One of the highlights of the recent Dublin launch of the Leitrim Supporters Club in Croke Park was the presentation that was made to Cathal Flynn, Pakie McGarty and Columba Cryan to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Connacht's Railway Cup victory over Munster.
One of Leitrim's truly greatest footballers, Cathal Flynn recalled his time in the Connacht jersey with real fondness and that was magnified considerably when he went on to talk about his days in the Green & Gold of Leitrim, even though those years produced more than their fair share of heartache.
Before he made his name on the pitch, Cathal was already steeped in Leitrim GAA as his father had served as County Board Chairman.
“I never got much involved in club football in Leitrim. I was born in Gorvagh and they had won Leitrim titles around 1924-’26. My father was the Chairman at that time and was a teacher and he played for centre field for Dublin from 1911-13. Then he moved back down to Leitrim to teach and he was Chairman of the County Board for quite a number of years, picking teams.”
The modern day inter-provincial tournaments fail to truly capture the imagination of the public but when Cathal was in the team it was a very different situation as he recalled.
“I was about six years on the Connacht team. I was a sub in 1954 and then I got on the team in 1958. You had 50-60,000 people in Croke Park for the finals and even the semi-finals in Ballinasloe or Tullamore or Breffni Park, they drew quite a crowd. There were great teams and it was very exciting.”
In the mid to late 1950s, Leitrim enjoyed something of a golden era but it was still difficult to earn a place on the Connacht team as Galway were so strong. Reflecting on his days in the Connacht jersey Cathal looked back fondly on the role played by himself and a select group of Leitrim footballers.
“It was special. Columba was a sub most of the time, he got on a few times. It was mainly Pakie and myself and then Josie Murray came along later, the Lord have mercy on Josie.
“We didn’t get too many on at the time because Galway were very strong at the time and Mayo were fairly useful. Galway were winning All-Irelands and we were trying to beat them but it was very hard.”
Mention of Galway sees the conversation take a detour in the direction of the closing stages of the 1958 Connacht Final. It is a day and a match that Cathal recalls with perfect clarity and although there is a still frustration at the result, there is a lot of respect for a very good Galway team.
“In the 1958 final I scored a goal - Jack Mahon half blocked a kick from Pakie McGarty and it came to me 40 yards out. I went through and had a go and I got a goal into the right hand corner. Suddenly we were level with Galway and then the kickout. I remember shouting ‘Jesus don’t let it back, keep it up here’.”
Unfortunately, as Cathal recalled, that late goal would not prove decisive for Leitrim as Galway hit back immediately.
“The ball was on the ground and Frank Eivers, who was in school with me in Multyfarnham and we won a Leinster Colleges together, he lifted the ball straight off the ground, took a step forward and kicked it straight over the bar from 60 yards out.
“I was running out to the referee to get a free for lifting the ball off the ground, the referee ignored me and suddenly they were a point ahead again.”
Leitrim had time for a late winner but as Cathal recalled, it wasn't to be for Leitrim - “Columba (Cryan) missed a chance from five or six yards out. The ball went downfield and suddenly we were two points behind and there wasn’t enough time left.
“We had drawn level and we should have been about to go ahead. We shouldn’t have let the ball up the field at all and unfortunately that was what happened and we lost that final but we didn’t deserve to lose it.
“We were beaten in other finals, I played in five of them but that final we should have won.”
While the 1958 final may still be remembered as the one that got away, Cathal pointed to other finals, such as the Connacht decider in 1963, in which Galway deservedly emerged victorious.
“In 1963 they hammered us, that great Galway team that won three in a row was coming on. They were very hot but we were nearly worn out, we were burnt out physically. We had played in five Connacht Finals and lost them all, we should have won one but there you are.”
“There are some good memories, the ‘58 final was pretty good, except for the fact that we didn’t win.”
When asked about the support the team received within the county, Cathal smiled broadly, reminiscing that, “We had great followers in Leitrim, north and south of the county, everybody pulled in, it was great.”
A lot has changed in gaelic football since Cathal's era and he isn't entirely impressed with how the game has evolved - “I don’t like it very much at all,” is his blunt assessment of modern gaelic football. You had catch and kick in our time, great catching and great kicking.
“I like the passing, I like good passing. Dublin play a style of gaelic-soccer which is nice to watch but it is just possession football. It is getting them there, they are winning All-Ireland’s with it, it is very hard to stop them.”
Looking at where the current Leitrim team could find room for improvement, Cathal expressed the belief that there is room for greater physicality within the Leitrim ranks.
“For some reason the other guys seem to be tougher, even Roscommon. We used to always beat Roscommon.
“In my time they only beat us once. We used to always beat Sligo, Roscommon and even Mayo but Galway was the bugbear, we couldn’t beat them. There is always one!”