John O’Reilly and the GAA: in discussion with Peter Makem – December 2009
It’s nearly ten years since John O’Reilly sat down with his close friend and sports reporter Peter Makem where the pair reflected on John’s life-long association with the GAA, from his days on the playing field, to the years spent overseeing the administration at county and national level. The resulting article was published in The Examiner in December 2009.
In the wake of John’s sad and untimely passing on Tuesday last, we take this opportunity to republish this article, offering our readers an insight into John’s immeasurable contribution to the GAA and his staunch and unwavering support for his native county and club, Armagh and Crossmaglen Rangers.
For over 45 years since his election as chairman of Crossmaglen Rangers in 1963 until recent times, John O’Reilly was a major personality and force in the GAA representing his club, county and province with a well acknowledged measure of all-round ability and outstanding commitment.
John’s first interaction with the GAA began in the local leagues in Crossmaglen in the war years of the forties and which had a direct connection with footballers from the 1926 All-Ireland Junior winning team. Although far past their playing best, players like John Donaghy, John McCusker, Harry Cumiskey and Leo Collins took part in these local leagues and so provided a link that encompassed all of the success stories of Armagh football, from the men of 1926 through the minors of ’49, to the seniors of 2002 and the under 21 success of 2005.
He recalled the mid-Ulster Town’s league of that time when clubs like Rangers had the opportunity of playing against other dominant teams from neighbouring counties such as Omagh St Enda’s, Coalisland Fianna, Blayney Faughs, Clones and Young Irelands of Dundalk.
But things were far from settled at club level. The war years brought about changes in representation with one selection representing the wider area. A team representing Lurgan often played the Crossmaglen selection in Dundalk as the train link between the two towns made this the preferred venue. In the preceding decades there had always been considerable flux in club names and area representation until things settled into their modern shape largely in the fifties.
There was a fall out in the club that lasted from 1952 to I958 with some players joining Mobane and this led to lean years for Rangers. But things took a turn for the better in 1959 when the return of these players and a new generation of up and coming footballers combined to form the first of the great modern teams.
John played his first game for Crossmaglen Rangers in 1952 and was a member of the senior panel of the fifties which began to show their promise when winning the league (on December 27 1959), defeating county champions Carrickcruppen 1-0 to 0-2. Rangers won the senior championship in 1960 and 1962, ending a long drought of twelve years and setting the tone for the remainder of the decade when they dominated Armagh football. This culminated in the three in a row team of 65, 66 and 67, agreed by most to have been the greatest Rangers team up to that time and surpassed only by the record breaking modern side.
But again, things were not so clean cut in that decade and the club withdrew from football in ’64 over a row with the County Board regarding two consecutive attacks on a Rangers’ player. This rumbled on for eight months but was eventually resolved leading to the three in a row achievement.
Settled in Camlough
John married Angela Farrelly in 1963 and settled in Camlough. He quit the football at that time but made an immediate transition into administration and served as chairman of Rangers from 1963 to 1967 and again from 1969 to 1971. Two years later, in 1972, at the suggestion of Alf Murray, he let his name go forward for chair of the Armagh League Board and held this position for five consecutive years. In 1977 John was elected chairman of the County Board and served in that position until 1981. He was re-elected in 1988 and 89 and succeeded Gene Larkin as delegate to the Ulster Council and succeeded Gerry Fegan as Central Council delegate. Then in 2002, the year of the Sam Maguire, he was elected chairman of the Ulster Council.
There is no doubt that 1977
John recalls: “There is no doubt that 1977 was the most memorable year in my time involved with Armagh, but nothing can touch the winning of the All-Ireland in 2002 and the decade of success surrounding it. Back in 1977 times were very bad and the Troubles were at a peak and the rise of Armagh gave everybody a tremendous lift. We all needed a lift and counties across the North needed it as well, and Armagh provided it at that time.
