Gallaher's great legacy brought home at last

 

The contribution of the captain of the 1905 All Blacks Originals will be marked in a special way in his native Donegal today, writes KEITH DUGGAN

WHEN THE Lions toured New Zealand in 2005, a Donegal rugby player named Robert Love finagled a meeting with the chief executive of Kiwi rugby. The hook was a discussion about Dave Gallaher, the captain of the 1905 All-Blacks Originals who was among the thousands of men killed at Passchendaele during the second World War.

Love was half-surprised when he was granted an audience and made it clear rugby in Donegal – where Gallaher was born – was practically a wasteland. The idea was to have the All-Blacks visit Gallaher’s home place in Ramelton and to try to establish a rugby tradition in a county where there was virtually none.

He brought a long a number of slides, including a photograph of the newly-opened St Eunan’s GAA development as an example of what Letterkenny rugby was aspiring to achieve.

“That your footie ground, Rob?” one of the New Zealanders enquired when the image flashed up on the screen. “No. This is,” Love replied and showed them a picture of the rugby ground at the Glebe. It was barren. Where there weren’t cow pats there was sheep pats and one of the goalposts was leaning tipsily.

His hosts looked on in disbelief. This is what Love was inviting the most famous rugby side in the world to come and visit. And to his amazement, they immediately agreed.

“When I went down to meet the All Blacks in 2005 to pitch this whole thing we were very clear that we were in the absolute rugby outback,” Love explained this week. “That we never had an Irish international in the county, that very few of the schools played rugby and that we only had two senior clubs.

“And we felt that they could help us get kids to play the game so it was very much a rugby outreach. When they came here originally, we had no underage rugby. Now, Bryan Williams will take a whole range of underage teams right down to under-7s.”

Williams, the former All-Black and current NZRU president, is the guest of honour at today’s opening of the €1.5 million Dave Gallaher Park, which will be joint home to the local rugby team and a newly-formed GAA team, Letterkenny Gaels. For Love, the ceremony marks the high point of a wonderful and unique relationship between the biggest rugby brand on earth and a local club still trying to find its feet.

The reverence in which Gallaher is held by contemporary New Zealand rugby players is the key reason for this. Almost a century after his death, Gallaher’s role in establishing the prevailing All-Black ethos and the links between the new and old worlds has become a source of growing fascination.

“I do think that this is a great thing,” says Matt Elliot, who has just completed the first comprehensive biography of Gallaher’s life and who is in Donegal this week to attend the ceremony. “It is wonderful that on this side of the world we are celebrating Gallaher by getting young boys and girls to play rugby and lift the profile of the game. Because that is one of the things he was all about – getting kids to play the game. So to have that connection between New Zealand and Ireland – we have a great one in terms of rugby – because of this one man is a special thing.

“The thing that really drew me in is Dave’s legacy. He was a man of real loyalty and I think he had a great sense of fairness. His upbringing was fairly tough and later in life he was quite concerned with the welfare of orphans. He was involved in a group in Auckland that helped orphan boys and he was concerned about their welfare.

“He wanted boys to stay interested in football and spoke to the rugby union about having tours for schoolboy teams. So it is entirely appropriate and he would love to see the growth of the game in the area where he was born.”

There is a cinematic element to Gallaher’s life. He was just five when his family left for New Zealand on board the Lady Jocelyn, presumably shedding the common second “g” in the surname at the arrival port and settling into a typically tough emigrant upbringing. He recovered from a physically frail childhood and began to excel at sport and soon became a key figure, first in Auckland and then in New Zealand rugby. But he also earned commendations for fighting with the national army in the Boer War.

His All-Blacks career lasted just three years, 1903-1906 and, at 6ft and 13 stone, he played both at prop and wing forward. But it was his captaincy of the Originals team which toured in 1905 which distinguished him. His subsequent death at Passchendaele then elevated him into a mythological figure. Just seven years after his death, the 1924 Invincibles team took time to visit his grave. The next official All-Blacks visit was not until 2000 but in the meantime, Gallaher’s grave became the most visited in the Nine Elms cemetery where he lived.

