'We came home from winning the championship and we went to devotions that night... the championship hadn't got the appeal then'
St Peter's, Warrenpoint come up against Kilcoo tomorrow in their bid to land a first Down senior football championship in 66 years. Neil Loughran speaks to four members of that successful 1953 team - Barney Carr, Miceal O'Hagan, Brian Grant and Brian Connolly - as they look back on a very different time for the world, and for Gaelic football...
IT’S a house that contains more history than most. Perched on the brow of Summerhill, Barney Carr and his family have lived here since 1960 – the same year he helped Down become the first county to bring the Sam Maguire Cup across the border, and the start of an epic decade that spawned three All-Ireland titles.
Just a couple of hundred yards out of the town centre blue and white flags catch the breeze blowing in off Carlingford Lough, fluttering in unison from lamposts as the days dwindle down towards Warrenpoint’s county championship decider with Kilcoo.
The ’Point has waited a long time for this.
Men like Peter Rooney (1968), Miceal Magill and Eamonn Connolly (both 1994) have hoisted Sam aloft on the steps of the Hogan Stand but never got their hands on the Frank O’Hare Cup.
It’s 41 years since the St Peter’s last appeared in a senior final, the intervening spell spent largely yo-yoing up and down from intermediate, the occasional rich harvest unable to yield what is craved most.
That was last delivered another quarter of a century back, in 1953 – a different time, a different game, a different world.
“Well,” says Brian Grant turning to Miceal O’Hagan and Brian Connolly as they trooped towards the front door of Barney Carr’s home on Monday afternoon, “did you bring your boots?”
A 22-year-old Grant was the classy centre-forward on that Warrenpoint side, 19-year-old corner-back O’Hagan and 20-year-old forward Connolly products of the county title-winning minor team two years previous, progressing seamlessly onto the senior scene.
And Barney? Well, Barney was the king. At 30, he was one of the experienced heads on an otherwise youthful outfit, long before leaving an indelible mark on the history of Down and Ulster football.
“I can remember very little,” warns Grant as he settles into his seat beside O’Hagan.
Yet within minutes the four friends are pouring over old photos, picking out former team-mates and reliving all their yesterdays.
“The tragic part is we’re usually looking to see who’s missing,” he adds. Of the Warrenpoint panel that day, Harry O’Loughlin and Paddy Carr – who now lives in Chicago – are the only other survivors.
“But it brings back memories of good days, enjoyable days. My football days were very enjoyable, I’m sure yours were too…”
“Oh aye,” nods O’Hagan, “we were on the crest of a wave then.”
They surely were, and that becomes increasingly evident with each story that flows forth once the floodgates have been opened.
But before we even go near 1953, you have to rewind three years to Warrenpoint’s previous appearance in a county final for some context; back to a day when the pin was pulled on their lofty ambitions in the dying minutes at St Patrick’s Park.
Considering they had gone into the game against Castlewellan without two of their key men, Carr and Liam ‘Toots’ O’Hare, perhaps the omens weren’t good from the outset.
“As most Catholics know, the church declares a Holy Year every 25 years, when it calls on the faithful, and those not so faithful, to participate in a unique way in its divine mission,” recalled Barney in his 2012 memoir, ‘Summerhill’.
“One of those ways is to visit the great churches of Rome on pilgrimage. This particular year, coming five years after the greatest carnage in human history, was regarded as a great year of thanksgiving for peace.
“Long before the Down finalists were known or before the date was set, ‘Toots’ and I had our arrangements made to travel to Rome to celebrate the jubilee with the Pope.
“If we had been out of the country for only one Sunday the game could probably have been switched to suit us, but we were going to be away for three Sundays, so the game had to go ahead on the second Sunday of September as arranged.
“The outcome of that game was like the sword of Damocles hanging over our head all the time we were away, for if the Point lost, the finger of blame would be pointed at the pilgrims who put the faith before the football.
“Happily, the Point didn’t lose and were almost certain winners four minutes from the end when they led by four points…”
Those final few minutes, however, did not happen. A wayward shot sent the ball over the wall and, once eventually retrieved, it was found to be punctured – and not by accident.
