The ticket arrived by post on a sparkling Wednesday in Donegal Town. Courtesy of the county board. John Murphy was beginning to get worried. He has attended every Donegal senior football final for the past 79 years. And he is keen to keep that streak going.
This year's decider between Kilcar and Naomh Conaill is a fascinating pairing and even if his eyesight is not as sharp now as during the decades when he was head postmaster for southwest Donegal, he will take his place in the stands and listen to Pauric McShea's radio commentary on his ear piece and figure out the movement on the field of play. At least that was the plan.
Eighty years of finals. It’s head-wrecking to think about but John Murphy can sift through their details – teams, scores, dates – with instant clarity. His day job gave him rigorous organisation anyway and he made sure that nothing, since he was 10-years-old, interfered with his pilgrimage to the county final.
Then came this blighted year and the virus and the uncertainty and the rumours: no supporters allowed, club supporters only. He made enquiries and was told his chances of getting to this year’s game were slim. But then a pair of match tickets arrived. He holds one up when we meet on Wednesday afternoon as though it’s one of Willie Wonka’s golden tickets: beaming. He’d see his 80th final after all.
Then, late on Thursday afternoon, word broke that Donegal would be elevated to Level 3 Covid restrictions from midnight – meaning no supporters at games.
As it is, the Donegal senior final has just been moved from this Sunday to Wednesday week, October 7th as the virus threatened the completion of the championship.
The intermediate final, featuring Murphy's beloved home club, Aodh Ruadh, takes place as scheduled this Saturday afternoon. Of all supporters, the Donegal county board would want their longest serving one to be present on this year. Right now, that seems highly unlikely. "If the restrictions are there, I'll have to abide by them," John says by phone the day after we met. He laughed at the suggestion that if no supporters are allowed to go, then his streak isn't broken: he'll just have to defer his 80th Donegal final by a year.
“Well,” he says. “If I’m still around.”
John Murphy is now in his 90th year. Maybe it would be wiser for him to venture no further than the front door of his house. But it's a special occasion and you have to live, too. He and Florrie live in Donegal Town, the last house on a cul de sac at the end of the sloping Old Golf Course Road, right on the shore of Donegal Bay.
The view from their patio door is, on this still clear day, like an oil painting. Murphy, though, ignores the landscape as he ransacks through old photographs and clippings which, in truth, he doesn’t require. His ability to return to moments in games and championships and dates that fell 50 and 60 years ago is kind of formidable.
What is it all about? He can't explain it. Just: the game possessed him. How many games has he attended in all those years? Probably too many, he concedes with a rueful grin. In addition to his club final record, he went to every All-Ireland football final for over 60 years. His last visit was on the bittersweet day when Donegal played Kerry in 2014. Before then, he had never missed a Donegal team playing in Croke Park – men or women, at any grade.
He first got Michael O'Hehir's autograph in the broadcast booth in Clones after the Ulster final in 1946, when mighty Cavan were shocked by an Antrim team captained by Geordie Watterson – father of Johnny Watterson of these pages.
“A great Antrim team – I’ll tell you about that game,” he vows. He got O’Hehir to sign his name again in the same little radio booth when Donegal won their first Ulster title in 1972. “A lot of water under the bridge in the meantime, John,” O’Hehir said in that unique musical voice of his as he signed the page. But that was just the icing: the glamour days. Most of the thousands of games John Murphy saw were far away from the crowds and bright lights: the local, vital stuff.
“There were many weekends when I would see 13 football matches – when I should have been at home looking after my children. Although they got on all right! But Florrie had more of the burden of making sure of that. I am just a passionate GAA man. Awh, I saw plenty of bad games too.”
If there was a transformative moment, it was attending the homecoming for the Mayo team that won the All-Ireland in 1936. His parents weren't interested in sport – his father Richard made the move from old IRA to Gardaí and his mother was a school teacher. But they happened to be living near Ballyhaunis station and brought their oldest child down for a look. He was five.
