Hall of Fame winner Seamus Prior with, back from left, Niall Faughnan, Breda, Cathal, Bernie and Gary Prior. Front: Brenda Faughnan, Teresa and Siobhan Prior Picture: Willie Donnellan
John Connolly chats to Leitrim GAA Hall of Fame winner Seamus Prior, looking back over his long, distinguished refereeing career and ahead to challenges facing the GAA
Croke Park and all its glamour is a long way from the playing fields of Mohill, but everyone from the greatest player to the Junior B stalwart has to start somewhere. The best GAA referees, too, have to work their way up — and it was in Mohill that a Hall of Fame career started for Seamus Prior.
Recently honoured with the Jim Lynch Hall of Fame Award at the Leitrim GAA Awards, Seamus spent an hour chatting with the Observer, talking of big days past, his hopes and fears for refereeing and the future of the Leitrim football.
When it comes to his own story, one that saw the Aughnasheelin native officiate in back-to-back All-Ireland finals at senior (1991) and minor (1992) level, it was a little subterfuge from a club colleague and friend that set Seamus off on the road that led to Croke Park.
“Like everybody else, I got in by accident,” he recalled. “I was in Mohill one day for a Mohill game with Allen Gaels and my good friend and near neighbour, the late Pat Cull, was supposed to referee the game. Pat was playing with Aughnasheelin before the game and he picked up some minor injury.”
Pat could have taken the field, Seamus believes, ”but he knew I was anxious to start refereeing — he absolutely did — and I ended up refereeing the game. So that is how I started.”
Refereeing put an end to a playing career that once saw him come on a substitute for Leitrim U21s against Mayo, but it also led to him that All-Ireland final day in 1991, Down vs Meath — and a day every bit as daunting for a referee as it is for a player.
“You would be more nervous, but the nerves disappeared once you got out on the field. The dressing room is the hardest part of anything. I remember 1991 - there is always the chance that stewards will let people in to wish you luck and I remember that day well. There was quite a stream of well-wishers.
“But there came a time when no more could come in and the signal was clearly sent that it wasn’t too many more minutes before we’d be making our way out onto the field. Once you make your way out on the field, it’s over, you settled down.”
What helped calm any nerves was also the presence of his four umpires, men whose judgement he trusted implicitly. “Your team is what matters, the calming effect that they have. I would have had, in my opinion, great umpires — not only the four that officiated that day but two or three other people.
“I was lucky, I had two fantastic sets of umpires. They were very clear in their decisions. An umpire would call me about an incident off the ball and when I’d go down to that umpire I would ask them a simple question: ‘In your opinion, does this man have to go?’
“The answer would be yes or no and the answer must be right because you are going to change the whole course of the game. You’ve only a second to consider it. But I knew these lads and that is where the trust comes in. It is built up over time.”
Memories of 1991 remain strong in his memory but equally vivid is the 1987 league final between Dublin and Kerry. “The famous league final of 1987 — my God, will I ever forget that game?! It was a fantastic game of football, I think there was over 40,000 people above in Croke Park. Mikey Sheehy was going so fast he looked like he had one leg.”
The game had a unique Leitrim feel, as Seamus explains. “There was a little bit of history attached, in that I was the only referee at that time who supplied the four umpires and two linesmen, the full contingent.”
Sheehy was the greatest footballer Seamus has ever seen but how about the greatest Leitrim footballer? “Mickey Martin was a fantastic footballer, but we are blessed here in Leitrim that we have had so many fantastic, great players.
“I would just give Mickey the vote as being the best. He was playing on a bad team and if Mickey, in his prime, had been with the team of 1994, I’d have no doubt he would have made a big difference in the All-Ireland semi-final.”
Of course, not all days carrying the whistle are happy and Seamus recalls a the All-Ireland club semi-final between Lavey of Derry and O’Donovan Rossa of Cork with a shudder. “My God, never can I can forget that day. It was above in Ballinascreen and never in my years have I witnessed such a level of intimidation that I saw that day.
“The O’Donovan Rossa guys, they were terrorised, they were absolutely terrorised. We were lined up, just ready to throw the ball in. I heard the crowd roaring, looked about and seen — at the very far end of the field — Tommy Costello with his hand raised.
“I said ‘My God, what is wrong here?’ I saw a player on the ground. I talked to Tommy and he said ‘such and such a player struck before the game started’. So I said, ‘Tommy, has he to go?’ And Tommy said he must go.
