Posted by Shane Stapleton
Wednesday 24 July 2013
This weekend they take on London for a place in the last eight and, in this their sixth championship clash of the season, the Breffni men finally play against a non-Ulster team. In playing The Exiles, it draws one back through history to when Cavan won Sam Maguire in faraway fields.
The year was 1947, the one and only time in the history of the sport that an All Ireland final was held outside Ireland. New York and the Polo Grounds was the setting. It is hard to imagine that happening again in the foreseeable future, what with that novelty being reserved merely for the inter-provincial championships in recent times.
When the GAA took the All Ireland football final to the Polo Grounds in 1947, it did so as a good-will gesture to the Irish diaspora of America. It has been also suggested that it was a means of commemorating the great famine of 100 years previously. In any case, Canon Hamilton of Clare had lobbied the GAA Congress for three years before he got his wish to take the game across the Atlantic.
Before that, the championship ran its business as usual. The provincials were played out with Meath, Kerry, Roscommon and Cavan picking up local honours. The Kingdom ousted the Royals in their final-four meeting and, in the other semi-final, the Breffni County accounted for the Rossies. All of which meant league champions Cavan and Kerry were the two counties given the distinguished honour of flying the Irish flag in the US with the hope of bolstering the diminishing profile of Gaelic games there.
Most of the Cavan team took a 29-hour flight – including a stopover in the Azores – from Shannon out to the Big Apple whereas the majority of the Kerry party took a six-day journey by sea from Cobh on the SS Mauretania. The last member of the Cavan side to pass away, in May 2011, Owen Roe McGovern, also went across rather than above the Atlantic Ocean. “I travelled over by boat and it was a desperate hot day when we arrived,” he said in The Big Apple.
Radió Éireann sent over Micheál O’Hehir to cover the match, and it happened to be the company’s first live radio broadcast from outside Ireland. Typical Irish, there was some panic leading up to the game as a line on which to broadcast the game had not been booked, though that issue was eventually ironed out with one ordered from 3:30 until 5pm New York-time. A tight window but one big enough to squeeze the game through.
As those who play in modern GAA games in New York will attest, the scorching conditions turned out to be far from suitable for a Gaelic football match, least of all an All Ireland final. The pitch belonged to a baseball team, the New York Giants, and as well as the pitch being extremely hard and bald in patches, there was even a noticeable mound. Given that it was an extremely hot day, many of the players wore jockey caps as a means of combating the conditions.
Adjacent to the pitch, trouble was also afoot for O’Hehir and Co as, with the playing of both the Irish and American anthems and the ceremonial throw in by Mayo native Bill of Dwyer, who was Mayor, the game did not start until 3:40. The broadcasting window had been narrowed.
When the game did commence, it was the Kingdom who threatened to turn the game into a rout. They had beaten their rivals at the same level 10 years previously and a quick two-goal headstart suggested that would be the way of it at the Polo Grounds, even more so considering they had two more efforts disallowed.
But Cavan regrouped as Joe Stafford and Mick Higgins pulled goals back. The latter, Higgins, had actually been born in New York and so would go on to capture the first of his All Ireland titles in the same city where he was born. The hero of the hour was Peter Donohoe who scored eight points for Cavan and was dubbed by the local media as ‘The Babe Ruth of Gaelic football’.
And yet still there was a problem for O’Hehir and all the radio listeners in Ireland 3,000 miles away: it was now 4:55 in New York, meaning there was just five more minutes of broadcasting time booked, yet there was still 10 minutes of the game to be played.
O’Hehir pleaded blindly and hopefully down the airwaves for the coverage to be allowed to continue and luckily someone was listening, as he was able to talk on until the final score: Cavan 2-11 Kerry 2-07.
“The celebrations were great afterwards," McGovern stated. "We were wined and dined and never let buy a drink anywhere. There were a lot of people who wanted to celebrate with us and they all wanted us to come into their pub afterwards.
“There were big celebrations when we came home as well. We came back on The Queen Mary and when we arrived in Dublin the welcome we got was terrific. We got a bus down to Cavan and there was nothing to beat the celebrations.”
McGovern finished his career two All Irelands, two national leagues and four Ulster titles with Cavan before moving to New Jersey, and sadly passing away. The last link has been broken but a great story remains.
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