Is Cavan still ‘a football county’?

Cavanman’s Diary

A podcast I listened to last week got me thinking about the definition of a ‘football city’. Historian and journalist Paul Rouse interviewed musician and football fanatic Leo Moran of the Saw Doctors.

Moran and his band mates are from Tuam, Co Galway. It’s now a football town, a place absolutely in the grip of size five. It’s the city of Sean Purcell, Frankie Stockwell and Ja Fallon. Their club, Tuam Stars, top the honor roll of Galway SFC with 25 titles and St Jarlath’s College’s, whose 12 Hogan Cup victories are a record.

“We grew up in a town where Sean Purcell and Frank Stockwell walked the streets,” Moran explained.

“Having people of such stature walking around the city made the grandeur of football very normal.”

Moran’s father, Jimmy, was a renowned player and official; he umpired a county final at 24 and served as chairman of Galway County Council at 28. He played against Cavan in the 1937 All-Ireland Minor Semi-Final and his son remarked on the show that his dad always mentioned a great player, “Harry Bouchier…he said he beat Galway all only.

(The late Canon Harry, of course, came from Arva and was considered one of the greatest underage players of all time before entering the priesthood.)

Leo spoke of 1998 and Galway’s breakthrough after 32 years in the desert.

“I had been to the finals in 1971, 1973 and 1974, I was in America in 1983. You were so used to disappointment but success erased it all. I still think counties that rarely win, it means so much more There is great satisfaction and a certain joy for the counties who win it quite regularly but there is ecstasy when a county wins it for the first time in so long.

“It’s just a magical, magical thing and a great way to lift people’s spirits to a level they can’t normally reach.”

In the irish time Last week, columnist Ciaran Murphy, from Galway, mentioned a line from Raymond Smith’s 1984 book The Football Immortals, in which he described Tuam as “a town that vibrates with love for football while Thurles breathes the very spirit of hurling”.

“Throw a 10 or 15 mile ring around the town in all directions – the catchment area for schools, market and shops – and you’ll reap a large, large majority of All Ireland’s football medals won by Galway Players,” writes Murphy.

“This small constituency surely contains more medals from all of Ireland than any rural part of the country outside of Kerry.”

Adding them up would be an interesting exercise. I would bet the area within a 15 mile radius of Cavan Town would give Tuam and its hinterland a run for its money in this regard.

Because Cavan Town also sees itself as a football town. Out of the necklace of county towns along the border and from coast to coast, Cavan is football’s brightest pearl. Or he likes to think so, anyway, though I wonder about the pre-eminence of sport in Cavan, Town and County, these days.

Think of them, west to east, roughly lined up. Sligo, Bundoran, Enniskillen, Longford, Monaghan, Newry, Dundalk. Good cities, beautiful cities, cities with strong footballers and football clubs. But football cities? No, not like Cavan is, or was.

And outside the main town are a series of villages and smaller urban centres, some little more than a crossroads, which have always been footballing grounds.

For a very long time, Gaelic football has had its way in this county.

It’s not really horse country; no sheikh or stock market tycoon is going to risk his precious assets among the drumlins, where the land has been described as a basket of eggs, all hills and at the bottom of them mostly water. The eggs break and the horses too.

Screaming? It’s barely a rumor. For me, growing up, hurling was like the antithesis of a Victorian child; heard of but never seen. I was on Erasmus in Brussels and I was 22 when I did a sliotar for the first time. On the sports prescription map, he can only be identified with a magnifying glass, despite the efforts of a small group of Camán mapmakers.

Traditionally, there have been a handful of established football clubs; others came and went. A few have their own permanent pitches or pavilions.

There are minority activities such as boxing and handball, which have produced champions and some strong athletic clubs, although athletes from the capital must travel half an hour to train on a track.

There are two rugby clubs in the county, both founded in the 1970s, and a powerful automobile club. Basketball has a solid foundation and is thriving.

But Gaelic football has always been the thing. Here, the word “Gaelic” is superfluous. That blasphemous word ‘Gah’, I didn’t even hear it until I was 19 and in college.

Football in Cavan started in the west at Ballyconnell and moved east. Cavan Town, as the largest settlement, adopted the game early on.

There are two clubs in the town; there were once two different. The Slashers, Cavan’s first major club team outside Cornafean, drew from the professional classes, the harpists came from the “terraces”. When they met, it was establishment versus agitators.

No Cavan referee would touch it; they sent whistlers from places like Armagh. Eventually, the two joined forces and formed Cavan Gaels, one of the giants of the club scene.

Soon after, another club, Drumalee, was founded in the town. Both locations are on top of hills, overlooking the comings and goings below. A sniper on one of the grounds, with the right scope, could easily take down someone on the other. In fact, let’s not give anyone ideas…

A few hundred meters from Dublin Road, up another hill, is Breffni Park. To real footballers, it is simply known as “The Park”.

It was officially opened in 1923, when it was described as “the Croke Park of the North”. At this time some counties were barely organized or not at all – Derry had no county council until 1930 – but in Cavan there was the interest and the means to build an arena comparable to almost n anyone in the country at the time.

It took another 27 years before Tuam Stadium opened – Cavan played Mayo that day – but it also became a cathedral for the footballing masses.

Over the past two days, had Galway won, Tuam would have been absolutely brilliant, “a magical, magical thing” as Leo Moran aptly put it.

Twenty-five years have passed since we attended a football party like this in Cavan Town. At the moment things are looking bad after a terribly disappointing defeat in the Tailteann Cup final.

Rural Ireland has changed rapidly in the quarter century since Cavan won in 1997 and the county town has hosted one of the greatest homecomings of all time. The population of this county has increased by 60%, mainly centered in one geographical area, near the border of Meath, along a central corridor towards Cavan and in the “suburbs” of the city.

Add to this the general homogenization of society and there is no doubt that some of the tribal characteristics have been diluted. Many clubs struggle to field their own teams at juvenile level and even at adult level in some cases. There are half as many real teams registered in U16 football today as there were 25 years ago, when there were less than half children. Concretely, it is a collapse.

Other sports, which I mentioned above, have come together, are well organized and attractive, and are seen as viable recreational alternatives to football in a way they never have been.

All of this begs the question, is Cavan still a football county like it once was? And is the city at its center still a football city, in the truest sense of the word?

The next few years will tell us more.

Main photo: The Sam Maguire Cup returns to Farnham Gardens in Cavan Town in 1952.