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  • Sport

A proud tradition from the earliest years of the G.A.A.

Wednesday, 20th February, 2013 11:36am

By JIM CARNEY

BALLINASLOE’S Gaelic football tradition stretches back to the late 19th century. The national Gaelic Athletic Association was founded at a meeting in Hayes’s Hotel, Thurles, Co. Tipperary, on Saturday, November 1st, 1884 but East Galway had been committed to the promotion of Gaelic games long before that historic event. Hurling was particularly strong.

As far back as 1798, the year of the Irish Rebellion, a hurling match was played in Meelick, near Eyrecourt, and Galway newspapers also carried reports of Meelick and Killimor hurling teams crossing the River Shannon to play matches in Offaly and Tipperary. To the present time, Meelick-Eyrecourt GAA Club is known chiefly as a hurling stronghold, having produced star names such as Seán Silke and Brendan Lynskey, but in the 1960s, during a golden era for the “big ball” game in this county, Meelick-Eyrecourt (whose catchment area also included Clonfert) contested two Galway Junior football finals, so perhaps that was a genuflection to an old tradition in that part of the county.

Probably not quite as old as hurling, nor of athletics, a form of competitive sport very actively promoted by Michael Cusack, but there are records of a Gaelic football club in Ballinasloe in 1889, with J. F. Gibney as captain, while three years later a prominent officer of the County GAA was a Ballinasloe man, P. D. Brennan.

It is well documented (as recently as last month here in Herald Sport) how Dunmore and Tuam teams dominated the County Senior Football Championship in its early years. Loughrea, Athenry and Caherlistrane (1890) were all on the Roll of Honour — all in years of 17-a-side teams — before Ballinasloe won their first title. As so often happened, even in later times, the 1913 county final against Clifden wasn’t played until July 19th, 1914 and the 1914 final, with Ballinasloe successful against Mountbellew, wasn’t played until August 29th, 1915.

So dominant did Ballinasloe become, they were unbeaten in the County S.F.C. from 1913 to 1929 (inclusive) although it’s important to note that the Championship wasn’t completed in 1920, ‘21, ‘24, ‘26 and ‘27. Not only that, but one of their titles in the late 1920s was a hollow victory.

The records are inadequate and confused, leaving the particular year in doubt, but it was most likely 1928. Widely regarded as invincible, Ballinasloe were shocked in the County Championship final by Mountbellew, who won by “four or five points” according to one newspaper report. It was a Ballinasloe team that featured 13 county players in its starting XV and it could easily have been 15 county players — but Harry Burke and Mick Bannerton, All-Ireland winners with Galway in 1925, were back with their home club that day, and helped Mountbellew to win their biggest ever game. The gallant Mountbellew men “won it fair and square on the field” but Ballinasloe lodged an objection (on a technicality, to do with the list of names supplied by Mountbellew), and Ballinasloe were awarded the match.

In fairness to Ballinasloe, in the second and third decades of the 20th century they produced many outstanding footballers for club and county, including the four Egan brothers from Derrymullen: Denis and Johnny Egan were on the Galway team which won the 1925 All-Ireland Football Championship; they had helped Galway defeat Kerry in a replay of the 1919 semi-final and in the final, won by the legendary Larry Stanley’s Kildare team, Galway were captained by a third Egan brother, Tom. The fourth, Martin, was also an accomplished footballer. It’s been estimated that Denis Egan and his clubmate Paddy Roche hold the record for most Galway senior football medals won in any era.

The Egans also excelled in athletics, boxing and rugby, although the G.A.A. was their primary sporting interest. Denis, who was acclaimed for his leadership qualities as the figurehead of many teams he was associated with, was chiefly instrumental, along with another Derrymullen man Jack Fallon and two Dunmore men, Mick Donnellan and Mick Halliday, for resolving a complex administrative hold-up that threatened to block the running of the 1925 All-Ireland series, so the Gaels of Galway were in Denis Egan’s debt for his achievements on and off the field.

