Mick O Hanlon – Former Armagh great from Cullyhanna
From his home at Carraigh Dua Heights in Belleek, former Armagh great Mick O’Hanlon reflects on his early years in a conversation with Peter Makem.
Armagh were facing the reigning All-Ireland champions Cavan in the Ulster final of 1953 at Casement Park, the first final to be played in that stadium. One particular Cavan player was feared above all others, the great attacking centre-half forward machine Mick Higgins, the mainstay of Cavan’s All-Ireland campaign the previous year, and in ’47 and’48 as well. The burden fell on twenty three year old Cullyhanna defender Mick O’Hanlon who knew he had to give the performance of a lifetime to combat of guile and scoring prowess of the Breffni maestro.
It turned out to be O’Hanlon’s greatest moment in an Armagh jersey. Not only did he hold Higgins scoreless by his relentless tackling and athleticism, but he was the overall inspirational figure in that Armagh victory that opened the route to the All-Ireland final of that memorable year. Now at the age of 88 and as mentally alert and articulate as ever, he reflected on his early footballing days with St Colman’s College, Newry, with Armagh minors and seniors and club football in London when he went to work in England.
Son of Thomas and Margaret O’Hanlon who owned a small farm in Culyhanna, he began to play the game with the local Thomas Williams club when on holidays from St Colman ‘s College where he was a boarder. The club, originally based in a field in Ballinacreagh was largely the inspiration of Gerry Martin and Terry Conlon and it more or less succeeded the earlier Slashers team which had become defunct.
“ My parents applied for me to get to St Patrick’s College in Armagh but it was oversubscribed by between 30 and 40 that year and an application was then made to St Colman’s where I passed the exams and was accepted. Fr Hugh Connolly was the footballing personality there at that time, and I was a member of the 1949 team that won the first Mc Rory cup for the college. Naturally there were many Down players on that team such as Kevin Mussen, PJ Mc Elroy and Dan Mc Cartan- not the Dan of later Down fame. But the best footballer on that team was Sean Blayney of Armagh.”
He recalled playing for St Colman’s against Mal Mc Evoy of the Abbey, his future Armagh midfield partner, and that his college playing career was crowned when he was selected as a defender on the Ulster Colleges team in what was a sort of Railway cup competition at that time.
Later that year, Mick was called up for the Armagh minor team who achieved ultimate success by going on to win the All-Ireland minor title, Armagh’s first national title since the Junior victory of 1926 and the last Armagh All-Ireland victory until the senior achievement in 2002 over half a century later.
On the Armagh team of 1953
Many of the players of the 1949 team were maturing unto senior team of the early fifties including the Cullyhanna man who was by now an acknowledged defender of skill and courage, natural athleticism and intelligence. But he was not available in 1951 or 1952 as he was studying at a seminary in Blackrock, Co Dublin and only made entry to senior county duty in 1953 along with seven others of the All-Ireland winning minor team.
Following his heroic display against Cavan in the Ulster final, he was in top form again in the semi-final victory over Roscommon and then it was on to the All-Ireland final against Kerry. That match attracted the biggest crowd ever assembled in Ireland for a sporting occasion and maybe the largest gathering of people in Ireland since Daniel O’Connell’s Appeal of the Union rally at Tara ninety years previous. The official entrance was just over 86,000 before the gates were broken down and a few thousand more crowded in around the sideline.
Two weeks before the final, the whole panel were assembled at Maghery in a collective training programme and all were put up in the Maghery Hotel, now no longer there. It was a secluded spot near the Lough Neagh shore where the final preparations were made for the coming encounter with Kerry.
“I can’t remember why I was put into midfield for the final as I had been centre half-back throughout the campaign, but the selectors came up with that decision. I was teamed up with Mal Mc Evoy but at half-time I was put back to centre-half and Pat O’Neill was moved out to midfield. Sean Quinn had been injured early on and he was a very big loss to Armagh with his marking ability and support play. A lot has been said about that game and of course the missing of the penalty in the last quarter. To have converted that chance which would probably have turned things our way. But I have to say, in retrospect over so many years, that Kerry took their chances better on the day than we did, and deserved to win.
