one day to find the house raided. He feared the worst when he noticed that his wife’s engagement and wedding rings gone from the dresser. “But my fucking All-Ireland medal was still there,” he laughs, “I just shouted: Yesssssss! I got her another engagement ring. Mind you, she’s still hunting me to buy the wedding one.”

Andy McCallin gave his medal to his mother. “She was very proud of it. She kept it with her. My Dad didn’t bring her to many matches but he brought her to Croke Park some time after that. She bumped into an old acquaintance . . . a big hug and what have you. Next thing in Wednesday’s Irish News: All-Ireland medal found in Croke Park. Can anyone claim this? They got it back to her. At this stage, I didn’t know anything about it.”

Liam Boyle’s medal was lost or taken during a raid. His mother wrote to Croke Park in 1993 and they sent out a replica. They turn to Séamus Killough. “I’ll break down,” the big man confesses. “I gave it to Sinéad early on and she wore it on a gold chain. And the number of people who stopped and admired it. Because it made the most wonderful piece of jewellery. When people asked her about it, she always said it was for her Irish dancing. Everywhere she went. And it’s a major concern now . . . who is going to get it.”

In the 20 years Liam Boyle lived in America, family and friends would often introduce him as “Liam . . . he captained Antrim to the All-Ireland U-21.” It used to irk him and amuse him. “I’d played for the bloody seniors too,” he laughs.

Different city

He didn’t really want this one summer, this one team, defining him. Recently he found himself walking through Belfast and was struck by how much it has changed – the skin colours, the atmosphere, the affluence, the sense of possibility. He happened to be carrying a bag with a GAA logo and was disguising it on instinct until he realised that nobody cared a hoot.

Belfast is a different city now and Antrim is very far away from winning a football All-Ireland. There are no formal plans as yet to mark the 50th anniversary of a shining achievement in the county’s GAA history. But as they leave Casement, the team-mates make loose plans to see each other soon again. Funny, they finished up at Casement, too, on the night they came home to Belfast as champions.

Late on, after the speeches and the celebrations had wound down at St Teresa’s, Liam Boyle and a few of the others decided to wander down to the stadium to see if the club was still open, hoping to get a late drink. But it was a Monday night in September: the city was darkening in every sense. The party was over. “So we were leaving and a voice said halt,” Liam Boyle says.

“There was a group of people at the gates. And one of them had a gun. And the questions came. What are you doing here? Who are youse? They were local vigilantes. It was normal then so you didn’t think about it.”

A derelict Casement Park in Belfast.
A derelict Casement Park in Belfast.

The street guardians moved away. The newly minted All-Ireland champions stood there for a few minutes, alone together on the Andersonstown Road. Then they headed up home.

ANTRIM TEAM
1 Ray McIlroy (John Mitchels)
2 Donal Burns (St Enda's)
3 Séamus Killough (Ahoghill)
4 Martin McGranaghan (St John's)
5 Jimmy Mullan (O'Donovan Rossa)
6 Billy Millar (Michael Dwyer's)
7 Michael Culbert (St Gall's)
8 Liam Boyle (St Malachy's)
9 Terry Dunlop (O'Donnells)
10 Aidan Hamill (O'Donovan Rossa)
11 Gerry McCann (St John's)
12 Gerry Neillis (Patricks Sarsfields)
13 Andy McCallin (St John's)
14 Gerry Dillon (Dunloy Cuchullains)
15 Din Joe McGrogan (St John's)