“Anton Oliver made a presentation to the team one year when they were in France talking about Dave,” Elliot explains. “And in 1905, that was the first time a New Zealand team travelled to this part of the world and the first time an All-Blacks captain was seen. It was important in terms of influencing how New Zealand was perceived and how they played the game. Dave was a Boer War veteran and knew what it was to take these men to the other side of the world and go about their business for a few months. He really was the man to lead that team and the success and the way he led the team we still see the influences of that now.”

When Elliot was researching Gallaher’s life, he discovered that his deportment in the war shed almost as much light on his character as his exploits on the rugby field. “He was killed just before the real horror of Passchendaele on October 12th. He was killed on the morning of the fourth leading a group over the top when a shell came in. He was buried by the Ypres Menin Road initially before being moved to where he is now at Nine Elms.

“The one thing I found out through the men in his platoon – you look down the list of who these guys were and their ages and occupations and you can see that they very much would have respected Dave. By all accounts, he looked after them and was concerned about their welfare.

“He never played at being top brass. He was a famous All-Blacks captain but they were in the trenches together. He was 43 then. He didn’t have to go. . . He was exempt – married with a child – but he had this loyalty and he saw a lot of guys he had coached going to war and heard reports of All-Blacks or Ponsonby players losing their lives. And I think he might have found it quite hard just to sit on the sidelines.”

The peculiar thing is that Gallaher’s Irish connection was at best obscure until Tana Umaga led his All-Blacks team-mates on a well-documented journey to Ramelton on a drizzly November afternoon seven years ago. The sight of Umaga – heavily criticised for his tackle on Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll in the Lions series – sitting on the stage of the parish hall in Ramelton was one of the more unlikely and memorable sporting images of recent years. And it was clear the All-Blacks were genuinely curious to visit Gallaher’s original home place.

Afterwards, Umaga asked Robert Love if he could have a copy of a poem that Jeremy Worth, a local rugby player, had written in Gallaher’s honour. The Letterkenny men forgot all about it until they saw a quotation from the poem on the training shirts that the All-Blacks wore ahead of their 2006 Test in France. The French were always aware of Gallaher because of his death in the second World War (two of Gallaher’s brothers also died in France). “They handed out leaflets about his life before that 2006 match,” Love says. “It is strange because at the time, nobody here in Ireland knew much about him.”

For the Letterkenny rugby club, the big task was trying to repay the faith the All-Blacks had shown in making the long track up to Donegal. For years, they had struggled to gain momentum on their wish to build a proper facility. Eventually they decided the best way to make progress would involve embarking on a ground-sharing venture with Letterkenny Gaels, a newly established GAA club.

“It wasn’t easy,” says Denis Faulkner when asked how the early negotiations went. “It took a few years to dig out an agreement because both clubs wanted to protect their own identity and sense of ownership of the club . . . This has taken the bones of 10 years to come together and once the development began to take shape, people could see what was happening. The fact we pooled our resources has meant we have done fairly well in lottery funding because we were recognised as having a place that could be used 365 days of the year, with a much wider community appeal. So both clubs got more than they would have got on their own. That is the real benefit.”

Dave Gallaher’s great-granddaughters attended the launch of Matt Elliot’s biography in Auckland recently. They were slightly mystified by the general fascination in their distant relative. The book promises to shed light on a figure whose life story encompasses so much of the tumult of the emigrant experience in the early part of the 20th Century.

From a shop in Ramelton to Passchendaele via an immortal tour with the All-Blacks is a lot to cram in to 43 years. That’s why Bryan Williams is in Donegal this afternoon, coaching youngsters in a field just a few miles down the road from where Gallaher took his first steps. There could be no better salute.

* Dave Gallaher: The Original All-Black Captain by Matt Elliot is published by Harper Collins and will be available soon in Ireland and Britain.

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