It was only through the co-operation and goodwill of the Ballinasloe club — and this proves their eminence at the time — that the Galway county team got the opportunity to win the 1925 All-Ireland Senior Championship, which they did, in controversial and bizarre circumstances, but there was no doubting its merit.

By then, the Galway team selection was dominated by the all-conquering Ballinasloe club but they lost the 1919 All-Ireland final to Kildare and the 1922 final to Dublin. In 1925, the Connacht Championship was only at the first round stage by the time Kerry, Wexford and Cavan had qualified from their respective provincial campaigns, so Mayo were nominated to represent Connacht. In the All-Ireland semi-finals, Kerry defeated Cavan and Mayo defeated Wexford, but after an objection by Cavan and counter-objection by Kerry, both of those counties were disqualified and Mayo were declared champions. The Connacht final was then played, with Galway defeating Mayo at Parkmore, Tuam by 1-5 to 1-3, and the Central Council of the G.A.A. declared Galway the All-Ireland champions. And in a special provincial winners’ tournament, run in January 1926, Galway defeated Cavan in the final, by 3-2 to 1-2, after earlier eliminating Wexford; Kerry refused to participate.

Galway were now All-Ireland champions a second time in the one season, and they received two sets of medals to prove it!

Fortunately, an earlier dispute which threatened Galway’s participation in the delayed provincial final was resolved: Ballinasloe’s Great October Fair clashed with the date of the match in Tuam between Galway and Mayo (October 18th); the Connacht GAA Council turned down a request for a postponement and it took three special meetings in the town of Ballinasloe to persuade the players to swap the Fair weekend for the Connacht final.

The official photograph of the Galway 1925 team shows that the players were all Ballinasloe men except Tom Molloy (Corofin), Mick Bannerton (Mountbellew), Harry Burke (Moylough) and Mick Donnellan (Dunmore). Tom Molloy also played club football with Ballinasloe.

The victorious Galway 1925 panel had such players as John and Denis Egan, Michael (“Knacker”) Walsh, Willie Smith, Frank Benson, Jackie Brennan, Mick Brennan, Sonny Burke, Jack Deeley, Jack Fry, Paddy Ganley, Gilbey Jennings, Tom (“Trixie”) Leetch, Tom McGrath, Bartley Murray, Larry Raftery, Paddy Roche, Frank Walsh and the legendary dual star Leonard McGrath who had already won an All-Ireland hurling medal in 1923; he was born in Australia and it was thought he came here to work in farming in East Galway.

Two titles in the 1940s

County senior champions again in 1939, defeating the Army team in the final, the Ballinasloe club went on to win back-to-back titles in 1944-45. In ’44 they defeated Erin’s Hopes in the final and a year later they retained the Crean Cup with a surprisingly easy county final win over Oughterard. In those three victories (1939, ’44, ’45) Ballinasloe’s main men were Johnny Casey, Roscommon-born Pat McManus, John (“Tull”) Dunne, Charlie Connolly, a native of Tuam; Mick Fallon, a native of Dunmore; Pat McDonagh, a native of Kilconly; Brendan Nevin, Georgie Shanley, Paddy Moran and Paddy Ryan.

There was a long wait for the Frank Fox Cup, from 1945 to 1979 and it was retained in 1980. In ’79 the St Grellan’s, Ballinasloe team then won their way to the All-Ireland Club Championship final but lost to St Finbarr’s of Cork, who had Jimmy Barry-Murphy in the full-forward line. That final wasn’t played at Croke Park; the venue was Tipperary town.

Long before all that, of course, Ballinasloe gave three men to Galway’s 1956 All-Ireland winning team, Seán Keeley, Gerry Daly and Gerry Kirwan; and Cyril Dunne and Seán Meade had very happy days at Croke Park in the ‘60s, in the Three-in-a-Row era.

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