‘Back to the early men of Ulster GAA’ - Monaghan-Cavan renew 136-year rivalry in provincial opener

‘I’d have been shot!’ Eamon McEneaney recalls cold sweat when Monaghan ended Cavan streak in 1988

Monaghan's Ryan Wylie and Cavan's Dara McVeety in action during the Ulster Senior Football Championship quarter-final between Cavan and Monaghan at Kingspan Breffni in Cavan on Saturday May 18 2019. Picture by Philip Walsh 
Monaghan's Ryan Wylie and Cavan's Dara McVeety tangle during the Ulster quarter-final in 019. Picture by Philip Walsh

CLONES-Redhills, Ballybay-Cootehill, Corduff-Shercock, Magheracloone-Kingscourt… The communities on either side of the county line know all about the enduring rivalry that exists between Monaghan and Cavan.

It goes right back to when the early men of Ulster GAA cut trees for their goalposts, chased cattle off the field, tucked their trousers into their socks and went at it hell-for-leather until somebody called time.

It was 136 years ago when the grand masters of Ulster football, who get the ball rolling on the Ulster Football Championship at Clones on Sunday, met in the first-ever Ulster final.

Michael Cusack had founded the GAA just four years’ earlier and 1888 was the first year of the provincial system. Tipperary won in Munster, Kilkenny were the Leinster champions but, typically, the northern province produced the most drama.

The first game ended in a draw – two points each – and Monaghan won the replay 3-1 to become the Ulster champions and detonate an explosion of interest in Gaelic Football on this end of the island.

The keen, but good-natured, rivalry between Monaghan and Cavan has simmered at the same temperature ever since.

They’ve met 12 more times in Ulster finals. Cavan did a two in-a-row over Monaghan in 1923-’24 and the Farneymen returned the favour in 1929 and 1930. The last Ulster final between the pair was in 1952, the year of Cavan’s fifth All-Ireland title, and it says a lot about the quality of the teams’ exchanges when you factor in how the Breffnimen had also needed to beat Monaghan on the way to three of their previous four Sam Maguires (1935, 1947 and 1948).

The front cover of 'The Irish News', reporting on the 1947 All-Ireland Senior Football Final - and the consecration of Kilmore Cathedral in Cavan.
The front cover of The Irish News reporting on the 1947 All-Ireland Senior Football Final between cavan and Kerry

“Over the years there’s been unbelievable rivalry between us,” Cavan native John Reilly explained.

“It has always been there, right up to 2020 (see below) when Raymond Galligan scored the winning point to get us through in the Championship.”

That dramatic win – played out during the Covid lockdown in front of empty stands at Clones – propelled Cavan to their 40th Ulster title. Monaghan, with 16 provincial crowns, are joint second alongside Tyrone.

“The banter is always unbelievable,” added Reilly.

“If you go to Virginia or Mullagh, their arch-rivals would be Meath, but the craic in the pubs along the Cavan/Monaghan border in Shercock, Redhill, Clones is always great. I would call it a healthy rivalry.

“When Magheracloone (Monaghan) lost their grounds because of the sink holes and had to totally rebuild they would have played a lot of their games in Kingscourt so, while there’s a rivalry, it would be a friendly one. Monaghan and Cavan people aren’t easily offended – not when it comes to football anyway – so they enjoy the craic although you might get an odd one hear and there who takes it to heart.

“Don’t get me wrong – for 70-80 minutes or how ever long it lasts on Sunday – there would be a profound hatred for each other but that’s where it would start and end. We’d all go to matches and meet and mingle, it wouldn’t go further than the final whistle.”

As a former Monaghan player and manager, Eamon McEneaney has been involved in more of these derby clashes than most. He was part of the team that ended a long barren run for his county back in 1988.

“There’s always been rivalry between us and Cavan, no matter who was good at the time,” he says.

“Traditionally, before my time, Monaghan and Cavan had dominated in Ulster. Then Monaghan had been in the wilderness for many years and when we came through in the 1980s we had the better of it. Even though we didn’t play them that much, we were winning things and they weren’t winning as much.

“They have won the last couple but I would say that Monaghan people would be quietly-hopeful going into Sunday. I wouldn’t say ‘confident’ because Monaghan have suffered reverses in the League although they played well enough in a lot of games to suggest that there’s more to come.

“They’ve had a few injuries and I’m hoping that a lot of them are going to be available for this game. Monaghan got relegated but I think they’ll have regrouped and dusted themselves down to go again and they won’t lack for motivation. It’s Championship, it’s in Clones and we don’t lose that many in Clones.

“If they have their experienced players available and fit along with the new players they’ve brought in and they get the blend right I still think it could be good enough. But Cavan had a decent League too and they’ve been rejuvenated under Raymond Galligan. They’ll pose a serious threat and in Monaghan-Cavan games if you go back over the years and there’s never much between them.”