"The entire county had converged there. And when the players came off the platform, the crowd went berserk. And what I saw that night at five years of age: grown men crying their eyes out with sheer joy and delight, from that moment I was a GAA man. I can still see it as if it was yesterday. It was about nine o'clock in the evening. And the flags were everywhere. I met five or six of the team. When Enda Kenny was in government, I'd always say I never met the taoiseach but I met his dad. I met Jackie Carney and Josie Munnelly. Henry Kenny lifted me up and said: 'You're a great little man to be out here tonight'. And something about the night stayed with me."
It's easy to guess at how, in mid 1930s Ireland – the bonfires against the blackness, the unaccustomed excitement, the noise – would have seemed like literal magic to a child. Murphy might have joined the ranks of Mayo devotees had his father not successfully sought a transfer to Ballyshannon – his mother wouldn't settle until she was back within the Donegal border.
Murphy was still sufficiently young and open to metamorphose into an undiluted Ballyshannon towny in both accent and attitude. His work with the post office involved leaving the town and playing with Four Masters and St Eunan’s – he had the bad-good luck to connect with a high ball in the 1949 minor final while moonlighting as a St Eunan’s player and thus scored the goal that beat Aodh Ruadh in that year’s decider.
“My brother Danny was down as a supporter. And as soon as he got in the bus to go home, two of the Ballyshannon lads were for beatin’ him up on account of the goal,” he laughs. “Instead, they made him stand on the bus back home.”
He transferred back to Aodh Ruadh as soon as the post office permitted and played with them until 1960, when he broke both his finger and ankle in what proved to be his last game.
"That day, I was marking the longest serving councillor in Ireland, the late Seán McEniff from Bundoran. He was a hardy little joker – but fair. Difficult to watch. I broke this middle finger" – holding up a crooked digit – "and continued to play like a fool. Five or six minutes to go and I ended up at the bottom of a pile and heard a crack on my ankle. I ended up in the Sheil hospital."
He was kept there for a month. The finger turned septic. He was still there on the wet Saturday morning when he was told that Florrie had given birth to their first child Aiden, in the Rock hospital, across the river in Ballyshannon. The final hospital bills came to £950 punts, a serious sum of money then. The club hadn’t that kind of money. Letters were sent to the county board but heard nothing. The experience didn’t sour him on the GAA. He remained a long serving club delegate and showed up at thousands of games at all levels. He was an unofficial driver for Donegal players for a full decade.
“The one condition was that I bear all my expenses for petrol and meals and accommodation. I did that for 10 years.”
And he admits that when it came to Donegal, he was An Post’s best customer. Every manager, from Brian McEniff on, has received regular written “advice” from Murphy. Murphy once heard through post office intel that McEniff would arrive down to the local office in Bundoran with the hotel post and groan as he was handed another missive which he knew, from the handwriting, was a five page special from Murphy.
Sometimes, he went too far: McEniff is of a younger generation and will always be a kid to him. But when Murphy’s own father died in 1991 – at the age of 96: he was born in 1895 – McEniff was there outside the church and Murphy walked up and said, “No hard feelings Brian.” They were back on track.
The letters could be sharp. He wrote regularly to Jim McGuinness and later to Rory Gallagher. A friend of Murphy's through St Vincent de Paul met Gallagher once and mentioned Murphy's name for devilment. Gallagher laughed and said: "Now, I've never met John in my life. But will you give him a message? I have kept all his letters and if I ever write a GAA book, extracts from his letters will be included."
When Donegal won the Ulster title last year, Murphy was standing on the footpath in the Diamond in the crowd waiting to welcome the team bus home. Declan Bonner, the manager, saw him, stopped the bus and hopped out and hugged him.
“Says I, Declan, I have you persecuted.” Bonner told him to keep the letters coming. Last week, Murphy left a message for Bonner on his mobile phone. He gave Bonner the Donegal team he feels should start in the championship next month.
