AS iconic events go, it was up there with the best of them, but I suspect that, like me, most of the people who assembled at lunch-time in a marquee erected alongside the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle, Co. Down on Friday last, had never experienced anything like it. Billed as ‘a first’ for annual GAA Congress, in welcoming delegates from all over the country and overseas, it was primarily about honouring the All-Ireland-winning Down teams of 1960 and 1961.
Fifty years on, the history-making victory over Kerry (in the process inflicting the biggest ever defeat on the Kingdom – by eight points, 2-10 to 0-8, until Offaly won by nine in the 1972 replay) still hasn’t lost its lustre. Combined with the win twelve months later over Offaly (in front of an attendance of 90,556, never since equalled), it earned cult status for the players captained in consecutive years by Kevin Mussen and Paddy Doherty.
Over 850 guests were in attendance, led by GAA President Christy Cooney and the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese was the honoured guest – very much at home among her own, as a proud Down woman. In an inspired address, she talked about what it meant to her personally.
“I was nine years old and absolutely nothing in my life until then had opened to me the concept of the realm of possibility.....and that you could place such faith in the future. In the summer and autumn of 1960, through a series of steps and miracles, we went from resignation to optimism, from optimism to hope and from hope to heritage.......We did not get there by accident.
“That was the achievement of those men who we honour today, the team, their management and mentors.’’
To put that achievement in context, it’s remarkable to recall that Down hadn’t won the Ulster championship until the year before.
Following retention of the title in 1960, they went on to create history by becoming the first team to bring the Sam Maguire Cup across the border. Between 1959 and 1968, they won seven provincial titles and three All-Irelands, a statistic which testifies to their greatness – which Derry great Jim McKeever attributed to a ‘ruthlessly efficient, a competent midfield and a wonderful forward machine.’
We could add in that the Down team of that era was credited with bringing a more scientific approach to Gaelic football, imbuing it with a style and panache that has always characterised their play.
Interestingly, the original ‘Sam’ – nowadays kept in a display cabinet in the GAA museum in Croke Park and not the replica nestling in the Kingdom, was proudly on display.
The third of their All-Ireland victories in that glorious period - the only one I saw - was in 1968. My outstanding memory is the genius of Sean O’Neill in scoring a decisive goal – side-footing the ball to the net after it came back off an upright. That victory was also achieved against Kerry and, if there had been any doubt about the merit of the 1960 win, Down also defeated them in the 1961 semi-final.
Among those who received presentations on the day was former Meath star Peter McDermott (best known as ‘The man with the cap’) who had the rare distinction of refereeing All-Ireland football finals before and after winning a medal himself - in Meath’s own breakthrough year of 1949.
He had an interesting involvement with the 1960 team, which arose from a letter he wrote to a friend in Newry in which he pointed out what he perceived as faults in the team after watching them draw with Offaly in the All-Ireland semi-final. The late journalist and author Raymond Smith, writing in the 1971 edition of ‘The Football Immortals,’ revealed how McDermott agreed to come on board as coach for the final – on condition that it was kept a closely-guarded secret.
Dr. Maurice Hayes – a former member of the Irish Senate and a Northern Ireland Ombudsman – was the Down County Board Secretary at the time. Responding on behalf of the players, he was loud in his praise for the role McDermott played in the background. He had given them ‘a sense of perspective,’ he said, adding: “he told us that win or lose, the Mountains of Mourne would still be there on Monday!’’
Regarded as the architect of Down’s successes, he reminded guests that the county had a low profile at the time. “If there had been laps of honour, we would have done one if we won the toss,’’ he joked.
Writing in a publication produced by the Down Communications Committee, Dr. Hayes (who, incidentally, informed guests that he had a Kerry mother) recounted this story as his ‘favourite memory’ of the 1960 final. It was of Patsy O’Hagan, who only died recently, ‘giving a kick to a supporter who had run on to the pitch in the mistaken belief that the referee had blown full time.
“(He gave him) a sore root in the backside, telling him that we did not want to lose a game that had been won because of a pitch invasion!’’
Ironically, five decades on, pitch invasions are high on the GAA’s agenda, with the real possibility of government legislation being viewed as the only way in which crowds celebrating major victories will be prevented from celebrating them on the field – not just in Croke Park but all over the country.
Delegates heard at the opening session of Congress on Friday night that such legislation is believed to be ‘imminent’ in Northern Ireland.
Footnote: Apart from reliving these triumphs all over again, Down County Board officials and the army of voluntary officials who were on duty for the week-end had much to celebrate in their highly efficient hosting of Congress. Clearly, with the bar steadily rising, Westmeath have a lot of work ahead of them over the next twelve months if they are to reach a similar standard in hosting next year’s Congress in Mullingar.