Meath priest's 'Players of the Faithful' brought Offaly to famous All-Ireland win

Story by John Donohoe

Friday, 28th December, 2018 4:29pm

Meath priest's 'Players of the Faithful' brought Offaly to famous All-Ireland win

Offaly's goal-scoring hero, Seamus Darby.

Tonight's documentary on RTE television, 'Players of the Faithful', looking at Offaly's famous 1982 All Ireland SFC win, couldn't have a more apt title, as a Meath priest was heavily involved in the GAA in the Faithful County at the time.  

Players of the Faithful is the story of the Offaly team that famously ended Kerry’s bid to become the first county to win five All Ireland football titles in a row in 1982. With contributions from the key men involved, it tells the story of a county that capitalised on high levels of employment for young men in 1980s Ireland to shock Irish sport in the most memorable All Ireland Final. The achievements of these men have become legend. Now they tell the story behind the legend in their own words.

The role of Meath priest Fr Sean Heaney is recalled in Michael Foley`s 2008 book `Kings of September`, winner of the the Boylesports Sports Book of the Year Award.

The Kilberry native was curate in Rahan, Co Offaly, at one of the furthest ends of the Meath diocese, and in 1976 had been appointed chairman of the Offaly County Board. Offaly had just been relegated to Division Two, and a dull Leinster quarter final against Meath had ended with a nine-point defeat; two players - Offaly`s Mick Wright and Meath`s Mattie Kerrigan - had been put off. The 1971 and `72 all-Ireland winners were on the way down big-time.

Offaly manager Paddy McCormack resigned and a queue of former players was forming to succeed him, but Fr Heaney wanted something different. One of the Offaly team`s remaining sources of light, Kevin Kilmurray, suggested Eugene McGee, who had guided UCD to Sigerson Cup and club championship success during Kilmurray`s time.

But Fr Sean Heaney knew that getting McGee would require work - in Offaly and in Longford. In Offaly, while there was a county board, the one man he would need to convince was the county secretary, John Dowling. Convince him, and anything could happen.

Monsignor Sean Heaney

Dowling, later president of the GAA, was suspicious when Heaney suggested McGee over a cup of tea. The man wasn`t from Offaly. He had no background as a player, and the idea of a journalist taking over a team worried him. But Heaney had been Dowling`s preferred choice as chairman, and Dowling needed him. Whatever McGee would do, he couldn`t drag Offaly any lower. Dowling gave the nod. After seeing Offaly playing Dublin in a Leinster minor football final, McGee agreed to take on the job.

The following weekend, McGee landed into Tullamore with a bag of footballs in the boot of his car and strolled onto the pitch in his pale blue UCD jersey. Heaney was in the stand. Things were already different: training sessions at Offaly had never been conducted with more than one football.

The players straggled onto the field and McGee brought them into a semi-circle around him, 20 yards from one goal. Up in the stand, Fr Heaney held his breath.

"He threw out about half a dozen footballs and said: "Kick them over the bar." Here you had guys with two all-Ireland medals, Leinster medals, club championships. It was the most humiliating thing you could ever do. In other words, he said: You can`t do anything. You`re not able to kick the ball over the bar from 25 yards out."

McGee changed the training sessions, put together a dietary plan, shaved off the team members who were past it and began building up a new team. The side included two brothers who had grown up in Ballivor, Pat and Mick Fitzgerald, whose father moved with the family to work with Born na Mona in Offaly. 

By 1980, McGee brought Offaly to a Leinster final, in which they were beaten by Dublin. But the county board delegates hadn`t warmed to McGee. He wasn`t one of their own. He was too distant. All these meetings and diet sheets and scraps of paper were unsettling. His autonomous regime wasn`t working. They didn`t move to sack McGee, but instead appointed four more selectors. Democracy, they said, must reign. Eventually, they`d nail him.

Fr Heaney was weary from fighting. Much of his time was spent keeping McGee sweet with Dowling, and cajoling the rest of a bucking county board along with him. Offaly hurlers were showing significant signs of life, and the workload was getting heavy. Now, he had to deal with McGee and four new selectors who didn`t like him.

During one game in Cork, McGee stood on the line while the selectors sat in the stands. When he wished to make a change, McGee had to run up the steps for consultation and a vote. His power was diminished, and something of his dignity too. So, for a big tournament match, McGee picked a team and didn`t tell the selectors anything. He told them: "That`s the team we`re playing." They got thick and stood on one side of the field. McGee stood on the other. "Luckily we won the match."

Goal-scoring hero, Seamus Darby.

That night, all four selectors wrote to Fr Heaney telling him they couldn`t work with McGee. The following morning, they found a short note in each of their letterboxes thanking them for their services. Putting his own neck on the line, the priest quietly appointed himself, John Dowling and assistant secretary Brother Sylvester as selectors, giving McGee the freedom and peace he wished for.

The rest, as they say, is GAA history, and as a result of that famous 1982 All-Ireland, also GAA legend. In 1980, the Leinster cup was brought back to Tullamore,  after defeating Dublin, and Offaly made it as far as the All-Ireland semi-final, where they were beaten by Kerry who were on their way to a hat trick of all-Ireland titles.

The following year, Offaly got one step further, and were beaten once again by Kerry at the ultimate stage of the championship, and when Kerry was heading for the five-in-a-row in 1982 it was Offaly they were again meeting. Fr Heaney said a prayer in the dressing room before the almighty clash, which became famous for late substitute Seamus Darby`s stunning last-minute goal when Kerry led by two points. Their five-in-a-row was denied.

"It was a bombshell," Fr Heaney recalls. "It was as totally unexpected to us as anybody else. Unbelievable. It was one of those defining moments in sport. You`ll still meet people who know what chair they were sitting in in the sitting room when that goal went in!"

Fr Sean Heaney eventually stood down as county board chairman in 1984 and later became parish priest in Dunderry and Kingscourt. Now Monsignor Heaney, he returned Tullamore as parish priest, where he now lives in retirement.


Seamus Darby scoring the famous goal.


PLAYERS OF THE FAITHFUL  - Friday 28th December, 9.30pm, RTE1.


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