Unofficial, unfinished – the story of 'the first Ulster Club Final'
'IT was the best game I never saw.'
Never mind the current wave of ‘what-might-have-beens’ concerning cancelled/postponed Championship matches, there’s still debate surrounding what was arguably the first Ulster Club Football Final.
Not the official one, when Derry kingpins Bellaghy defeated the St Joseph’s amalgamation from Donegal in 1968, but an encounter four years earlier in Irvinestown.
That was a game literally shrouded in the mists of time, between Fermanagh champs Devenish (from Garrison) and their Antrim counterparts St John’s of Belfast, both of whom had progressed through western and eastern sections respectively.
Sean Treacy, who wrote the definitive history of his club entitled ‘Devenish: A Century in the Making’, relates how the competition came about:
“Up in the city St John's came up with the novel idea of a Clubs' Championship. They travelled to Irvinestown and met with [then Fermanagh county secretary] Malachy Mahon amongst others. Arising from that, St John's were to organise the competition in the East and Irvinestown in the West.
“The visionary St John's committee went a step further and arranged a meeting with Guinness in Belfast, securing the first ever sponsorship deal between Guinness and the GAA.”
More of that involvement later…
For planning purposes, the competition would involve the 1963 champions of the various Ulster counties.
That didn’t matter as regards St John’s, who were in the middle of a seven-in-a-row in Antrim, but Devenish were actually dethroned in 1964 by Newtownbutler, but the Garrison men were slated to represent the Erne County nonetheless. Besides, as Sean Treacy pointed out about that 1964 county final, “we were missing several regulars and JJ Treacy played despite a serious injury.”
Sean MacCumhaill’s of Ballybofey completed a Donegal title treble in 1964, but were edged out by Devenish in the Ulster western section first round, by 0-7 to 0-5. The match in Ballyshannon was refereed by Gerry McGirr of Irvinestown, with PT Treacy, Benny Carty, Peter Ferguson, and Sean O’Loughlin the Devenish scorers.
Devenish were much more convincing victors in the Western decider against Tyrone outfit Omagh St Enda’s, emerging triumphant by 1-11 to 1-3 at Irvinestown; there is less information about the scorers but it seems midfielder Kevin O’Shea forced the Devenish goal.
Unsurprisingly, Bellaghy were the Derry club involved, county winners seven times in the Sixties, including a hat-trick from 1963-65. However, they lost the Eastern decider after what’s recalled as ‘a brilliant battle’ with the Johnnies, who also won seven county crowns in that decade.
Until the files can be visited, the participation of the 1963 winners from other Ulster counties, remains unclear, but for the record they should have been: Clann Eireann of Lurgan, only their second (and last) time as Armagh winners; Cavan’s Mullahoran; Glenn, then a force in Down; and Monaghan’s Castleblayney Faughs.
With the final set for November 1 in Irvinestown, in the build-up the game was billed ‘the battle of the brothers’, with five Gallaghers on the St John's team and four Treacys on the Devenish side; the latter also boasted Tommy Gallagher, incidentally.
Devenish began the decider brightly, with plenty of possession, but the Belfast men played with greater calm, and led through two early frees converted by Mickey Gallagher.
Devenish struck a series of wides but Gerry Treacy and Kevin O’Shea did bring them briefly level before Sean Burns gave St Johns’s a 3-2 half-time advantage.
The city side stretched their lead to four points, 0-6 to 0-2, including a couple of Gerry McRory frees, and had a ‘goal’ by their captain Brendan McGurk ruled out due to an earlier referee’s whistle.
Devenish came back at them but, with the score at 0-7 to 0-4, the weather conditions finally became too much.
The match report from the ‘Fermanagh Herald’ takes up the story: ‘It has for a long time being an accepted fact that games in Fermanagh are liable to be interrupted by rain, snow, frost and flooding, but never in my experience has a match being called off because it was blacked out by fog.
‘It should have happened last Sunday when Devenish and St John's of Belfast met at Irvinestown in the final of the Ulster Club Championship.
‘Visibility was never very good but it was fairly adequate for most of the opening period, though even at that stage there were times when the scoreboard was completely unreadable from the press box.
