60 years ago today: Down's All-Ireland Football final triumph crossed all divides
OF all the many conversations I’ve had over the years about the rise of Down Gaelic football in the Sixties, one in particular still stands out to this day.
And it wasn’t a player, a manager or a pundit.
No, it was with the late George Graham from Kilkeel back in 1982 when he was chairman of the Newry and Mourne Council.
George was such a staunch loyalist that at one stage he quit the DUP to run as a `Protestant' candidate in a Stormont election.
He was not, it is fair to say, a man who wore his beliefs lightly.
However one night following a Council meeting that I was covering, the normally taciturn George and myself somehow got into a conversation about sport and eventually into Gaelic football.
Much to my astonishment he reeled off six or seven names from the famous 1960 All-Ireland winning Down side without as much as a pause - over 20 years after the event - and recalled, with quite a measure of impression, the excitement in the county when they brought the Sam Maguire Cup across the border for the first time.
“You didn’t expect to hear that from me, did you?’ he finally said, and went off with a very satisfied grin.
A few days following that victory over Kerry, the story is well told of a Protestant postman knocking the door of one of the Down footballers and proclaiming: ''Well done! Well done! Ye bate the bastards!''
It seemed that many others at home in the county and beyond wanted to celebrate but were not sure how, that it stirred something uplifting within them but they were not sure what, that the success belonged to them as well but were uncertain as to why.
Down captain Kevin Mussen revealed recently how Protestant neighbours used to call to his house after the final to see the famous Sam Maguire cup and congratulate him on the great achievement.
There are many such stories told of the pride with which the Down triumph was received across the Mourne County community as a whole.
Down’s All-Ireland achievement amounted to the crossing of a huge barrier that had dominated the Fifties.
No side from the six counties had been able to break the hoodoo in All-Ireland semi-finals and finals; Armagh in 1950 and ’53, Antrim in ’51, Tyrone in '56 and ’57.
Then Derry in 1958 and up-and-coming Down in ’59 - it was something akin to the Mayo impasse of modern times.
A large measure of fatalism had entered the scene like the four-minute mile or the last thousand feet of Everest that had defeated every expedition between 1921 and 1953.
But after emerging victorious from the two struggles against Offaly in the semi-final, there was a sudden atmosphere of fresh expectation.
These games seemed to have matured and hardened the side, and for once, a tense struggle against quite powerful opposition in the cauldron of Croke Park had resulted in a northern victory.
In both games Down had come back from adversity and this created a mood of excitement all over the country that something unimaginable a few years earlier was on the cards, an excitement that seeped into the imagination of the wider community north of the border.
It was the start of a new decade after all. The Fifties were dead and gone.
Such was the rare atmosphere leading to the confrontation with Kerry that it made the front page headline of the Sunday Press - ‘All set for epic final.’
And so on that Sunday morning of September 25 1960 Down supporters checked their cars and vans for oil and water for the long journey, checked the tyres, maybe the points and plugs as well and headed off in their Austin 7s, 10s, 12s and 16s, Morris 10s, Morris minors, Ford Prefects, Bedford vans, Zodiacs, Consuls, A-30s, Volkswagen Beetles, Citroens, Hillman Minxs, Rover 2000s, Anglias, Humbers and Morris Major vans.
Through the bottlenecks of Newry, Dundalk, Castlebellingham, Dunleer, Drogheda, Julianstown, Balbriggan and Swords, on past Dublin airport and down into the cauldron of Drumcondra and suddenly straight ahead, the great elevation of the new Hogan stand.
To the left of that was the more venerable Cusack Stand which had a county Down connection in that Michael Cusack taught in St Colman’s College, Newry from 1871 to 1876.
In 1882 he founded the Dublin Hurling Club - said to be the nucleus of the GAA which came two years after.
Listed on that hurling team were several county Down Protestants including Rev Samuel Holmes and the brothers Frank and Robert Patterson from Newry.
I was very young man in 1960 and for some reason found myself in my grandparents house in Keady where it was half-time in the game when I arrived.
I counted nine visitors there in a mixture of tension and excitement listening to the high-pitched voice of Michael O Hehir, who kept repeating that Down were ahead by two points.
As the game resumed I worked out that seven of those gathered in the house, as well as my granda, were totally supporting Down.
They included a highly-excitable man sitting beside me who, when James McCartan scored a goal after about 10 minutes, literally sprung into life squealing at the top of his voice: ''She’s comin’ across! She’s comin’ across!’ (meaning the Sam Maguire was going to cross the border), and his feet drumming up and down on the floor like pistons.
The excitement was now in full boil and then Down were awarded a penalty.