“But people should imagine what it was like trying to organise training in the county at the time. There were constant checkpoints both going to training and returning home, constant fears of assassinations and sectarian attacks. Footballers and officials had to travel at night back to North Armagh and back into South Armagh. Yet, despite the natural fears, we pressed ahead and worked away and when we beat Roscommon in the replay and got through to our first All-Ireland in 24 years, the excitement was at an all time high. We got two more Ulster senior championships out of that panel which was all a considerable achievement in the backdrop of the Troubles in this county.
“1977 was also the year when Tomas Ó Fiaich was appointed Archbishop of Armagh and the announcement in August of this appointment added a special flavour to the ongoing excitement. Interestingly, he had been appointed as professor in Maynooth in 1953, the year of Armagh’s previous appearance in the All-Ireland final.
“One thing I have to say about the GAA throughout the Troubles is that they kept the Association intact in its own integrity. They maintained the games and administration throughout and kept the players together as first and foremost as belonging to the Association. There were some very difficult times, especially the Hunger Strike period of 1981.
“Of all the memories I have of the All-Ireland final of 1953, one memory stands out. When Bill McCorry was about to strike the ball for the penalty, he was deliberately pushed by a Kerry player and was off balance when he kicked the ball. That is a fact and it is clear on the film. In those times, the defenders did not have to stand back behind the ball as they do now, but McCorry was deliberately fouled and the Kerry man was allowed to get away with it and as a result, Armagh lost the All-Ireland final. Peter McDermot of Meath was the referee and ironically, next year he was playing against Kerry in the All-Ireland final which Meath won 1-13 to 1-7, one of the worst All-Ireland’s ever.
“But did Armagh not have natural scoring forwards? They had gifted players up front but none had the sharpness in front of goals that is needed to win All-Irelands. They only scored 1-6 in the final and Mal Mc Evoy hit 1-2 from midfield.
“Armagh had two natural scoring forwards standing on the line, Pat Murphy and Johnny McBreen. Pat Murphy was from Silverbridge and was a natural scoring forward and free taker. Johnny McBreen was also a natural forward and I don’t know why these players were not on the starting team. As well as that, I think Armagh should have brought in an outsider with experience of finals to talk to the players about what to expect.
“There were some very good footballers on that Armagh team. Eamon McMahon and in front of him Jack Bratten and of course Sean Quinn who was injured early in the final. I always had a lot of time for Mick O’Hanlon who was a powerful footballer and Mal McEvoy was an all time great. Joe Cunningham was a classy footballer, but as I said, my abiding memory is of Bill McCorry being deliberately pushed as he struck the ball for the penalty.”
John was appointed as one of the Armagh county selectors back in 1966 along with Pat McMahon and Felix Hamill, one for each county division.
“Would you believe it but I can’t remember too much about that time? It didn’t work very well but that’s the way it was done in those days. The notion of the manager as in modern times didn’t exist and we were limited to picking a team and trying to line out what we thought were the best footballers in the county. We also lined out Armagh teams for the Lagan cup, which was the National Football League of the time confined to Ulster counties, and the McKenna Cup as well as the championship. But that system had many obvious flaws as you needed a good run early in the league or Mc Kenna Cup to get some teamwork going. Even when managers were appointed at the time, the lack of organisation and training meant we were going nowhere at county level and this all came to an end at Leitrim in 1974.
“As well, nothing seemed to come out of the promising Armagh minor teams of the sixties into the senior ranks. The teams of 1961 and 1968 both won the Ulster championship, but that was the end of it. There was no continuity.
“But the reorganisation of competition within Armagh when I became Chairman of the League Board in 1972 was a much more rewarding task.
I worked, along with others, at making sure that all league games were played as a matter of course, that referees would be there and that all players in the county had constant football every Sunday. In the years previous, fixtures could be shoddy and the leagues disorganised and so to improve standards as we entered the seventies, it was important that footballers got an opportunity of developing their game. Some teams entered for the first time such as St Paul’s of Lurgan and they made a good name for themselves in the years since, providing Armagh with players such as Jim Mc Corry and Ciaran Mc Nally. Lissummon came back into football at that time as well.