‘Before half-time the mists came rolling in and the light deteriorated so rapidly after the resumption the posts could not be picked out from the half- way line.
‘With 20 minutes of play remaining visibility had been reduced to less than a score of yards and we judged where play was centred and which side was doing well from the behaviour of three or four players within 30 yards of us. It was a farcical finish.
‘And, as one wit put it, 'It was the best game I never saw'.’
Devenish player Jimmy Mulrone (RIP) said at the time that “it was only possible to see the play when it came close to you.”
The Devenish history states that “conditions grew worse until the players finally assumed ghostly shapes on the field and they were not visible beyond 20 yards. The goals were lost to view of one sitting at the middle of the sideline and only the cheers of the crowd near the goals was an indication of trends of play.
“Not surprisingly there was no further scoring and St John’s were victors by seven points to four points.”
Fully 55 years after that unfinished game the discussions weren’t over either.
Many of the surviving participants met up in Garrison late last year, and Sean Treacy told those assembled: “To this day there is a debate (as happens in GAA folklore ) about how much time the referee played in the second half.
“One thing, we know is that the debate will never be resolved - talks or negotiations, backstops or borders in the Irish Sea won't resolve the issue. I know you have a different version in Belfast.”
Devenish and Fermanagh legend PT Treacy recalled that the game was tight but “it was at this stage that the fog came down and the referee abandoned the match with 10 minutes remaining. St John’s were awarded the match.
“I feel this was rather unjust and I am convinced we could have won had the game been finished.”
Back in 1964, Rev Fr Lonergan, speaking on behalf of Devenish, congratulated St John’s on their win – but added that they still did not know which was the better team and that it was a pity that the fog had come on when it did.
Due to the controversial finish, Guinness diplomatically invited both teams to tour their brewery at St James’s Gate in Dublin. Mr Denis Broadberry presented a cup and the first set of medals to a GAA event from Guinness.
PT Treacy remembered that trip to the brewery, although there were more clear heads than you might expect: “Looking at the picture there appears to be a large number of pioneer pins on display.
“Indeed I think there were only three people in the entire party who availed of the generous helpings of the famous black brew which was on offer. As Jim Carty might say, times certainly have changed and not for the better.”
St John’s and Devenish may dispute the outcome to this day but the happy memories of that original meeting linger on too.
The teams from that foggy day in November 1964 were:
St John’s: Henry Gallagher; Eugene Gallagher, Herbie Gallagher, Stephen Haller; Ciaran Trainor, John Gough, Seamus Gallagher; Mickey Gallagher (0-3, 0-2 frees), Dessie Armstrong; Eamon Grieve, Gerry McCrory (0-2 frees), Oliver Campbell; Michael McCrory, Brendan McGurk (capt.) (0-1), Sean Burns (0-1).
Substitutes: Eamon Gough, Finn Gough, Paddy Morgan.
Devenish: Sean Doherty; JJ Treacy (capt.), Gerry Regan, Gerry Feely; Gerry Flanagan, Michael Treacy, Patsy McGurran; Kevin O’Shea (0-2, 0-1 free), Tommy Gallagher; Pat O’Loughlin, PT Treacy (0-1), Gerry Treacy (0-1); Sean O’Loughlin, Peter Ferguson, Benny Carty.
Substitute: Gerry McCauley for Carty (inj.).
* Many thanks to Sean Treacy for his massive assistance with this article and for providing the photographs.
Canon Patrick Lonergan recalled during Devenish’s centenary year celebrations how he had scored a hat-trick to win the 1963 Fermanagh SFC Final against Roslea, by 3-4 to 1-7 and send the Garrison club into that unofficial Ulster Club Championship.
A selector in those days along with Devenish captain JJ Treacy, Fr Lonergan was initially selected as a substitute – but the day before the final Jody Maguire, father of corner-forward Peter, died suddenly.
The decider wasn’t postponement, instead Fr Lonergan was drafted in to replace Peter Maguire, playing at full-forward. Up against Roslea full-back Joe Pat Prunty, who went on to establish the famed Prunty Pitches firm, Lonergan found the net three times.
The hero of the hour couldn’t join in the celebrations, however: “I couldn’t wait as I had to rush home to receive Jody Maguire’s remains at St Mary’s Church.”