By John Scally
One of the great mysteries of Irish life is that I have never understood why there has not been a campaign to consider Seán Boylan for the presidency of Ireland. Leaving aside his contribution to the GAA, his role as a healer, his deep connection with Irish history and above all his unique ability to connect with old and young, male and female rich and poor; everybody comes away from an encounter with him feeling better about themselves.
The first rule of talking to Seán Boylan is to expect ferocious energy, passion, humanity and more depth than a 3D printer. In 2020 I got a mighty shock when I rang Seán and that energy field was missing:- “I went for a vaccination for pneumonia and the flu. Some six days later, I wasn’t feeling well.
It turned out that I had Covid. I ended up in hospital and was discharged from hospital on 31 March. I lost 10 kilos in six days. But the terror, the fear – it was uncanny, it was unreal. I was never as afraid of anything in my life and I’m always very happy. It has taken me weeks to recover. Tina (his wife), said to me one day and even the kids were saying that I was still a bit snappy and short.
I went out walking in the fields. I remember saying to myself, I got a ferocious fright and I probably am shaking off my post-traumatic stress. It has been an extraordinary time but in a strange sort of way, it’s brought us very close together as a family.”
Boylan’s Meath team replicated his energy and passion. After years in the wilderness they won five Leinster titles in six years, contested All-Irelands in four years, winning two. To their critics they were defined by their performance in the 1988 All-Ireland final replay. The watershed moment for the team came in 1985 after they bombed against Laois in the Leinster Championship.
Harsh words needed to be said afterwards if the Meath ship was to sail to brighter horizons. Padraig Lyons was one of a delegation who came to visit Boylan in his own kitchen. The Lyons brothers are renowned for doing their talking through their actions. Mick appeared in a major RTÉ documentary about Seán Boylan in the summer of 2020 and did not utter a single word.
Yet that night 35 years earlier Padraig looked Boylan straight in the eye and said, “Will you put your shyness in your pocket?” The words were heeded and the fortunes of the Meath team would be changed dramatically for the next generation as a consequence.
Boylan’s diplomatic skills were honed while he worked with the giant at his shoulder, his father – a military man, a friend of Michael Collins and above all a healer – the man he still refers to this day as ‘the Boss’. When asked how his father influenced him he jokes:- “My father married a woman 27 years younger than him and I married Tina who is 18 years younger than me. Can you see a pattern there?”
Boylan became Meath manager in the early 1980s at a time when nobody else wanted the job. His own background was as a hurler:- “I went to Belvedere College and played rugby and somebody told me that if I stuck at I could have become an Irish international but hurling was my passion and that is where my energies went.”
You do not have a 22 year career as Meath manager, win four All-Irelands with essentially three different teams without paying attention to detail. “I suppose one of the things people remember most is the four game saga against Dublin in 1991 and of course nobody will ever forget Kevin Foley’s goal in the last game. I decided that we needed a break after the third match and I thought about taking the team for a break in a beautiful, quiet spot in Scotland.
Before I made the arrangements though I rang all the wives and girlfriends of the players and asked them if they were okay with me doing it. Pretty much to a woman they all said:- “Seán, whatever it takes to beat the Dubs.’’
A Sunday Collection to Remember
He lights up at one memory from the trip:- “On the Sunday morning we went to Mass in the local Church which was a tiny, tiny chapel. We had 76 people in the group including wives and girlfriends. The priest nearly wept for joy because he never got such a big collection! We did very little physical training but the only thing we did was to practice that move again and again which was replicated with Kevin’s goal.
The only thing was that I had not expected it would be Kevin who finished the move.” There was an interesting postscript to the game:- “My abiding memory of the dressing room was of the journalist Donal Healy interviewing Kevin.
He basically asked him ten thousand different ways if he had ever scored a goal before and Kevin kept answering that he had never, ever scored a goal before in any match he ever played. Eventually he got so frustrated he said to Donal:- ‘Look you are standing on my towel and I need my shower’, and he walked away.”
Boylan had come up with an unusual strategy at the start of the year:- “The boys had a lot of miles on the clock by 1991 and I knew they would not be able for the wear and tear of brutal physical training again.
Gerry McEntee is a top surgeon and was working abroad so I met him for training one night at the start of the year and I told him we were going training in the pool. I had got the county board to splash out three and a half grand for buoyancy aids for the lads. I told the squad that we would be training for most of that year in the pool but after that first session when I was giving Gerry a lift home he turned to me and said: ‘Seán, what are you going to tell everyone when we lose the first round of the Leinster Championship?’ In 2000 after Sonia O’Sullivan won the Olympic silver medal she was paraded around Croke Park at the All-Ireland final.
I hesitated before going up to congratulate her because I wasn’t sure would she recognise me but as soon as she saw me coming she said:- ‘Ah, Seán. Do you remember when you got those buoyancy aids?’’’