Here are a few memorable chapters from the Farney-Breffni rivalry to whet your appetite for Sunday:

1947 Ulster SFC quarter final: Cavan 0-9 Monaghan 1-6; Replay: Cavan 1-11 Monaghan 1-9

CAVAN’S famous victory over Kerry in the All-Ireland final at the Polo Grounds in New York (the only decider to be played outside Ireland) almost never happened.

In their first game of that momentous season, the Breffnimen were held to a draw on home soil by Monaghan and had to go to Clones for the replay. Another nip-and-tuck clash followed at St Tiernach’s Park but Cavan got over the line by a couple of points and went on to secure immortality for the likes of Phil ‘The Gunner’ Brady, Tony Tighe, PJ Duke and ‘The Gallant Joe Joe’ - the outstanding John Joe O’Reilly - with victory over the Kingdom in ‘the Big Apple’.

Former Monaghan manager Eamon McEneaney and officials leave the pitch after the National Football League clash against Derry in March 2012 at Celtic Park
Eamon McEneaney was a three-time Ulster winner with Monaghan who went on to manage the county
1988 Ulster SFC quarter-final: Monaghan 0-16 Cavan 0-14

Cavan had gone 19 Championship games – and 58 years from 1930 - unbeaten against their neighbours when they met in Clones. Monaghan, spearheaded by ‘Nudie’ Hughes and Eamon McEneaney, had been Ulster champions in 1985 and it was that pair who provided the bulk of the scores as the Farneymen finally ended their barren run.

Hughes scored five points and McEneaney 0-3 to cancel out Ray Carolan’s 0-10 for Cavan and send Monaghan on to an Ulster final victory over Tyrone.

But, as always, there are stories to tell and McEneaney had broken out in a cold sweat before the finish.

“We got a penalty in the last minute,” he recalled.

“I looked around at Sean McCague (the Monaghan manager) and he pointed up, for me to put it over the bar. That was against the grain for me, going for a point from a penalty but I thought: ‘I’ll do what the manager says here’. I thought time was up and I put it over the bar to leave two points in it. I thought the referee was gonna blow it up at the kickout but he didn’t… Bejaysus they went down the field and nearly scored a goal - I had some sweat on me watching it.

“They put the ball into our goalmouth… Thank God we got it cleared because I would have got it in the neck from everyone in Monaghan, everyone in my team and everyone in the country if they had. I’d have been shot!”

Cavan were hoping Fintan Cahill could shake off a finger problem to play in the 1997 Ulster SFC Final against Derry. Pic Ann McManus
Fintan Cahill scored Cavan's goal in the 1995 duel. Pic Ann McManus
1995 Ulster SFC semi-final: Cavan 1-9 Monaghan 0-10

IN a golden era for Ulster football this was another nerve-jangler. Fintan Cahill scored Cavan’s goal with an eye-of-the-needle finish in off the post against the run of play. A packed house at Clones watched on as Padraig McShane went through to reply for Monaghan and was taken down by Cavan goalkeeper Paul O’Dowd. Declan Smyth took the penalty and the ball was heading for the top corner until O’Dowd got a hand on it and diverted it onto the post. Cavan scrambled it away and clung on to win by two points.

Tyrone beat the Breffnimen in the final but the Cavan faithful wintered satisfied with victory over the auld enemy.

In an interview with the Irish Times, Cahill recalled afterwards how a veteran supporter collared him on the way out of Mass the following weekend and said: “Don’t have a long face on you, young Cahill. It was a good summer. We got the hay in and them f**kers from Monaghan was bet.”

2015: Ulster SFC quarter-final: Monaghan 0-16 Cavan 0-15

A TYPICALLY topsy-turvy affair saw Monaghan fight back from two points down at the break to win by the minimum at Kingspan Breffni. Niall McDermott landed four points in the first half to give Cavan the advantage but with Conor McManus and Darren Hughes (who’ll both be in action on Sunday) to the fore it was the Farneymen who shaded a tense battle.

Cavan goalkeeper Raymond Galligan kicks his side's winning point against Monaghan last Saturday.
Cavan goalkeeper Raymond Galligan kicks his side's winning point against Monaghan in 2020
2020: Ulster SFC preliminary round: Monaghan 1-17 Cavan 2-1 (AET)

IT was played on Halloween because of Covid and the players on both sides produced tricks and treats throughout and hour and-a-half of brilliant football. The only pity was there was nobody in Clones to see a classic.

Cavan had an early goal from Oisin Pierson but Conor McManus replied for Monaghan (they also hit the crossbar twice) who led by six points after an hour only for Cavan to hit half-a-dozen on the spin and force extra-time.

Monaghan kicked on and led by two at half-time of the extra 20 minutes but a Martin Reilly goal got Cavan noses in front. In injury-time of extra-time Rory Beggan levelled it only for Raymond Galligan to write his name in Breffni folklore and win it for his county with a superb free at the death.

“Gut-wrenching for us,” said Monaghan manager Seamus ‘Banty’ McEnaney, whose club Corduff sits on the county line.

“Really gut-wrenching.”