Art McRory: a giant of Tyrone GAA, a man of wit and wisdom

Tyrone GAA legend Art McRory, who has passed away.
Tyrone GAA legend Art McRory, who has passed away. Tyrone GAA legend Art McRory, who has passed away.

WHEN Tyrone finally scaled the All-Ireland heights, it’s because they were standing on the shoulders of a giant.

Art McRory, who has passed away in his native Dungannon, was a key figure in getting Red Hands to lift the Sam Maguire Cup in 2003.

The greats are often known solely by their first name, and Art – Big Art – is definitely in that category for Tyrone GAA, and further afield.

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In his third spell as manager, he’d led Tyrone to the National League title in 2002, their first ever senior national success, having blooded some of the exciting young talent from the back-to-back All-Ireland winning U21 teams of 2000-01.

In all, he was Tyrone manager for 18 years in total, plus stints as Minor and Vocational Schools boss. His dedication to that latter sector moulded a host of players who went on to wear the Red Hand with distinction.

He’d represented his county himself, playing in five senior Championship campaigns in the Sixties, and winning an All-Ireland Junior Championship as a player-coach.

Yet it was as Tyrone manager that he made his name.

With his thick glasses and his jutting jaw, Art was an imposing, almost intimidating figure. Yet behind that gruff exterior was a lovely, intelligent man. A great judge of players, able to discern talent even if they didn’t excel at underage.

His quick brain and sharp tongue never made him an easy interviewee, but he was usually entertaining. Unless he decided to go down the monosyllabic route.

Thankfully, he never deployed that approach with me. Admittedly, for our first dealings Art was obliged to speak to me, as I was ghost-writing his tactical analysis of the 1999 Ulster Senior Football Championship for The Irish News. Still, his kindness and patience in dealing with a largely clueless reporter new to the role will never be forgotten by me.

One of his former Tyrone players, Ciaran ‘Dinky’ McBride once summed Art up well: “He keeps you at arm's length until he sees what you're about, and if he likes you, he'll do anything for you, whether you're a county man or the lowliest club player."

Being far from a player, worse still a reporter, I never tested Art’s tolerance of me too far.

Well, that’s not entirely true.

The late Art McRory pictured during Tyrone's 1986 All-Ireland final defeat by Kerry. Picture: Sportsfile
The late Art McRory pictured during Tyrone's 1986 All-Ireland final defeat by Kerry. Picture: Sportsfile The late Art McRory pictured during Tyrone's 1986 All-Ireland final defeat by Kerry. Picture: Sportsfile

As I’ve mentioned before, I exploited the kindness of his late wife Helen, who sadly passed away earlier this year, having been cared for devotedly by Art. Mrs McCrory knew my mum, so whenever she answered the home phone, she made ‘Arthur’ come to talk to me. Even more amazingly, she made him call me back if he happened to be out.

On one occasion, Art told me that Peter Canavan had an injury, to his shoulder, if I recall correctly. “But put in that it’s his leg,” said Art. “I don’t want them targeting his shoulder.”

My then colleague Paddy Heaney reacted with disdain when I told him this; but what Art asked, I did.

When his patience ran out, the dry wit emerged. Asking about the likelihood of a recall for Adrian Cush, then into the ‘veteran’ category, Art paused before responding: “I hear Frank McGuigan has a hamstring problem.” Message received and understood.

During the first Covid lockdown I girded my loins to ask Art to do a feature interview. After bluntly stating his opinion of the worth of such articles, he told me this:

“If it was anyone else asking, I’d tell them to ‘F--- off’; as it’s you, I’ll just say ‘no’.

As far as Art went, that was high praise.

An outsider once praised a particular Tyrone player to Art. His response? “The only place for him is on a mantlepiece – he’s an ornament.”

Yet his affection for those he took under his wing was clear, and long-lasting.

I interviewed him before the 2005 All-Ireland Final and, in typical Art fashion, he had the final word, and a question to boot: “When is Ryan McMenamin going to get his All-Star?” The combative Dromore man got that accolade later that year, much to Art’s delight.

The last time I saw Art was outside the Healy Park stand, before the Tyrone-Armagh game, where was chatting to Brian McGuigan.

It wasn’t even just past players Art thought about, but past pupils too. A few days before last year’s All-Ireland SFC Final, Art called me up, concerned that Kerry’s strength and conditioning coach Jason McGahan, whom he had taught in Dungannon, wasn’t getting the attention he deserved in the media.

I happily told Art that we had carried a feature about the Tullysaran man a day or two earlier. Many another man might have bluffed and spoofed about why they’d ‘missed’ that edition; Art, though?: “Ah, I don’t read the papers.”

For all his bluntness, he was still fairly helpful to the media over the years.

It was never attention-seeking, though; Art McRory’s desire was always to do his best for Tyrone, bring the best to his county.

In a 2001 Irish Independent article, Art came out with a prescient comment: “I'd like to see Peter Canavan win an All-Ireland before he goes, but he's got a year or two left yet."

The interviewer asked, ‘What about winning one for Art McRory's sake?’, to which Art replied:

"I'd like to see Tyrone win one, whether I'm anything to do with it or not. If they do that, I'll die happy."

He got his happiness 20 years ago, when Peter brought Sam to Tyrone.

Art was no longer manager, having stepped down in late October 2002 due to illness, with his co-manager Eugene McKenna passed over the role in favour of Mickey Harte.

There was plenty of upset then about how that was handled, but Tyrone Gaeldom is in true, deep mourning for Big Art now.

However, Art McRory’s decades of dedication to Dungannon Clarke’s and to Tyrone, at all levels, will ensure his name and memory live on forever.

RIP Art. How great thou were.