Remembering the name and fame of GAA President Séamus Mac Ferran
SÉAMUS Mac Ferran often travelled the Holywood Road out of Belfast. The surprise was that he never followed the road to Hollywood.
Many may know his name, given to the trophy for the winners of the Ulster Club Senior Football Championship.
Most, though, will know very little about the amazing man that he was.
‘Ulster’s youngest ever GAA President’ merely scratches the surface of his talents.
Forget the image of GAA officials as dull. Séamus would have sparkled in any era, not just in Fifties and Sixties Ireland.
Séamus Mac Ferran may have worn a grey suit on occasions, but his presence lit up any room he entered.
Someone who loved to sing, he had a rich bass baritone voice, and was part of the Belfast Gaelic Choir which won the 1950 Welsh Eisteddfod.
A champion schoolboy swimmer (and fearless diver) who took part in the 1932 Tailteann Games. His eldest son Ciarán points to one photo: “Port Salon, Donegal, that’s where he used to entertain us with his diving – oh, boy!, could he dive!”
Extremely intelligent, finishing second in Northern Ireland in his ‘11-plus year’.
A hurler and footballer, of course, and an administrator. An Irish language enthusiast and fluent Gaelgeoir.
The main man behind the funding and construction of Casement Park.
A loving husband and father.
Such was Mac Ferran’s fame during his lifetime, he was the subject of an article in ‘The New York Times’ in 1957 by the legendary journalist and author Gay Talese.
“One of the world’s most eloquent vocalizers on such subjects as Gaelic football, hurling and the beauty of Irish womanhood is an avid orange juice-drinker from Belfast named, not unexpectedly, Seamus MacFerran.”
What's in a name?
Not at first, though.
He was born James Anthony McFerran at Cavendish Street, off the Falls Road, in St Paul’s parish, Belfast in a momentous year for this island, 1916.
His own father John died when James was just 14, so this extremely bright child, who gained the second highest mark in Northern Ireland the year he did the ‘11-plus’ exam had to find work, and became a post office telegraph boy.
Picture: Courtesy of the Mac Ferran family
There he founded the Geraldine’s club before he turned 20, although that would not have come as any surprise to those who knew him.
According to Talese’s article, he had appointed himself as ‘press agent’ for St Paul’s hurling team - at the tender age of 10. His fundraising activities also began early, extracting sixpence per week from a group of teachers to purchase new sports equipment.
That practice literally paid off on grand scale when he became the main man behind the location of, fundraising for, and construction of Casement Park, which opened in 1953, free of debt.
Ciarán was barely out of nappies then, but he became a close companion of his father. There’s never a good age to lose a parent, but it was particularly tough on Ciarán, who was 18 when Séamus passed away on August 31, 1968, from a brain tumour.
The pain of that loss remains to this day, but what resounds down the decades is his love and admiration for his dad. This article is about the father, insisted the son.
As a hurler and footballer, he was hard - but also fair and clean. As Geraldine’s captain, Séamus once sent off one of his own players for an act of indiscipline against an opponent, an anecdote confirmed by the player on the receiving end, the late Jimmy (Séamus) Donnelly of Rossa. “If you chose to play in an unacceptable manner you were not worthy of a place on the Geraldine’s team,” said Ciarán.
'A people person'
Séamus Mac Ferran’s talents were even greater as an administrator and a communicator.
“He was a people person. He could get things done, he was efficient. If he said he was doing something, it was done.
“He just had a way of getting people to do things to help him. He was a good delegator, a good pointer. ‘Here, you’re the best man for that job’ – pats someone on the back and sends him away to do it. ‘You are the man to do that job’. He got things done.
Picture: Courtesy of the Mac Ferran family
“A man’s man, as well as being very good with the ladies too, and impressing them.
“He relished, enjoyed, and appreciated the fact that he had organisational skills. ‘Right, I’ll take this on and I’ll see it through’. He got a team around him of able people.
“They needed £30,000 to develop Corrigan Park. He set out a strategy, a plan was put in place – it wasn’t just running around like headless chickens, he was an organiser.”
Founding a club
Growing up in the new state of Northern Ireland, post-partition, it wasn’t an easy time to be a Gael, but Séamus Mac Ferran just got on with it, as Ciarán points out:
“Look at it from the point of view of a Catholic in the Post Office – the Royal Mail – and making an oath to serve, honour, and obey His or Her Royal Highness, which they all had to do.
