A ‘Meath man with blue blood’ - Mickey Brennan on why the rivalry means more on one side of the border

Mickey Brennan in action for Cavan against Fermanagh in the Ulster Championship. Picture by Seamus Loughran
Mickey Brennan in action for Cavan against Fermanagh in the Ulster Championship. Picture by Seamus Loughran (Seamus Loughran)

PROVIDED the six inches of snow that fell upon Kingspan Breffni is cleared in time for Saturday morning’s pitch inspection, one of the GAA’s more peculiar rivalries will be renewed when Cavan face Meath.

Peculiar is perhaps the wrong word, given the size of the border between the two counties. Intimate makes it all sound a bit too cosy. Entrenched? That works okay in relation to some areas, but doesn’t quite get to the nub of it.

Despite existing cheek by jowl, this is nothing close to Kerry-Cork or Galway-Mayo intensity levels, provincial boundaries dictating that - while suspicious looks are still shot over the hedge - meaningful meetings remain few and far between.

Yet, for all the talk of Royal rancour ruminating since Cavan so regularly brought the Sam Maguire Cup through Meath on the way back from Croke Park during their heyday, and an on-field enmity that reached its peak with the 1949 and ‘52 All-Ireland final meetings, it is the volume of club and county connections that make this rivalry a little more parochial than most.

Let’s take that 1952 All-Ireland final as a starting point. How many times have brothers lined out against each other on Gaelic football’s greatest stage?

Well, Dessie and Liam Maguire played for Cavan, while younger brother Brendan stripped out in the green and gold of Meath as the Breffnimen won after a replay.

The family had moved from Cornafean to Oldcastle a few years earlier and, while Dessie and Liam switched clubs but not county, Brendan beat a different path.

Also on that Meath side was Connie Kelly from Mountnugent; a sub when Cavan lost the 1945 All-Ireland final to Cork. The list goes on.

When the Breffni County famously beat Kerry in the 1947 All-Ireland decider, their full-back at New York’s Polo Grounds was Brian O’Reilly - a native of Carnaross who moved to Ballinagh.

Many others have crossed the border to play club football, with Navan man Dermot Dalton starring for Cavan Gaels during the 1970s while the legendary Jim Smith – who captained Cavan to the 1933 and ‘35 All-Ireland titles - played for Erin’s Own of Kells.

In more recent times, relatively, the transfer of Raymond Cunningham – who played his football just across the Meath border with Kilmainhamwood – proved a source of consternation until the green light was eventually granted.

Cunningham started at wing-forward the day Cavan ended a 28-year wait to win Ulster in 1997, while his club-mate Larry McCormack – whose father Sean was goalkeeper for Meath in the 1960s - also featured for the Breffni under Martin McHugh.

When Cavan ended their latest Anglo-Celt drought in the Covid winter of 2020, one of their best players was Oisin Kiernan, a former Meath junior footballer who had switched allegiances from St Brigid’s, Ballinacree to Castlerahan.

Jordan Morris, part of the Royals side that toppled Down in last year’s Tailteann Cup final, found himself at the centre of a transfer saga a few years back before finally moving from Nobber to Kingscourt.

You get the picture – at times it has got messy, and a little too close for comfort.

Oisin Kiernan helped Cavan to a big victory over Offaly in Pearse Park
Oisin Kiernan, a former Meath junior footballer, helped Cavan to the 2020 Ulster title

MICKEY Brennan didn’t really see any of that side.

Indeed, he wasn’t aware of a rivalry at all until work led him to relocate from Simonstown to Drumalee. From there, a promising football career that had fallen by the wayside was suddenly, and unexpectedly, revived at 22.

Brennan’s family had always been immersed in Simonstown and, having grown up in the thrall of Sean Boylan’s fearsome Meath sides of the 1980s and ‘90s, his dream was always to wear the colours of his native county. But the call didn’t come.

And so, after crossing the county line into Cavan, life went on. Within a few years, however, Brennan was turning out in Breffni blue – Eamonn Coleman the first to invite him into the fold.

“It was actually a challenge match against Monaghan, in Simonstown of all places,” he smiles.

Brennan saw no issue turning out for a rival county. Quite the contrary. With Cavan, he felt wanted. They had pursued him, talked him up, made him feel good. On his own side of the house, meanwhile, he had never felt the love.