“With a Pioneer pin,” smiles O’Hagan as Grant picks up the story. “I was playing golf with a chap one day and I said to him ‘you played Gaelic football?’
“He says ‘I did’. Says I ‘I think you’ve a championship medal belonging to me’, and he says ‘pioneer pins have some uses, haven’t they?’”
With no other ball available, the game could not be finished. Consider the furore that surrounded Antrim chairman Ciaran McCavana’s late intervention in the replayed county semi-final after it had gone to a free-kick competition a few weeks back. Imagine the outcry now if a team missed was denied a county title because of a burst ball?
Yet the ’Point had to take their medicine and come back a second day. This time the two “pilgrims” were back in harness, but it didn’t matter as they lost by a point, 2-5 to 2-4.
“Many a boxer was saved by the bell,” observed Carr, “but very few football teams have been saved by the pin as Castlewellan undoubtedly were that day.”
Their time would come though, and in 1953 Warrenpoint saw off Kilkeel, Glenn and old foes Castlewellan - the ’Point coming out on the right side of a replay this time around - to set up a decider with Burren back in Newcastle.
And while the St Mary’s would later conquer all before them during a trophy-laden period in the 1980s, back in the middle of the century they were considered a coming force having only reformed following years in the wilderness.
Indeed, that 1953 final would bring together men who had worn the same blue jersey en route to the minor triumph two years before.
“Burren were only established a few years at that point,” said Grant.
“Quite a few of the Burren players had played football for Warrenpoint in days gone by. Noel Murdock won a minor championship medal with Warrenpoint, Stephen McKay…
“It was 1951 we won the minor championship,” added Brian Connolly.
“Terry McCormack [father of current club chairman Feargal] decided that we wouldn’t have a strong enough minor team, and Burren had no minor team, Rostrevor had no minor team so it was the pick of three teams. Martin Parr was the goalkeeper, Charlie Williams, Francie Farrell, all them played, and ourselves.”
“I was three weeks over age,” says Grant with a smile.
Before the ’53 final, several meetings took place in the parochial house of the parish priest, Fr McMullan.
And long before the cult of the manager took hold in Gaelic Games, teams were often selected by a committee – though they could be every bit as cold-hearted as the modern-day bainisteoir.
“I remember Harry O’Loughlin was in goals until the final and he had a few bad games, poor Harry,” recalls Connolly.
“I thought it brutal, but they [the committee] brought ‘Joker’ [Gerry Carr] out of retirement – and he did well. He was well protected…”
Familiarity with their opponents may not have bred contempt but, alongside the wind and rain that descended upon St Patrick’s Park, it certainly played a part in helping both cancel the other out - leading to a much-anticipated final between two local rivals turning into a dreary, dogged affair.
The final score was 1-0 to 0-1, the lowest-scoring final in the history of Down football.
“Both teams were well matched,” said O’Hagan, turning to Grant, “your brother, lord rest him, he says to me one day about the 11th commandment, and I think that’s what happened that day. That was Burren’s plan and our plan – thou shalt not pass.”
“I was in Sean Daly’s barbers this morning and Noel Mussen and Seamus McGovern from Burren came, and they were talking about that day,” chips in Barney’s son, Hugh.
“Seamus McGovern had apparently said to uncle Hugh ‘what were youse doing with the ball that day Hugh - between the two teams youse only managed two scores?’
“And uncle Hugh says ‘ball? What ball? We seen no ball that day’.”
“Burren [whose sole point was scored by Paddy Green] would’ve been very, very disciplined in that respect,” adds Grant.
“I would have been a free-kick taker, and I never got a free-kick to take. It wasn’t that I missed them, I didn’t get a free-kick that day inside 40 metres.”
Connolly, the hero of the semi-final success, had a similar tale of woe to tell.
“I scored two goals against Castlewellan and they put Stephen McKay on me, and he never left me...”
Their cause wasn’t helped by the loss of ‘Toots’ O’Hare from the starting line-up once again. This time he wasn’t celebrating with the Holy Father in Rome, however, with matters a little closer to home making him miss this final.
“‘Toots’ was president of the local St Vincent de Paul conference, which was hosting a diocesan meeting in Warrenpoint that Sunday,” recalled Carr in his book.
