Snap­shot of GAA hal­cyon days

For­mer stars re­sponded to sim­ple re­quest from 12-year-old Leitrim school­boy through­out 1960s

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Malachy Clerkin:

The au­to­graph book on Tony Daly’s kitchen ta­ble is small and thick and rec­tan­gu­lar and there’s the give of a medium-cooked steak in it when you press down on the years con­tained within. It was bought in an O’Brien’s of Sligo, some time in prob­a­bly 1960.

Scrawled along the top of the first in­side page is the claim of own­er­ship, an im­por­tant dec­la­ra­tion when you’re 12: “An­thony, Ea­mon + Judy.” Ea­mon is Tony’s twin brother. Judy was the cat.

Turn the page and an un­mis­tak­able set jaw and hooded eye­line stares back. The head­shot is af­fixed to a small 2x4-inch piece of card and the sticky tape hold­ing it to the page has been yel­lowed and loosed by the decades. The blue ink un­der­neath is smudged a lit­tle here and there but the flour­ish and style of the sig­na­ture fairly sings from the page even now.

Fifty-seven years af­ter a 12-year-old boy from Leitrim sent him a stamped ad­dressed en­ve­lope out of the blue, Christy Ring’s au­to­graph is clear as the day he replied.

Daly is a re­tired school­teacher these days, liv­ing just in off the seafront on the Howth Road in Dublin. But he be­gan his days in a GAA-mad house­hold in Con­vent Av­enue, Drumshambo, Co Leitrim. His fa­ther brought him and Ea­mon to games ev­ery­where, within the county and with­out. Be­witched by it all, they hit on the wheeze of writ­ing to some of the names they saw in the pa­per and heard on the ra­dio to see would they write back.

“What we used to do was write a let­ter to, say, Kevin Hef­fer­nan say­ing how great we thought he was. At the time, it was all ra­dio and pho­to­graphs in the pa­per. We never ac­tu­ally saw most of these men play­ing.

“So what we did was get a lit­tle plain post­card, cut a pho­to­graph out of a news­pa­per and paste it onto the post­card. Write the lit­tle let­ter and put a stamped ad­dressed en­ve­lope along with it and then send it off to the sec­re­tary of Dublin GAA or what­ever else. So, Kevin Hef­fer­nan, c/o The County Sec­re­tary, Dublin GAA. We wouldn’t know any ad­dresses – there wasn’t even phone­books at the time. A stamp at that time was four pence.

Ex­cite­ment

“We’d be giv­ing them a week, say, and from that point on, we’d be wait­ing at the bot­tom of the stairs be­fore go­ing to school, hop­ing there’d be some­thing in the post for us. That was the ex­cite­ment of it all for us. Then when we went to board­ing school in Ca­van, we kept it up at hol­i­day time. So I’d say we did it be­tween the ages of 12 and 14, maybe 15. Ba­si­cally from about 1960 to 1963. It was a great pe­riod for GAA teams.”

Some of them, he never heard from again. Some, like the great Ring, signed the card and posted the en­ve­lope back. Some, like Kerry’s Johnny Cul­loty scrib­bled a cou­ple of lines on the back. And oc­ca­sion­ally, they hit the mother lode and a hand­writ­ten let­ter would come in the post along with their lit­tle post­card signed. Hef­fer­nan was one of those.

“Dear An­thony,” Heffo wrote in pris­tine hand­writ­ing on April 2nd 1961.

“I write to thank you for your very nice let­ter and to apol­o­gise for not writ­ing long ago. Un­for­tu­nately I mis­placed your let­ter among my pa­pers shortly af­ter I re­ceived and it and only dis­cov­ered it re­cently. I was un­able to write in the mean­time as I had not mem­o­rised your ad­dress.

“It is very good to read that you are in­ter­ested in foot­ball and hurl­ing and although you have not said so I am sure you must be a player your­self. Nearly all the Leitrim team are friends of mine and if you fol­low in the foot­steps and ex­am­ple of play­ers like Packie McGarty, Larry Hay­den and Cathal Flynn, I’m sure I will one day see you in your county colours in Croke Park.

“But you should re­mem­ber that to be a first-class player you should prac­tice hard and of­ten, al­ways do your best even when a game goes against you and in par­tic­u­lar, al­ways play the game sport­ingly.

“I am re­turn­ing your pho­to­graph to you and as you seem to be an au­to­graph col­lec­tor I am en­clos­ing the sig­na­tures of some of the Dublin play­ers. In case you can­not read them, they are Johnny Joyce, Ol­lie Fre­aney, Paddy Farnon, Paddy O’Fla­herty, Mickey Whe­lan and Cathal O’Leary.