“There probably was that slight little bit of bitterness because I’d never made it onto a Meath panel - a bit of regret and other emotions.

“When I moved down to Cavan they just looked at me as a footballer; they didn’t look at anything else. Like, my dad died when I was 10, I didn’t have that father influence in terms of coaching teams or being on the sideline, maybe pushing a bit of influence.

“Even then, though, I always had a fondness for Cavan - if you were picking a second favourite team, it would’ve been either Cavan or Monaghan.

“Like, in ‘97, we were so delighted for them... now, obviously there was a good few people in north Meath who probably weren’t, but you can’t tar us all with the same brush!

“Then when Cavan were on their way to Croke Park the next time after ‘97, signs appeared around Navan for the Cavan supporters saying ‘Croke Park this way’. There was a bit of banter, but I never really felt any animosity.

“And so when I told people about being asked to try out for Cavan, family and friends, they were absolutely delighted.”

He didn’t ever get to cross swords with the Royals, though it could have happened in 2007 when Brennan’s Cavan faced Roscommon in the 2007 Division Two semi-final. On the other side, and also playing that day, were Meath and Monaghan

“There was a chance I could’ve ended up playing against Meath if all had gone well.

“A lot of my friends, who probably weren’t going to go to the Meath game, ended up going because I was playing and they were able to support Meath, then support me and Cavan.”

Yet Brennan wasn’t done with his native county just yet.

When work brought him back home at the end of 2008, and back to the club with whom he had such strong ties, Colm Coyle asked him in. Unfortunately that amounted to just one appearance, an O’Byrne Cup game, before injury ended his year, and with it went any lingering hopes of a Meath career.

Despite the abrupt ending to that chapter, however, there was another kick left.

Brennan came back into the Cavan fold, even coming off the bench to score a goal against Donegal in the 2012 Ulster Championship – one of just two goals Jim McGuinness’s side would concede on their way to lifting Sam that September - before eventually stepping away at the end of that season, happy with what had got from his inter-county career.

“Getting the chance to put on the Meath jersey was really special, don’t get me wrong, but playing for Cavan... I owe an awful lot to Cavan football.

“It opened so many doors to me, I made so many friends through Cavan GAA... there’s such a family feel about the GAA in Cavan, it’s a smaller county, people appreciate when you’re doing things for the better of the GAA.”

And that ancient angst – is it still there? If it is, Brennan believes, it comes primarily from one side of the border.

“There’s more of a rivalry from the Cavan side than the Meath side, without a shadow of a doubt. Maybe it’s different for some of the older generation.

“In north Meath, from Oldcastle right the way across to Kingscourt, you’ve got that border, but the most ferocious part of that rivalry would be most keenly felt around Kingscourt, Kilmainhamwood and Nobber. An awful lot of players would have moved across that border there to play between Meath and Cavan,

“During the week I was talking to Paul Fitzpatrick and David Rispin from the We are Cavan and We are Meath podcasts about where the rivalry rates for each other.

“For Meath, you have Dublin, Kildare, Louth, Westmeath... and probably then Cavan. But for Cavan people it’s probably Monaghan, then Meath. That’s it. I think Paul was a little bit disappointed to hear that...

“In 2018, the last time they played at Breffni, Mark Farrelly wrote a piece about the rivalry, talking about Carnaross on the border... at the Carnaross mart they’ve got this big, massive slurry tower, so he termed it ‘the battle of the shit tower of Carnaross’.

“This is how much it meant to him,” laughs Brennan, “whereas Meath people were probably going ‘really?’”

And yet, with Meath and Cavan occupying third and fourth spot in the Division Two table going into Saturday night’s game, the heat could be turned up should it survive the freezing temperatures.

Nowadays Mickey Brennan’s dulcet tones can be heard illuminating matches on Shannonside Northern Sound, and he will be on the microphone at Kingspan Breffni – “doing an unbiased commentary, and hoping for a draw”.

“It’s funny because... look obviously I’m a Meath man, but with blue blood.

“I’ll be bringing my three my three kids up, twins and a little daughter. The twins were born in Cavan, now live in Meath, and the three of them are both Cavan and Meath supporters, so they can’t lose.”