1980 change of luck was all down to Pope John Paul II

Date Published: {J}

WHENEVER the Galway senior hurling champions make the St. Patrick’s Day trip to Croke Park these days, there is always a certain amount of optimism in the air. It may have something to do with the fact that in the past 18 years alone, Galway clubs have taken home no less than nine All-Ireland club titles.

Definitely, it is a remarkable statistic, but All-Ireland victories in this competition were not always as bountiful. For instance, prior to Kiltormer’s 0-15 to 1-8 victory over Birr in the 1992 decider, Castlegar were the only other Galway side to lift the Tommy Moore Cup.

Indeed, before Castlegar’s win in 1980, no other Galway club had even contested a club final, never mind win one while, at inter-county level, Galway’s senior hurlers were still seeking their first Liam McCarthy Cup since 1923.

Then, there was the small matter of the curse! The curse? Yes, the curse. Local folklore had it that no Galway team would ever win another All-Ireland title while there was a Castlegar man in the side. “We had heard that ourselves,” laughs former Castlegar goalkeeper Tommie Grogan, “but we never paid heed to it.

“Maybe the fact that the Pope visited the parish in 1979 broke that [curse], but in any event Galway won the All-Ireland the following year and with a Castlegar man (Joe Connolly) as captain. That really rubbed it in, didn’t it?

“Of course, UCG winning the Fitzgibbon in 1980 started it all off. Then, Connacht won the Railway Cup, we won the All-Ireland club, before Galway won the All-Ireland. I think Joe Connolly could have all of those medals. I suppose, you could say, all that was down to Pope John Paul II.”

No wonder, then, that Castlegar’s netminder throughout the late ‘70s and early ‘80s has many fond memories of that era. As an understudy to Tony Gavin, he collected county senior medals in ‘72 and ‘73, before inheriting the position, himself, in the late ‘70s.

Consequently, he collected his first medal on the field of play in 1979 when Cashel defeated Kinvara on a scoreline of 2-13 to 0-6 on a bitterly cold December’s day in Duggan Park, Ballinasloe. “That time, a lot of our success was down to Tony Regan coming on board,” says Grogan, who added to his medal collection with Castlegar’s last senior title success in ‘84. “He was a great trainer.

“When he came in that time, in ‘79, he brought a great bit of drive to the team. In fairness, we had a great team that time, but Tony brought professionalism to it. As a result, we were a super fit team, really fit, at the time. We were as fit as we could be. In fairness, Tony took no nonsense. He wasn’t called ‘Horse’ for nothing. It all just kind of followed on from the county final win though after that. We were only taking it a game at a time; we never looked too far ahead.”

The Tom Callanan Cup secured, Castlegar advanced to a Connacht final meeting against Roscommon outfit, Tremane, with the Galway kingpins eventually edging beyond the 1976 Connacht champions on a scoreline of 1-16 to 1-9. That victory set up a mouth-watering clash with reigning All-Ireland club champions, Blackrock of Cork, who had defeated Dunhill of Waterford in the Munster decider and Brian Boru’s of London in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

“The semi-final was a huge one for us, against Blackrock in Athenry,” recalls Grogan. “I think they had seven of the Cork senior team, along with Frank Cummins from Kilkenny. He was centre-forward. So, they had a star studded team really, with the likes of Ray Cummins, Eamonn O’Donoghue, Pat Moylan, Dermot McCurtain, and Danny Buckley.

“That said, we did feel that we could run them close, even though we were rank outsiders. We felt going out we were in fantastic condition. Sure, they had a massive team that time, but we managed to hold them goalless that day, 2-9 to 0-9. It was a big win for us.

“We were under awful pressure, though, in the last 15 minutes. I think Joe Connolly got one goal and [his brother] Gerry got the other. John Connolly was brilliant at centre-back that day as well. Everyone rose to the occasion. We had to, because you wouldn’t beat them with just 10 or 12 fellows playing well. The whole team had to play out of their socks.”

Having accounted for Blackrock – who had already won All-Ireland club titles in ‘72, ‘74 and ‘79 – Castlegar faced Ulster champions Ballycastle in the final just one week later, on June 1, in Navan. For their part, the Antrim men had unceremoniously dispatched Crumlin on a scoreline of 3-9 to 0-8 in their semi-final.

“We played Ballycastle, who had six or seven Donnellys, and it was an awful tight game all the way through. They were a good team and there was only a point or two in it at any stage. We were under pressure all day. I think Joe Connolly got a rake of scores that day from frees, while Liam Mulryan got the goal. It was a hard earned win, that one.”

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.