He shrugs. For whatever reason, his memory is a sort of nexus of Donegal football stories and facts and happenings. He was once chatting with Mick McGrath, the Donegal chairman and a native of Ballyshannon, and left him dumbfounded by slipping into conversation that all six starting forwards on a Donegal team that beat Monaghan in the 1945 Ulster championship were buried in Ballyshannon.
“That’s a fact,” he confirms when asked about the story. “They won 1-7 to 1-5. On that Donegal team at left half back was Paddy Prendergast, the only survivor of the Mayo ’51 team. But anyhow, the six forwards who played that day were Red Jack at right half forward, at centre half his brother Bob Gallagher and at left half forward Eoin Carney, Martin’s dad. At right corner forward PJ Goan, one of the best footballers to ever lace a boot for the county. Full forward was Vincent Boyle from Portnoo and left corner forward Red Mick Slevin. Vincent Boyle was stationed in Ballyshannon as a guard and he died there. So Vincent Boyle, Owen Carney and Mick Slevin are buried in the Rock chapel graveyard. Red Jack and Bob and PJ Goan are in Abbey Assaroe. That’s a fact.”
He will happily move from that era to chat about Ryan McHugh or Michael Murphy but when you ask about the best club game he has seen, he instantly speeds back to an unrecorded day in 1944, between the Fourth Brigade of the Irish Army stationed at Finner Camp, who had 13 county players and half a dozen All-Ireland winners and Aodh Ruadh, who had 11 county men. The local crowd won.
“That was the finest club game I ever saw in my life. It was played in Erne Park, which is under water now.”
Erne Park was a pitch located in a part of Ballyshannon strategically flooded during the Cathaleen's Falls hydro-electric scheme, which involved narrowing the Erne river and dynamiting the renowned salmon fishing beauty spot, Assaroe Falls, a State intervention that remains a hot source of contention locally.
"We used to spend evening after evening watching the salmon trying to negotiate the Falls and it was a sight to behold. Beautiful! Even as young fellas. That was in front of the old Garda barracks on the Mall. But the salmon fishing in those days was unbelievable. The fishermen from Dunkineely would come up and spend the salmon season in digs. There were six or seven exporters. Boats coming into the quay. It was a crying shame to blast the Falls but it had to be. There were a thousand labourers alone in the Erne scheme in those years. They built the two cinemas at that stage."
Those hectic years were when he became immersed in Donegal GAA lore. He started going to games and couldn’t stop. The decades slipped by fast and were mostly good for the Murphy family but recently brought the grief of losing their daughter Josephine, one of five children, to illness.
Through it all, Gaelic football has been his constant. He has travelled to county finals by horse and cart, by bicycle, by bus. This year, one of his sons will drive him. And he’s excited to see a live match again.
For fun, he tells you his all-time Donegal team and it ranges from the contemporary – Durcan, Lacey, Murphy, McGlynn – to the pre-war ("There'll never, ever be a Donegal fullback like Mick Melly") to the obscure (Jim McFadden from Gweedore. Probably not many heard of him. Beautiful footballer. Died a young man. But an outstanding midfielder).
In one way, he knows that all of this doesn't matter. It's opinion and judgment and memory. But in another way, well: what else could be such a lifelong source of fire? For almost all of "the boys" he references over an afternoon of stories – Jim 'The Natch' Gallagher, 'Red' Jack Gallagher, Jackie McDermott – have slipped away.
“And sometimes I think when you are finished with the GAA you are forgotten about,” he says.
Of all the tickets in 80 years, you sense there is something sacred about the pair sitting on his living room table now. The 2020 Donegal Senior Championship final. As O’Hehir said once to him: much water. Whether he gets to use them now, after everything, is another footnote in this cruel year.
But this afternoon, he’ll be all about Aodh Ruadh in the intermediate final. He’ll be glued to the radio broadcasts. All the papers are saying that his old club, stacked with titles at all grades over many decades, are back. But in the vivid football mind of John Murphy, they’ve never gone away.