When Roscommon were kings of football
If Kevin McStay’s men win on Sunday, the lights will go out across Mayo in many ways
Mayo native and Roscommon manager Kevin McStay. Photograph: Inpho/Tommy Dickson
The true gems of Irish pub culture, like Magan’s of Killashee or The Three Jolly Pigeons in Tang, are inevitably the most obscure and do little shouting about themselves.
The football used in 1943 and ’44 featured in Murray’s window as part of an unbeatable display of lavishness during the Emergency, flanking the Sam Maguire with another football and two primrose and blue shirts as a backdrop
Murray’s of Knockcroghery belongs to that first rank and it’s a house in which the football is always the star attraction. It hangs suspended from a thick chain attached to the dark wooden roof, directly over the bar counter as if waiting to be claimed by some midfielder. The pub is on the main street and has been the still point of Knockcroghery’s turning world for as long as the Republic’s been around.
The football, used in the All-Ireland final of 1944, has served its time too. When Roscommon were back to back All-Ireland champions in 1943 and ’44, it featured in Murray’s window as part of an unbeatable display of lavishness during the Emergency, flanking the Sam Maguire with another football and two primrose and blue shirts as a backdrop. The big cup moved on. The ball stayed.
Fire broke out
Time has blackened it and it definitely wouldn’t survive another football match. It should have been lost altogether decades ago: a fire broke late one night in 1990, destroying half the bar counter and a lot of the memorabilia in the main room. The ball was attached to a simple piece of string then and it soon fell into the flames.
People came from their houses and nearby and tried their best to calm the fire and a crowd had gathered by the time one man emerged through the smoke billowing through the front door shouting in triumph, “I’ve got the ball! I’ve got the bloody ball.”
Jimmy Murray, dashing half forward of Roscommon ’43/’44 and proprietor of the establishment offered a succinct piece of advice. “Forget the ball and quench the bloody shop.”
Eight Murray boys grew up in the house. Four won All-Irelands. Here’s all you need to know about Jimmy Murray: when he was introduced late in his life to John McGahern, the Leitrim writer politely requested his autograph. You have to imagine that this was a first and last. Murray died in 2007 and had been one of the last survivors of that garlanded second World War team – McQuillan, Carlos, Keenan, Gibbons.
The football has survived them all. One on level, it’s just a curio: a terrific piece of pub memorabilia. But it’s also physical proof and evidence of the 24 months that Roscommon ruled the football landscape. You stand in that pub, in this anxious age of Trump and of Facebook, and then you look at the football and then you think of the players of Roscommon and Kerry chasing it about Croke Park 80 years ago and 80,000 people glued to it.
Who knows how the Rossies spirited it out of the stadium because leather footballs were a precious commodity in those times. There is something defiant about the football in Murray’s pub. It’s much like the wishbones hanging from the lights in McSorley’s in Lower Manhattan, left by union soldiers before they headed south to fight the civil war and to be collected upon their return. Still there post 9/11. It’s part of the pub lore until you pause to think of the actual truth behind it. And then you get the shivers. It’s a way of saying: this is real. Don’t forget this happened.
Murray’s football has that kind of power. Don’t forget we were All-Ireland champions. Back to back. Not Kerry. Not anyone else. Us. Roscommon.
One of Roscommon’s chief attractions as a football county is that it is impossible to categorise. It must, necessarily, labour in the shadow of Mayo of Galway because of population alone. And yet it has claimed enough Connacht titles (23) to always merit respect and to provoke a bitter rivalry with Mayo. The Rossies insist on thinking of themselves as equals, which gets under the craw of the western aristocracy. Jimmy Murray probably summed the place up best in this newspaper back in 2006: “People here were stone-cracked mad on the football then and they are today too.”
He said this in praise, not criticism. And the truth was in full evidence this summer. “A historic day,” came the refrain of Willie Hegarty, the bard of Shannonside radio, after he watched Roscommon ransack Galway in Pearse Stadium. Most people know that Hegarty’s live commentaries are among the very best things about the contemporary GAA. They are incomparable. Here he is describing Brian Stack’s goal which sunk Galway in the second half.
An Aer Lingus plane
“The St Brendan’s player took off like an Aer Lingus plane. He took off. He left the tarmac. He kept going. He kept going. He pulled the trigger. He cut loose.”
It’s true that if any Aer Lingus plane you were on started manoeuvres of that nature, you’d soon be reaching into the overhead luggage compartment for the bottle of duty free gin. But if you want to understand the electrifying thrill that Rossies experience when they have their day against their neighbours, you need only turn the radio dial on Sunday.
Because Roscommon playing Mayo in Croke Park promises to one of the occasions of the championship. The legions of Mayo football devotees must be incredibly tetchy about this one. Already, Mayo’s campaign has a sort of battle-weary and epic tint about it. Kerry have reached the quarter-finals having hardly had to launder their playing kit.
Mayo football people are already like something out of the darker ravages of a Tom Waits ballad and they are still a long way from home. The idea of playing Roscommon with their tails up; Roscommon in a Connacht champions state of mind is not a comforting one.
And then, most troubling of all for Mayo, is the Kevin McStay factor. The officer on the line. If McStay’s tenure in Roscommon represents anything, it’s a triumph for doing the right thing. You don’t have to spend very long in McStay’s company to get that he’s as decent as they come.
Opinionated, yes, and a stickler for doing things his way and kind of fearless in that military way. Along with his compadre and brother-in-law Liam McHale, his coaching potential was treated by the Mayo executive in a way that always seemed curiously dismissive. He was passed over for the main job on several occasions, sometimes brusquely.
If Roscommon happen to win on Sunday, there’ll be no grandstanding from McStay. Privately, it might hurt him a little to see his home county done down again. But you can bet he will win it or lose it with grace
He shrugged, did his thing, guiding St Brigid’s to an All-Ireland club title in 2013 before remaining calm and true to himself in the face of two turbulent years in Roscommon, when he was subjected to petty gripes about his worth. Everyone knows about McHale’s athletic pedigree, but people forget about McStay as ball-player in the late 1980s: a flyer and a trickster, tough and absurdly light in an age when big-boned men ruled the prairies. He has lived and bled Mayo. Now he must coach against his home county and you can bet he will do this forensically.
And if Roscommon happen to win on Sunday, there’ll be no grandstanding from McStay. Privately, it might hurt him a little to see his home county done down again. But you can bet he will win it or lose it with grace.
And if Roscommon do win, then, yes, the lights will go out across Mayo for the night in all kinds of ways. And it will be so funereal quiet that they’ll be able to hear the whooping from across the border. On the television they’ll remark that it’s great to see Roscommon back without understanding that in Roscommon minds, they never went away.