Armagh did not take their chances.
“But I have something else to say. The best forward by far in Armagh at that time was not on the team at all, Sean Blaney, captain of the minor team of 1949 and scorer of the winning goal in that final. We were good friends at St Colman’s. Why he was not available for the Armagh seniors then I don’t know. But I am convinced he would have scored a couple of goals. That was his form. He could go through defences at speed the way George Best used to do it and had great power in his shot. Art O’Hagan the Armagh full-forward also had great power of shooting but he had to turn his man first. Blaney was always coming in at speed from further out and was very hard to stop. I don’t think Kerry could have handled him.”
Mick was selected to play for Ulster the following year, 1954, and also represented Ireland in the then annual game against the combined universities. But he played his final game for Armagh in the Ulster final of that same year and little more was heard of him, or indeed of Armagh football, as a decline set it that went on for twenty years.
But his life was moving on and he went to Dublin to work with Aer Lingus as a stock controller. After a year there, he moved to London where he decided to pursue an outdoor career as a steel erector, a specialised job in which “there was plenty of money and plenty of danger.”
He served an intense three year apprenticeship studying all aspects of the industry and eventually joined Cleveland , the famous steel erecting company. In his years with the firm he worked on many major projects such as skyscrapers and bridges, including the Queen Elizabeth bridge in London rising to over 400 feet. He talked about the ongoing dangers of the job and that several workers were killed somewhere in England every year on site. Eventually a safety harness was made compulsory which arrested any slip and fall.
“You get used to working at heights because you grow with the rising building. After a while you don’t notice the height. You could be five hundred feet up above street level erecting steel beams and fastening them together as if you were at ground level. You adopt a sense of balance because you are always standing on steel beams. But even in the winter times it doesn’t take long to warm up and get fully into the job.
Love of the Irish language
After he arrived in England Mick helped form a small GAA club in Etham and kept his old skills alive for a year or so, but it was difficult to find the players and eventually it broke up.
Mick and his wife Bridget, a native of Co Louth, lived in the Croyden area of South London where they reared their four children, two boys and two girls. In 2002, the year of the Armagh breakthrough, they decided to come back to Ireland- in Mick’s words, he heard the call of south Armagh and could not resist it, and so they bought the house in Belleek where they now live, a few miles away from his native Cullyhanna.
He retains his love of the Irish language which began with an inspirational teacher at his primary school, Master Michael Devlin, who took Irish classes two days a week. Mick pursued the language throughout his secondary school days and prides himself on the constant high marks he achieved.
And so, sixty five years after the men of ’53 made their gallant assault on the Sam Maguire cup, he is one of the five remaining warriors who played on that day along with Gerry Murphy, Pat O’Neill, Brian Seeley and Patsy McCreesh. His memory easily moves back beyond that to his college days and his achievements with Armagh at minor age. But his outstanding reflection is of that hour in Casement Park in the Ulster final of 1953 against Cavan when Armagh needed to rise to the occasion to curtail Ireland’s most famous forward of the time. Mick O’Hanlon was the hero of the hour, the inspirational figure who lifted Armagh to one of the county’s greatest ever victories.
As we spoke in the sitting room of his house in Carrickrua Heights his very presence exuded a great sense of dignity. He spoke with the quiet self confidence of one who has given of himself totally to life, to family, to work and to Irish culture through the GAA and the Irish Language. He decries the way gaelic football has gone, that it has lost its natural spectacle and no longer excites the Irish mind- set- from where it arose. But he quickly passes over that as something that will eventually be restored, and as I leave him I strongly feel that his overall legacy will be as a creator of lasting, uplifting memories for his people.