“I think it was one of the McGurks. I had to send him off and I had his brother sent off before half-time.
“O’Donovan Rossa won the game well. I remember the O’Donovan Rossa players went into a huddle and I stood beside them until the stewards came and escorted me off the pitch.”
If abuse on the pitch has receded, social media has seen the spread of a more insidious kind of abuse, one that referees can’t escape. “It is a different sort of abuse and that is worse. When you went home at that time, that was it, it was over. You just had to deal with the papers the next day.
“With reporters, it is another man’s opinion. When I read a reporter’s view of the game, I know it is just another opinion. It may not be the right opinion, or it may be. Now, social media is a very different thing. I just advise referees to ignore it. It is in every walk of life but I would advise young referees to ignore it.”
Winning the Jim Lynch Hall of Fame Award was a tremendous honour for Seamus. “When I took it home and saw the names that was on it, it was only then I realised I was joining an elite list, people who really deserved the award.
“What saddened me a little bit was the people who are gone that didn’t get it. It is always dangerous to mention names, but there are a number of people who are great friends of mine who went very much prematurely to their eternal reward and I’ve no doubt they would have been recipients of this award before me and entitled to it.
“I’m very conscious of the history of it, I’m very conscious of the legacy of it and I have to say that I value it greatly. It will be treasured in our house for the next 12 months,” said Seamus, as he also paid tribute to the work of Dublin branch of the Leitrim Supporters Club.
With so much discussion about the state of Gaelic football, Seamus is very much a fan. “I enjoy the game today, today’s game is a great game, it is a fantastic game. It’s fast, it’s furious. I think most of the changes have been for the betterment of the game.
“Look, we all agree that if we could come up with a better way of restricting the amount of handpasses. I see we have dropped the three pass limit — there is no doubt that it was difficult to implement. I think the restricting them to three was impossible, but I can see why the effort was made.
“Our game is an attractive game but that is not saying that it doesn’t need marketing. We need to keep working at it. Let's not think for one second that our product doesn’t need continuous marketing, continuous improvement. It certainly does. The powers that be need to see how we can keep going forward. Maybe the forward mark will reward fielding. As long as we remember that we must keep working at our game, we must keep promoting our game, then certainly the GAA is sound and secure in my opinion.”
There have been growing calls for a second referee to be introduced, but Seamus is very much against it and for one practical reason: “No, no, no - at this point in time, we haven’t come there. It is hard to get one referee, it is hard to get players. This is what worries me. In Leitrim and all rural counties, the amount of players we have available to us is not enough — so where do we find referees?”
It is a concern that carries over for the future of refereeing and indeed clubs in the county. “We have a number of very good referees at the moment but those fellows are faced with the problem of do I allow my club to line out today without 15 or do I concentrate on my refereeing? If we had more numbers in our county, a budding referee wouldn’t have to be propping up his club.
“This is the unfortunate situation we are in. I know there is a huge population in Carrick, Leitrim Village, Annaduff, Manorhamilton, Kinlough, but when you come down the other way, it’s different. I know enrolment in Aughnasheelin school is starting and the number they have is seven.
“We go down to Aughawillan and I don’t know how many there are — maybe five or six. Go over to Drumreilly and I imagine the number is in and around the same as ourselves. So, for the three clubs there, the amount of boys that will start primary school next September would not make up a team. That’s a real worry.”
Seamus would like to see a second-tier championship but not at the expense of the provinces. “Certainly the two-tier championship is one that is being bandied about but I would retain our provincial championship.
“I believe in my heart that the present back-door system is not serving our association. When I look now, what has the back door system done for Leitrim? It has done nothing. We need to discontinue the back door and have a meaningful losing group.
“You take the once in 10 years we beat Galway, the once in 10 years we beat Mayo — under the present system, they can come back and get us in the long grass. I really think we have to look at that. We were sold a pup there.”
As our interview nears its end, Seamus reaches back to the past with hope for the future. “I remember the last interview I did with you, it was in 1991 back in Cartown. I remember it very clearly . We talked about Leitrim football at the time and both of us agreed that the glory days for Leitrim football weren’t too far away. True enough, it was capped off in 1994.
“If I can be bold enough to say, I see signs of an improving Leitrim, a vastly improving Leitrim. The work has been done the last few years and it is definitely paying off now. The signs are good and I think you are going to see a lot more of these young footballers,” predicted Seamus.
He’ll be there, minus the whistle, to keep an eye on them.