Revolutionary who altered GAA and social landscape
For nearly 70 years Kevin Heffernan was a presence on the national stage of the GAA. His first All-Ireland was the minor final of 1946 and yesterday at the age of 83 he passed away in a city and world made unrecognisable in all things except austerity. That first All-Ireland ended in defeat – against Kerry – that earned a few paragraphs in the rationed newsprint of the post-war years and by the time he was done, his achievements and life trended on Twitter and he had transformed the GAA and social landscape.
The measure of his achievement can be seen every summer’s afternoon that Croke Park vibrates with the volume of support when Dublin compete in the championship. Even the existence of Hill 16 in popular culture rather than as the stadium’s northern terrace owes so much to the man, who brought Gaelic games to the modern capital and delivered the city to the GAA.
It may have started with St Vincent’s and the insistence on local involvement and radiated out to the county team that would be from the early 1950s irreversibly connected with Dubliners rather than availing of the temporary allegiance of people from other counties.
Yet this was not an exclusionist vision. Country people – and his father, from Offaly, was one – have made a huge contribution to the GAA in Dublin but they needed raw material. Until the 1970s the southside was a wasteland for the GAA. Even on the better-established northside the numbers grew and the role of the county team in creating a modern identity for the city has never been fully recognised. I remember hearing interviews with rugby internationals from the 1970s – Ireland won the Five Nations in the year of Heffernan’s breakthrough in 1974 – and being struck by how admiringly they spoke about Dublin.
Kevin Heffernan revolutionised the Dublin team, bringing success to an under-performing set of players. It’s hard to think of any modern parallel with the 1974 team that came from nowhere to take the Sam Maguire, apart from maybe Down in 1991, but even they had All-Ireland winning minors.
Memories of the Dublin-Kerry rivalry of the 1970s at times can tip into cliché but it’s impossible to overstate its significance in bringing Gaelic games to the whole country.
He’d done it all before as a player in the 1950s when the technically innovative Dublin team he played for – with such distinction he is a Centenary Team and Team of the Millennium laureate – confronted the powerful orthodoxies of Kerry in 1955 and gave a country deep in economic depression much needed relief and drew a then record 87,102 to Croke Park.
Dublin lost but maybe if they hadn’t his relentless obsession would never have taken root. An All-Ireland followed in 1958 but he wouldn’t rest until 1976 when the title was taken off Kerry and in a final for the first time in 53 seasons.
For those who lived through the 1970s, his passing is a melancholy reminder of the passage of time. For a younger generation the impact of his achievements is obvious. The Dublin GAA community will remember with gratitude that he secured for the city a unique sporting culture but will also feel lost without his presence.