“He created a Gaelic football team within the Post Office. How did he manage that? How did he do that? He did it.
“There were difficulties, but I suppose it was blind faith, ‘We need to do this. OK, there are certain things stacked against us, let’s get on with it’.”
Obviously it would have been easier for him to continue as James McFerran, but that wasn’t who he really was, especially after he met and fell in love with Máire O’Callaghan, whose family originated from Fanad, Donegal.
She was a young tutor at the ‘Ard Scoil’, Falls Road, where Séamus went to hone his skills at speaking Irish.
Spelling it out
“The only reason we are ‘Mac Ferran’,” explains Ciarán, “is that my parents were married in a ceremony all in Irish, everything was written up in Irish, with the name as ‘MacFerran’. They insisted on being married in Irish because they were true Gaels, at St Colmcille’s, Holywood.
“When the first child of that marriage, my sister Nuala, was brought to be registered the registrar said ‘This child has to be ‘MacFerran’, just as on the marriage certificate’.”
There was another change too, a bigger one in GAA terms. The Mac Ferrans were brought up in county Down.
“We were reared at Knocknagoney – the Belfast pronunciation is wrong, it’s ‘gonny’.
That was green fields outside Belfast, that was home to us.
“I went to school in Holywood, where Paddy McNamee taught, he was headmaster at St Patrick’s school.”
That’s Padraig MacNamee, the first GAA President from Ulster, who was something of a mentor to Séamus.
Yet such elevated status carried little weight in 1950s Northern Ireland, indeed perhaps acted more as a burden.
Someone leaving the office of GAA President at the age of 42 nowadays would be head-hunted for prestigious business roles.
The last post
Séamus Mac Ferran, though, struggled to attain the career progress he merited, as Ciarán ruefully recalls:
“Before Newcastle came up, he applied for Portrush, and somebody else got it over him.
“His application for Newcastle was his last effort. He was not going for another interview in the Post Office. He said ‘Máire, this is it’.
“I’ll always remember the discussion they had. He said to my mum: ‘This is my last and I’ll not try ever again’.
“He was so depressed at being put down because of being ‘Séamus McFerran’ and his background, he really was, at not being allowed to get ahead. Not getting the recognition he deserved in his job.”
So the Mac Ferrans re-located to Newcastle. “We moved around a bit, rented, until ‘home’ was built, 93 Dundrum Road, from 13th February 1961 – there you go, amazing how it sticks – that’s when we moved in.
Still a Saffron
“It was a big wrench but we rapidly became county Down people. No sooner had we moved here than we were saying ‘Antrim? Antrim?!’ Down people were on the crest of a wave and we were watching them.
“We became county Down – much to dad’s disgust,” Ciarán chuckles. “He always wanted us to wear the saffron jersey, but we became ingrained in county Down, loved county Down.
“The county Down board tried to woo him many, many times for his experience. Manys a one tried – but he was an Antrim man. He was very polite about it, but he never got involved [with Down].”
That new home was filled with love, laughter – and song.
“Oh, family came first – first and last, with the rest in between. There was nothing more important.
“We knew nothing apart from music in our house. It was always singing, always practising for something. He was always ready to stand up and sing.
The life and soul
“I remember him appearing on TV, being asked to sing ‘The Mountains of Mourne’ – that was what he was asked to sing, so he sang it, as the local postmaster, with the mountains behind him.
Picture: Courtesy of the Mac Ferran family
“Ceilidhing was very much part of his scene, concerts galore, raffle tickets galore.
“He would present himself as ‘MC’, he would sing all night long if he had to, sing his repertoire of ballads, kept the whole party going.
“I saw it with my own eyes. He was amazing. He was like a Bruce Forsythe – ‘Hey, Mary! Hey, George in the corner! Get up!’ He would have everybody on the floor enjoying themselves, even the shy ones. He knew every song, he knew every dance.
“If he thought they had performed well he would reward the dancers with a rest – and a song!”
Although he was only five when his father became GAA President in 1955, Ciarán accompanied him on trips to Dublin – at least as far as staying at an aunt’s in Clontarf:
“I had my first Communion when I was five. I was the travel buddy, there to keep him awake – that was my main purpose. My next oldest brother, Fergus, he was too young to travel – you had to be out of nappies [laughs].