“He went to Dean Fitzpatrick, the local administrator, a few days before to ask him to make his apology to the meeting. ‘Oh Liam,’ the Dean exclaimed, ‘you couldn’t miss the diocesan meeting for a football match’.”
And so the ’Point were left without a star of club and county – but luckily they still had Carr to call upon, and it was his mere presence in the square that led to their sole, match-winning score in the latter stages of the game.
“Hughie Carr took the 50 and Sean Campbell from Burren jumped up and flicked it…” recalls Grant.
“But he was watching Barney,” added Connolly, “Barney was the danger.
“Barney could turn balls into the net with his hands and Sean Campbell realised that, he saw Barney going up and he got his hand on it some road but he put it into the net.
“That man was brilliant,” added Connolly, motioning towards Carr in the corner of the room. “He never punched a ball, he had a way of turning it with his hand. That’s the man we’re most proud of.”
After his retirement from football, Carr would go on write GAA reports for the Frontier Sentinel – the newspaper which served the Down and south Armagh areas – under the moniker ‘Linesman’.
It was his predecessor, therefore, who penned the following in the September 26, 1953 edition.
“This week we hail Warrenpoint as worthy county senior football champions and little Burren as gallant losers,” wrote ‘The Gael’.
“Warrenpoint on the whole deserved the victory, though they had to fight all the way to offset Burren who played gamely from start to finish.
“It is believed in GAA circles that this season has definitely seen the turn of the tide for the gallant Warrenpoint club which for many years was a big force in Down football.
“Unfortunate in many games, they showed some signs of that sparkle and dash that was so prominently identified with displays of years gone by and all Gaels, even Burren, are glad the county laurels have deservedly gone to the seaside.”
As we know now, county championship successes are to be savoured - especially when you have waited so long for one to come along.
If Warrenpoint’s class of 2019 manage to end the 66-year drought tomorrow, the party could well rumble into next week.
This was not the case in 1953, though, as Brian Grant recalls.
“We came home from winning the championship,” he said, “and we went to devotions that night.”
Devotions, as I would learn to my cost, was not the favoured nightclub in Warrenpoint at that time – much to the amusement of watching cameramen Brendan Monaghan and Conrad Madden.
Order restored, Brian Connolly remembers exactly how the Warrenpoint team, 14 of whom were Pioneers, celebrated a landmark achievement.
“All we got was a mineral and sandwiches...”
“If you were lucky,” adds Grant, “there was no big fuss.”
“Burren had a big do in the hotel in Newcastle, we just came home to the ’Point,” continued Connolly. “We pulled in at Savage’s shop and we got a mineral and we all put it into the cup.”
“The championship hadn’t got the appeal then,” said Grant, “we’d have been more interested in tournaments that were run by a club, eight or 10 teams invited, you’d have got players to play in that. It was instant reward where the championship was long-winded.
“I don’t know… it just didn’t have the prestige. It was just another match.”
“The attraction of those tournaments was a reward at the end of it,” explained O’Hagan, whose grandson Jarlath McConaghey will play for Glenn in tomorrow’s intermediate county final clash with Newry Shamrocks.
“It was either clocks or cups or boots. We won every sevens we went to. You didn’t get very excited the way they do now.”
A reception took place in Warrenpoint town hall on the night of their triumph – little did they know then it would be the last time the O’Hare Cup visited those shores.
“When a team all starts to move off,” says O’Hagan, “it’s very hard to keep that momentum going that you had.”
There have only been two final appearances since.
Hugh Rooney’s ’Point side reached the decider of 1976, losing out to neighbours Rostrevor, and two years later Barney Carr and Brian Grant brought them back to that stage, only to fall short against Downpatrick.
Forty-one years on, though, they’re back.
They come in as the form side in Down, having routed Ballyholland in the last four, but in the opposite corner tomorrow is a Kilcoo side oozing big game experience after landing six of the last seven county titles.
So has Warrenpoint’s time come - can they finally end 66 years of hurt?
“Just keep a cool head,” says O’Hagan, “and they’ll win.”
At that, they retire to the kitchen for tea and biscuits, plenty more tales to tell and memories to mull over from the best the days of their lives.