Mattie Gilsenan, Moynalty
Sometimes, you have to go deep into the heart of the Royal County to discover what Gaelic football means to the people of Meath. To places like Moynalty and Carnaross, where a 'golden mile’ of county footballers lived within close proximity to each other, spanning the generations.
At the weekend, when Meath lost its first captain to bring it to an All-Ireland final, Mattie Gilsenan, his neighbour and Meath player of another era, Ollie Murphy, paid a fitting tribute.
As Gilsenan, the first man to score a goal for Meath in an All-Ireland, was making his final journey to Moynalty Church, Ollie Murphy stood with a group of youngsters, all in green and gold, waving a Meath flag as the cortege passed by Loughan Cross. The first man to score a goal for Meath in a final, in 1939, being sent off by the last man who scored a goal for the county in a senior All-Ireland, 60 years later, in 1999.
It was an unexpected, yet appropriate sight, and one that not many counties could boast.
Meath, up until about 18 months ago, had a remarkable record. All of its All-Ireland SFC appearing captains, going back to Mattie Gilsenan in that wartime final, were still alive. Sadly, two have now departed, Gilsenan following Peter McDermott onto a bigger playing field. And while that '39 team was defeated by Kerry, Mattie Gilsenan was to be involved in many more All-Ireland successes as a selector, and was a link between that first team, and the Sean Boylan era, as he was also part of the Dunboyne man’s early set-up.
Mattie Gilsenan scored a spectacular goal in the 1939 decider against a star-studded Kerry team at Croke Park, which the Munster champions won by 2-5 to 2-3. Meath gave a tremendous account of themselves against a Kerry team that contained such players as Danno Keeffe, Joe Keohane, Dan Spring (father of former Tanaiste, Dick) and Paddy Kennedy and which went on to retain the All-Ireland title for the following two years.
Mattie Gilsenan had played for the Meath minors in 1933 and made his senior inter-county debut in the Leinster Championship match against Westmeath at Kells in 1935 when the home county won by four points, before bowing out of the title race with a single point loss to Louth at Croke Park three weeks later. He held his place for 11 years and normally lined out at right half-forward, with the occasional positioning on the 'forty’.
He was very much part of the action when Meath claimed only their second Leinster title in '39 when they beat Wexford by four points in the final and again the following year when they got the better of Laois by three points to retain the provincial crown.
Of his goal in the 1939 All-Ireland, a contemporary newspaper wrote: “ The Meath captain was in sparkling form and his goal was not only the best of the match, but the best of the season and one of the best in the records of the GAA. The movement that led up to it was delightful. Gilsenan started the movement and the ball was handled by Joe Loughran, Tony Donnelly and Jack Cummins. The latter centred a low ball for Gilsenan who had crossed to the far wing in support to tap the ball down to toe and send in a first class drive which O’Keeffe, the Kerry custodian, did not see until the ball shook the net.”
1940 was a particularly successful year for Gilsenan because, apart from winning his second Leinster SFC medal, he became the first Meath player to captain Leinster in the Railway Cup and led them to a final victory over a Munster team that was packed with many of the Kerry players who had deprived the Royal County of All-Ireland glory the previous September. That was one of three Railway Cup medals which Mattie won during a magnificent career.
The highlight of his club playing career was winning a senior championship medal with St Mary’s, a combination of Moynalty and Kilbeg, in 1937, defeating the powerful Navan Gaels. He also picked up an Intermediate Championship medal in 1936, as well as some Feis Cup medals.
Mattie Gilsenan was to be a selector on 11 Meath teams that won senior provincial titles. Apart from '39 and '40, there was also '47, '49, '51, '52, '54, '64, '66, '67 and '70. And Meath went on to claim the Sam Maguire Cup in three of those years - '49, '54 and '67.
He had subsequent spells as a county selector and was part of Sean Boylan’s set-up in the early stages of his long tenure as Meath manager. Sean Boylan this week paid tribute to Mattie Gilsenan’s lifelong interest in the game and its players, and how he would ring him after a match to say that he had spotted a new up and coming player of talent.
Gilsenan retained a tremendous passion for football throughout his life and must hold some sort of record for the number of club matches he has attended at various venues around the county over the years.
He looked back with tremendous clarity at a playing career that was surely highlighted by the 1939 All-Ireland final appearance. He told Paul Clarke in an interview for the Royal County Yearbook 2007: “Collective training took place at Randalstown for about three weeks before the All-Ireland final.
“We had won some games in the Leinster Championship before serious training started.”
He vividly recalled the day he made his debut appearance for the Meath seniors - over seven decades ago.
“I can remember it as if it was yesterday,” he added. “It was on a Church holiday in May 1935 and it was a lovely day. We played Westmeath in Kells and I was at right half-forward.”
Leading his province to Railway Cup honours was another of the big highlights during Mattie’s playing days.
“I captained Leinster when we won the Railway Cup in 1940,” he said. “We beat Munster in the final. That was a big thrill. The Railway Cup was a big thing then and attracted huge crowds, over 40,000 as far as I can recall. It was a really great competition.
“I played with some really great footballers during my years with Meath, including Tony Donnelly who was a truly wonderful player,” he recalled. “Others included Bill Shaw, Mattie Rogers, Joe Loughran, Ted Meade and Dick Cassidy from Kilbeg.” Jim Kearney, brother of his wife, Eileen, was also playing at this time.
He recalled the Cusack Stand being built in 1937 and saw it being demolished as well.
“I was in Croke Park for the 1928 All-Ireland final when Kildare beat Cavan and Squires Gannon was the first man to receive the Sam Maguire Cup. I saw it being presented for the last time, to Mick Lyons in 1987, and the new one being presented to Joe Cassells in 1988!”
A farmer, Matt Gilsenan was a past student of Warrenstown Agricultural College in Drumree, and was present to launch their reunion celebrations at a function in Killeen Castle last year. He was well known the length and breadth of the country which he travelled in his cattle lorry. He was an active member of the local IFA, GAA club and was a proud member of the Pioneer Association.
Mr Gilsenan, of Loughan, Moynalty, died peacefully at Our Lady’s Hospital, Navan, in his 98th year. He is survived by his wife, Eileen; son, Seán, Loughan; daughters, Veronica, Clarehall, Co Clare, Irene, Sweden, Maureen, Perth, Rosita, America, Eithne, Carlanstown, Patricia, London, and Paula, Denmark; brother, Terry, Mullagh; and sisters, Sr Veronica, Tullamore, Sr De Lourdes, Kilcormac, Mary, Dublin and and Eileen, Ratoath; daughter-in-law Teresa, sons-in-law, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews and a large circle of friends.
The removal took place on Sunday evening from his daughter Rosita’s residence at Maperath, to the Church of the Assumption, Moynalty, where Funeral Mass on Monday was followed by burial in Moynalty Cemetery.