By Seán O’Domhnaill
The first shot was kicked in the field in front of the house, recalls Seán Cleary. His father was a teacher, with his mother teaching at times as well, and the family were kept busy on the 15 acre holding and also saving the turf and so on.
Sitting in the conservatory in his Mullingar bungalow, Seán recalls those happy days of his youth in Ballygar, in East Galway. “We had a big field in front of the house, in the middle of it were two beautiful cherry-blossom trees, a 100 years old, 15 feet apart.
We put a rope across and that was the goals. We put two jackets or something the other end. There were about 18 young lads in Ballygar, and they went to Cleary’s field to kick football. There could be a cow chewing grass in the mix as well, but that’s where they were and my father was delighted because it kept us off the streets.” He says it was a great boost to football in the town. “The seven-a-sides, uptowns versus downtowns, and that’s where a lot of us started kicking football.
Then a young teacher, Joe Sweeney from Donegal, came into town and he organised things on a higher level. Some good footballers played there. Ballygar was lovely.”
The improvised Galway pitch gave football in Ballygar a boost, but also football in the Cleary household and Sean would go on to win Three In a Row Senior All-Irelands with Galway, from ’64 to ’66, with him playing at full forward in all three in what was a particularly talented county side.
Seán lives on the Lynn Road, Mullingar, with his wife, Anne. Her father, Pádraig Puirséal, hailed from Mooncoin, was a fanatical Kilkenny supporter, and was GAA correspondent for The Irish Press. Her mother was Agnes Hourigan, who was President of the Camogie Association of Ireland. “I qualified from UCD (where he met Anne) in 1964. That time jobs were plentiful because free education had come in. I saw an ad in the paper for Coláiste Mhuire (CBS) in Mullingar.
I applied for the job ‘as Gaeilge.’ And the principal of the school in Mullingar was a Brother PL Mac Craith, who happened to be from Tuam, and not only was he a GAA supporter, but he was a fanatical GAA supporter,” and so several Galway GAA stars were to follow Seán there. Seán is a happy person and no doubt he brought that to his work in the school, as a maths and Irish teacher, and also elsewhere. In any case he seems to have liked Mullingar and St. Mary’s CBS a lot.
He wasn’t that long there before he experienced the friendliness. “When we won the All-Ireland final in 1964, it was my first All-Ireland (senior) final, the crowd rushed in on the field and who was beside me only Br. Mac Craith! And he wasn’t young.
He shook my hand and he said “comhghairdeachas!” and I said: “I won’t be in tomorrow.” He replied: “I don’t mind if you don’t come in for the week!” So I arrived in on the Tuesday morning and he had the whole school at the door, to welcome in the man with the All-Ireland medal! He was a lovely man. “That time, for example, if your team happened to win the league you got two weeks in America, and he had no problem with that, and you could play in Wembley Stadium on Whit Weekend and so on.
It was a lovely school and some of the lads were good soccer players, and they’d say to me ‘sure, what do you know about soccer?’ I’d reply ‘sure what are you talking about, I played in Wembley Stadium’ and then I’d embellish it a bit by saying – ‘I scored the winning goal with a header!’ I know we played Meath there one year, Dublin the next year, won one and lost one. It was an annual event and it was a great treat to run out onto Wembley, it wasn’t as big as Croke Park but my memory of it was that the surface was like a snooker table, it was beautiful but the dressing rooms were no better than those at Croke Park.”
He obviously liked the school and town? “It was a lovely school and I was very happy there. I also love Mullingar, a very good and central town. There are lovely people in Mullingar…I was involved with the local Shamrocks team back in the day and we had a great era, won a couple of championships and that. Richie Donoghue was manager and a good Kildare man…I think it comes down to getting players involved at a young age – if you do they will most likely still be playing for you at the senior level.”
Speaking about the school, he mentions that Anne was the very first lady teacher there, and that she was very popular in the school and so was French, her subject. Was he involved in football in the school? “It was great to be involved in football in the school for years, it was a great connection with the pupils, we had good teams and some very good footballers.”
Looking back he believes that a good deal of the basis of their All-Ireland winning run was established by them winning a Connacht minor final in 1959 and an All-Ireland in 1960 with seven of them on the senior team in ’64 and ’65 involved, players such as Noel Tierney, Johnny Geraghty, John Keenan, Christy Tyrrell, Seamus Leyden and so on. “There was a great camaraderie in that senior team.
If you lost your place, which I did plenty of times…or if you were taken off, you didn’t sulk. You took it on the chin and the attitude was ‘I’ll make it back for the next day.’ But it’s not just the football, it’s the other events that occurred with that group around the football that you really remember,” Seán recalls. He had particular admiration for iconic Galway player Mattie McDonagh, who has gone to his eternal reward and who was from very near Seán outside Ballygar, describing him as “a fantastic man and a great leader who was taken from us too young.
He was a great example, a non-drinker, a non-smoker, and he’d won an All-Ireland in 1956 so he’s the only man in Connacht that’s won four All-Irelands. He also recalls with great fondness the late and great Enda Colleran, who has gone to his eternal reward.”
I wonder how Seán finds modern day football, which excites praise and criticism in equal measure in many quarters? “I’m probably out of sync with a lot of people but, from a spectator’s point of view. I think gaelic football is not as exciting as it used to be, say 20 years ago. Then there weren’t nearly as many tactics.
The ball was going up and down the field. The fullbacks were famous for the high catch. When they got it, they tended to lorry it out the field. The play tended to be up and down the field. Now, in the modern game, it’s often across, back and so on and so on. The emphasis is on possession but from a spectator’s point of view, I find it’s not as exciting. “In our time if you were a full forward, as I was, and you were expecting a ball to come 50 yards into your chest you were mistaken, as it was coming in from the sky.” “If you look at the recordings of the matches back in the sixties the best of our guys, players like Martin Newell and Bosco McDermott, they just cleared their lines, get the ball out, so here I am in full forward and I’m marking a man that’s six foot four and I’m five foot eleven.
Sure, I hadn’t a hope! Guys like Jack Quinn, Leo Murphy, big lumps of men! You rarely see a fullback coming out now to make a magnificent catch. Now you see goals with the ball moved down the field and punched into the net. A different game!”
“At that time we didn’t train at all during the winter. You only started training in March or April. It was twice a week in Tuam, maybe a Monday and Friday. If you got into an All-Ireland semi final it would be Monday, Wednesday and Sunday. When you came in from the training you had a ham sandwich and a bottle of milk! We loved it. Then you drove back to Mullingar.
There was no such thing as diets and dieticians.” Finally, I ask him about returning to Galway with the Sam Maguire on those occasions? “The first time we returned after winning the All-Ireland was sad because John Donnellan’s father had dropped dead at half-time during the game.
However, it was lovely going down in ’65 and ’66. Looking back you wonder were you grateful as a young person for it all, but we got great receptions in Salthill and so on…Those were the days! Life was different, of course. Simpler in many respects,” Seán says wistfully.