The room filled with mutterings and exclamations and a shifting in the seats and a great hush came over the radio as if there was nobody in Croke Park.
Then Michael O Hehir broke the lull: ''And up he steps!''
No other broadcaster possessed such a vocal detonation of the word ‘goal,’ sounding like the snarl of a cat in a midnight fight.
The man beside me went into another craze of excitement with his feet in full revs as two listeners fled the house without a word.
The crossing of the border with the Sam Maguire cup was a genuine ‘passing over,’ a coming of age.
Gaelic football in the six counties had triumphed, obliterated the memories of the gallant Fifties, broke the long spell and removed the border as the psychological obstacle it had become in this regard.
Down were the kings of Ireland.
There had been no homecoming like it in the history of the GAA in terms of crowds and excitement.
All the way from Dublin they were greeted in the various towns with immense jubilation as the cavalcade reached the Killeen border where a crossing ceremony was organised by the local Cloghogue clergy and the adjacent Killeavy GFC.
After that historic gesture, it was on down the hill into the waiting and welcoming arms of Newry.
Later on their homecoming tour of the county the team were welcomed into Castlewellan by the parish priest Rev C J Crossan who was joined by Rev FN Warren of the Church of Ireland and Rev J Bridgett of the Presbyterian church along with the Lord Lieutenant for County Down Hon Gerald Annesley.
The excitement was still fully alive three months later when Co Down secretary Maurice Hayes along with Leo Murphy, Tony Hadden and George Lavery - Belfast-based players at the time - brought the Sam Maguire to Crumlin Road prison for a Christmas event.
Leo afterwards wrote of the great roar that went up when they appeared on stage with the trophy in front of prisoners of all religious and political persuasions, none of whom had any prior notice of the visit.
The deafening acclaim went on and on for a full 15 minutes until they could hold up the cup no longer.
Leo Murphy afterwards stated that it was: ''the most emotional hiatus of any that I know in which the Sam Maguire was the focus of attention.''
The acclaim of Down football reached a level of official recognition when the All-Ireland-winning team of 1968 were given a civic reception in Belfast City Hall.
After the great age of Down football, it was a decade before the next surge of colour and excitement appeared in Ulster football.
That was when Derry-born Gerry O'Neill took Armagh from nowhere to the All-Ireland final in 1977, transformed things in that county and sowed the seeds of the eventual winning of the Sam Maguire.
But the euphoria then was much more one-sided. By 1977 the Troubles were in full spate and people had largely returned to the comfort zone of their own communities.
More recently, Down great Mickey Linden referred to the fact that many Protestants, especially those from the locality, followed Down’s fortunes throughout both All-Ireland years ’91 and ‘94.
His neighbours ‘from the other side of the house’ watched every game and wished him well and congratulated him openly and enthusiastically.
So can the GAA ever remove itself from the underlying ambitions of its founders as a symbol of Irish cultural identity and sense of destiny, and which was hardened and re-shaped along the way by political and social intrusions?
Can it ever be a game as a game, freed from its historic settings?
The overall ambivalence, contradictions and aspirations regarding the Association from this perspective was best articulated in the book ‘Talking Gaelic’ by Newry man and ardent Down supporter, Eamonn Rafferty, a former sub editor with the Irish News and for the past 30 years a journalist in London, most recently at the Financial Times until his retirement in 2016.
Written in 1997, this unique compilation still remains perhaps the most insightful and enlightening of all GAA books of modern times.
It holds up a mirror to the Association from a wide selection of opinion here and abroad, how the games lived up to expectations and affected their lives, the status of the GAA as an authentic sporting expression of the Irish psyche along with the problems that remain unresolved, notably the absence of Protestant participation.
It involved a series of interviews with 27 leading political, cultural and sporting personalities including Bertie Ahern, Nell McCafferty, Pat Jennings, Archbishop Sean Brady, Robert McCartney, Willie Anderson, Mary McAleese, Marty Morrissey, Niall Quinn, Tommy Makem, Mick O'Connell, DJ Carey, Barney Eastwood and Patrick Kielty.
Much has changed on the political and sporting landscapes since Rafferty's ‘Talking Gaelic’ publication.
Events like the recent formation of a new GAA club in East Belfast always cause an outbreak of wonder and satisfaction.
But there is still a long way to go, much to be done, still far beyond the horizon of expectation, even allowing for social and political developments, until an Ulster Club Championship final score might be heard over the radio: Portadown Williamites 3-12 Larne Clyde Valleys 0-14.
*Talking Gaelic – Leading Personalities on the GAA' by Eamonn Rafferty, Blackwater Press, 1997