“It’s not easy to judge standards between one era and another. The Crossmaglen teams of the 60’s, especially the three in a row, was exceptional. When I went through the Rangers team of 65-67, I counted 13 players who had played senior county football and two who played constantly for Ulster, Gene Larkin and Tom McCreesh, so it was a very talented side. But it has to be said that the modern team are the greatest of all Rangers teams and in the opinion of many are perhaps the greatest club team ever.
Best times in Armagh football
“The winning of the Sam Maguire in 2002 and the All-Ireland club achievements of Rangers represent the best times ever in Armagh football.
“In my time as Chairman of the Rangers from 1963, I was surrounded by some very able and dedicated clubmen such as John Martin, Tommy Cassidy, Brian Morgan, James Duffy and Gene Larkin. John Martin was an exceptional administrator as club secretary and a great club personality. I was also lucky in my years with the Armagh County Board both as Chairman and League Chairman to serve with people of the calibre of Gerry Fegan, Pat McMahon, Alf Murray, Joe Canning and Tommy Lynch. This high quality of administration continued with such people as Gene Duffy, Peadar Murray, Seamus King and Joe Jordan.
“When I reflect on Armagh players who would have become great had not injury or emigration robbed them of their careers, I think of Patsy Kierans of Rangers who was an exceptionally gifted footballer but a recurring injury ended the great promise he had shown. I also think of Packie Flynn of Forkhill, a fantastic player who went to work in England, and another footballer of the same calibre was Mickey Murphy of Camlough who emigrated to England. All three would have come to be named with the great Armagh footballers whom we all know except that fate intervened.
“I worked with many GAA personalities at national level and Peter Quinn of Fermanagh and Sean McCaigue of Monaghan, both former presidents of the GAA, were the most outstanding. When I was a member of the Croke Park Committee whose remit was the creation of the new stadium, I saw at first hand the sheer ability of Peter Quinn. I am convinced that he was the real force and guiding light behind the new Croke Park that we have today. I was also impressed with the administrative abilities of Peter McKenna and David Mackey. Another impressive administrator was Danny Murphy, the Ulster Secretary who expertly worked to bring Ulster to the provincial forefront in so many ways.
Travelling to games
“Myself and the late Paddy Lynch travelled to games together for 36 years. Sometimes we went to several games in the same week and it was the same routine. I would pick him up at his house on the Quarter Road and we headed off to wherever the game was, it could be in Kerry or Crossmaglen. He was a great footballing companion, an outstanding judge of a player or a team and we were there at all Armagh’s great days and all the great club days of Rangers, Carrickcruppen, Clan Na Gael and Mullaghbawn. We missed nothing in all those years.”
John O’Reilly never missed an All- Ireland since his first in 1953, and when he watched Tyrone defeat Kerry in 2008 it was his 56th in a row. But it was his 50th that was the most special, the final of 2002 when he and Paddy Lynch heard the final whistle sound on a lifetime’s hopes and journeys, and the Sam Maguire Cup make its way at last to Armagh. He reflects that perhaps there were another two All-Irelands in that team and that their peak years were between 2000 and 2003.
Intelligent, articulate and strong minded, John remains one of the great mainstays of Armagh and Ulster GAA. The Association is his natural expression in life, his true national identity, his first and last cultural instinct. Former Armagh captain Jimmy Smyth described him as a man of action who got things done: “People do not get consistently elected to high positions in their club, county and province unless they have special gifts. John O’Reilly was respected everywhere because he was totally straight and fair-minded and had the overall welfare of the GAA at heart. His contribution to the Association was immense, and in this overall regard he will be remembered as one of Armagh’s outstanding personalities.”