“I thank you again for your let­ter and wish you many en­joy­able hours of foot­ball. “God bless, Kevin Hef­fer­nan.” Daly went on to teach in Ard Scoil Rís on Grif­fith Av­enue for 40 years af­ter leav­ing Leitrim and was a so­cial mem­ber of St Vin­cent’s in his time. He came into Hef­fer­nan’s or­bit here and there along the way and once sum­moned up the gump­tion to tell Heffo that he’d writ­ten him a let­ter when he was a kid.

“On one oc­ca­sion, he was up at the bar and I went over to him and got talk­ing to him. and I said, ‘When I was only a garsún Kevin, you wrote me a let­ter’. And sure no­body ever re­ally got to know Kevin and if you got a grunt out of him in per­son you were do­ing well. So for him to do that, to write me a let­ter and to go and get the au­to­graphs of some of the rest of the Dublin team for me was mar­vel­lous.”

The au­to­graph book is a trea­sure. The purest gold. Hurlers and foot­ballers from all across the coun­try, no age them­selves but happy to make a 12-year-old’s day. Tom Cheasty of Water­ford, Tony Wall of Tip­per­ary, the great Seán Pur­cell. Char­lie Wren from Of­faly sent him a team photo from the 1960 All-Ire­land semi-fi­nal against Down.

That Down team were his idols, the sun, moon and stars. When they won the 1968 All-Ire­land, he was in UCD and made it his busi­ness to go to ev­ery Down game from the first round of Ul­ster to the fi­nal in Croke Park. That love was born at the start of the decade, fed by cor­re­spon­dence from the gods.

Goal­keeper Ea­mon McKay sent him a let­ter thank­ing him for en­clos­ing a stamp but say­ing it hadn’t been nec­es­sary.

“It is nice to know some­one thinks I am the num­ber one goal­keeper in Ire­land but maybe oth­ers would not think so,” wrote McKay. James and Dan McCar­tan replied, in­clud­ing a colour photo of the Down team that won their first All-Ire­land in 1960.

Di­rect meth­ods

The im­mor­tal Sean O’Neill wrote him a note say­ing: “You are a man of di­rect meth­ods and I like that.”

For a 12-year-old in Leitrim in 1962, it was like a com­pli­ment land­ing from the dark side of the moon.

In­cred­i­bly, some of them wrote more than once. The great Jimmy Doyle of Tip­per­ary sent him two letters and fol­lowed up with a Christ­mas card. One of the letters was three pages long and from the open­ing line you get an idea of what a young man he was at the time – still in his early 20s – but also what a lu­mi­nous star he was al­ready.

“Dear An­thony. First of all I must ask you to ex­cuse my writ­ing to you in pen­cil but this is my fourth let­ter tonight and my pen has run out. En­closed is your photo. I hope you like it. That is Daddy in it with me.

“Sorry it could not be sooner but we were very busy for Xmas. Thank you for the pho­to­graph of your­self – is that your twin with you? He is not very like you. I have one brother, Paddy, and he was in our mi­nor team a few years ago. I have three sis­ters and a lovely sheep­dog named ‘Pal’ and I had a budgie...”

On­wards. More and more names from more and more places. Kevin Be­han of Louth. Den­nis Heaslip of Kilkenny. John Dowl­ing, Of­faly. Jim McKeever, Derry. Liam De­vaney, Tipp. Patsy Breen of Derry, from his hos­pi­tal bed in the Mater.

Of­faly’s Har Don­nelly – “De­lighted to get your let­ter, didn’t know I was that good.” Martin Newell of Gal­way – “I’m sure you over­rate my abil­ity. The best of Gal­way luck, we al­ways had more than Leitrim!”

Derry’s Phil Stu­art wrote three times, in­clud­ing a post­card from Barcelona when he was on hol­i­days. “Noth­ing to com­pare to it other than an All-Ire­land fi­nal!”

Yarn upon yarn, life upon life, all laid out on Tony Daly’s kitchen ta­ble in a lit­tle book nearly six decades old. It won’t be there for long, though. In the com­ing weeks, he will hand it over to the GAA who are go­ing to make it an ex­hibit in the Croke Park mu­seum.

And his brother’s book? Well that’s an­other story.

“Ea­mon had one the very same as mine. He wouldn’t have had as many sport­ing ones. He was big into mu­sic so he would have had a lot of mu­sic au­to­graphs in his. But he had a girl­friend at one time – this would have been in the late 60s in UCD. And the brother of the girl­friend wanted to see the au­to­graph book. He gave her the au­to­graph book to show the brother and he never got it back.

“To this day, he cries about it. He never got it back. It’s lost, gone for­ever. Oh Ea­mon, even still – I couldn’t even men­tion it to him. You can nearly see the tears com­ing to him. It’s not like him – you wouldn’t be ask­ing Ea­mon for the loan of an al­bum, even. When he never got his back, I took even tighter care of mine. And as the years passed, I won­dered what to do with it. So it will be bril­liant to have it in the mu­seum. Why would it be sit­ting here when it could be there?”

Look af­ter it, lads. The 12-year-old boy in all of us in­sists that you do.

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