GAA Football

New book pays tribute to Cavan's Charlie Gallagher, 'the George Best of the GAA'

Cavan legend Charlie Gallagher, receiving the O'Gorman Cup at Wembley in 1966.

YOU may wonder why anyone would write a book about a Cavan footballer without a Celtic Cross, one who didn’t even play in an All-Ireland Final.

Charlie Gallagher, though, was something else. Something special, as a player and a man.

Not just a scoring machine, he was `the George Best of the GAA’, according to his biographer Paul Fitzpatrick.

The parallels are there: money, sports cars, a devil-may-care attitude to life, even a winner at Wembley.

Sadly, like Best, Gallagher had problems with alcohol too.

He died 30 years ago, aged just 51, in a drowning accident, but his memory lives on. His performances on the pitch are one reason for that, but so was his personality.

“The charisma” was Fitzpatrick’s explanation behind his decision to pen the tale of Gallagher’s life and playing days.

Cootehill Celtic clubman Charlie was “a phenomenally consistent scorer”, registering a total of 10-142 in his senior championship career. On the Ulster ‘scoreboard’ he was behind only two legends when he retired from inter-county action, Cavan’s own Peter Donohoe and Down’s Paddy Doherty; in the half-century since he has only been over-taken by major names – Sean O’Neill, Peter Canavan, Oisin McConville, and Paddy Bradley.

Yet Fitzpatrick insists that wasn’t the attraction of Gallagher as a subject: “It wasn’t that, it was more the charisma. He was a dentist by trade so he had plenty of cash when nobody had any cash.

“[Former Cavan player] Gabriel Kelly told me that Cavan would train on Thursday nights and after training they would go to the Farnham Hotel and have some sandwiches. They had no money, but especially on a Thursday because you got paid on a Friday.

“Fellas would say, ‘We’d better get back to Dublin’ and Charlie would reply ‘Ah, I think I’ll book a room here’.

“He was an unbelievable showman. He was the ultimate package of looks, personality – and the skill to match them. He was known for really, spectacular points – he’d score points from the corner flag.

Pressed for a comparison to a player of recent times, Fitzpatrick replied: “He wouldn’t have been a Canavan, Charlie wasn’t a man for the rough stuff; Canavan could give and take it.

“I don’t know who I’d compare him to. The best comparison I have is to George Best. Several people said they never encountered anyone like him, he had all those qualities.

“What really stood out is that nobody had a bad word to say about him, and that’s not just because he’s dead. Everyone just adored him, his team-mates and everyone else.

“Everyone had their own Charlie Gallagher story, something that he did or something that he said.”

The book has been written in co-operation with Charlie’s family, as well as interviews with “almost all the main [Cavan] players from the Sixties”, including Ray Carolan, Gabriel Kelly, Tom Lynch, Donal O’Grady, and Phil ‘Lightning’ Murray.

Cavan would have expected Charlie to add to their tally of five All-Irelands. His older brother Brian had won one in 1952 and Fitzpatrick says: “I have a quote from a fella called Jimmy Sheridan, who said that when Charlie was a minor he was as famous as many senior players. He won a MacRory Cup with St Pat’s, Cavan, in ’55.

“The Cavan minor team would be listed in the paper, all with their first initials – but it was always ‘Charlie Gallagher’, so he was obviously something special.

“He was into the Cavan [senior] team straight out of minors, he turned 18 on Christmas Day 1955.

“Cavan had just lost an All-Ireland semi-final in a replay to Kerry, who went on to win the All-Ireland. Three years earlier they were All-Ireland champions, the Polo Grounds [the famous 1947 All-Ireland final victory over the Kingdom in New York] was only eight years earlier, so there was no reason to think things would change.”

Yet strangely Gallagher’s senior career coincided with a downturn in Cavan’s fortunes. After 18 consecutive Ulster finals appearances, they made it 19 in 1956 – but lost to Tyrone, the Red Hands’ first provincial crown.

“In Charlie’s first seven years they never won an Ulster title,” recalls Fitzpatrick. “In ‘57 they didn’t even get to the Ulster Final.

“There’s probably a book in that in itself; the late 50s was an unbelievable period of change. Tyrone came in, then Derry, then Down came along, all won their first Ulsters. It was a very interesting era.”

The Breffni Blues did get back on top, at least in Ulster, dethroning back-to-back All-Ireland Champions Down in their 1962 triumph, then also beating the Mournemen in the deciders of 1964, 1967, and 1969, on that last occasion when Down were once more the team to beat.

However, they never got past the All-Ireland semi-final stage themselves, including being pipped by Cork in 1967 and beaten by Offaly in a replay two years later.

Charlie retired from inter-county action after that and Fitzpatrick says: “Cavan football went with Charlie. We were on 38 Ulster titles when he finished playing and, 50 years later, we’re on 39.”

Gallagher struggled with his post-playing life. “He was based in Derry through the worst of ‘the Troubles’ and removed from his whole celebrity football sphere as well, and he started to drink heavily when he went there. He never grew up, and then he had his own problems with alcohol.”

The star of Cavan football in the Sixties tragically drowned in 1989. “It was an accident, but he would have had drink taken. He went to the river for a swim, around 10 o’clock in the evening…then started struggling.”

Thirty years on, Paul Fitzpatrick has produced a fitting tribute in ‘Charlie: The story of Charlie Gallagher, the GAA’s lost icon’.

* The book will be launched tomorrow (Friday) at 9pm in the Hotel Kilmore, Cavan, with former GAA President Aogán Ó Fearghail as the guest of honour. Further launches will follow next Thursday, September 26 at The Boar’s Head in Dublin (also 9pm), and at Cootehill Library at 7pm on Tuesday October 8.

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