“I was at matches galore, not just when he was President, with dad being a fan. I travelled to all the matches. It wasn’t ‘one and a half’, it was ‘boy free’, lifted over the stiles.
“I remember a great celebration in Dundalk, the only time Louth won the [All-Ireland SFC] Final in 1957. That sticks in my mind. He was asked to join in their celebrations.”
They travelled ‘in Presidential style’, in a Humber Hawk – but that was thanks to Séamus’s previous generosity to a friend.
“Our neighbour, dad’s best friend, Huw Wright, told me about this act of kindness
Huw got promotion, from weekly wage to salaried.
“Dad went to see him `Congrats, delighted for you – but it takes a bit of getting used to. How are you fixed for Christmas?’
“Huw hadn’t thought of that, having to wait until January to get paid.
“Dad gave him some money. He didn’t have it to give – but he gave him whatever he had. ‘Have a good Christmas, because you won’t have a good Christmas otherwise’.
“Dad had so much heart. He wasn’t buying a friend, he just did it because he was his friend. From that day on they were best friends.
“Huw was a mechanic, engineer, car salesperson, all of those things. During dad’s Presidency Huw came up with a Humber Hawk. ‘This is a limo, take this.’ A massive, beautiful car.”
Although people said Ciarán was ‘born with a hurl in his hand’, that didn’t last. “Hurling wasn’t here [in Newcastle] for me, and golf distracted me. We could chip onto the golf course from our back garden – we actually did, until Fergus mis-hit one and straight through a window. That was the end of that.”
The final years
Sadly, the good times ended far too soon, with Séamus’s illness and death in 1968.
“He was unwell for two or three years, it wasn’t just a click of the fingers that he died.
The first symptom that any of us recognised that he was unwell was coming back from a cousin’s wedding in Dublin, actually a double wedding, two cousins got married on the same day, and of course ‘uncle Jim’ had to be there. He was the life and soul, had to do a bit of singing.
“He was staggering like a drunk man, couldn’t walk in a straight line. He was diagnosed with Meniere’s syndrome [an inner ear disorder which causes vertigo] but that was wrong.
“He died of a brain tumour, inoperable. I would have been fairly close to knowing most about him.
“I was learning to drive when I was 17 and he was in a big hurry to get me to learn to drive. I could sense, from what was said and wasn’t said between us, that there was something going on…
“He never told me, none of us knew, that he had a very serious problem. He kept that to himself and mum. The fact that it was mis-diagnosed early as that, we were made none the wiser, even though he knew – and I knew he knew.
“My sixth sense told me ‘There’s something wrong here’. He was my driving coach and we saw it through.”
'The Ulster Club'
When ‘the Ulster Club’ officially began later that year, the senior football cup was named after the late, great Séamus.
“We were very proud, it was very fitting, because he was GAA through and through. He gave so much of his life, he dedicated himself to the cause, for the sheer love of it. In those days you weren’t even on travel expenses.”
Bellaghy were the first winners, but then Bryansford took the trophy off them – and brought it ‘home’ to the Mac Ferrans in 1969.
“I can remember them bringing it to the house. Oh, they were delighted with themselves.
“They won it on a Sunday and on the Monday there was a crowd of them in the house, they had to bring the cup for mum to see. A crowd of rowdies talking a load of nonsense and being very, very excited.”
It’s fitting that the Mac Ferran name lives on – and so should Séamus’s fame.
“He was very talented. He was ahead of his time. He made the most of it. His life was short – but it was sweet. He lived a full life in his 52 years. And it was very productive.
“I was productive in my own way for a certain period of my life – but nothing in comparison to what my dad did. Nothing.
“There was always a song in his heart, a ready smile on his face, and a genuinely warm and welcoming handshake.”
* It was very apt that the Séamus Mac Ferran Cup was won in 2018, 50 years after its inception, by a Donegal club – Gaoth Dobhair (Gweedore) – given his associations with that county and the family affinity with the Gaeltacht there.
As stated, his wife Máire’s family, the O’Callaghans, originated in Fanad, and the couple spent many happy holidays in Donegal. That was where Séamus improved his Irish, and all six of his children – three girls and three boys – were given Irish names: Nuala, Aidín, Ciarán, Feargus, Ité, and Breandán.
** Many thanks to Ciarán MacFerran for his time, assistance, and hospitality in preparing this article, and to Benjy Ward for suggesting it.
Picture: Courtesy of the Mac Ferran family