Sean O'Neill

SUPREME accolade for Down superstar, Sean O`Neill, was the creation of the G.A.A. Academy, named in his honour, designed to attract and develop the potential of future Gaelic football heroes.

Launched in 2003 at Queen’s University, attended by a galaxy of past and present stars, the project’s patrons consist of Kieran McGeeney, captain of Armagh’s All-Ireland winning squad; past president of the G.A.A, Peter Quinn; Anthony Tohill of Derry; Eugene McKeever from Tyrone; Greg Blaney (Down), as well as Paddy O’Hara and Hugh O’Kane, representing Antrim.

One of the finest footballers in the history of the G.A.A., All-Star Sean O’Neill captained Abbey C.B.S. and Newry Mitchels to outstanding success; spear-headed Mourne county squads to three Sam Maguire Cup triumphs; holds the record of eight Railway Cup medals, as well as coaching victorious Ulster sides. He has also guided Queen’s University and Down Minor teams to All-Ireland glory.

And it is appropriate that this signal honour should coincide with the Down G.A.A. Centenary Year. This follows on the Newry-born solicitor being chosen on the G.A.A Team of the Millennium.

In the early 70’s, I interviewed each of the “immortals” from the Mourne county’s golden era. Sean O’Neill was chosen to initiate the series, since he was one of the most brilliant players ever to represent club or county, - and also the most convenient, residing in the frontier town at the time.

During his reminiscences, Sean recalled the crucial, controversial penalty, involving his cousin James McCartan, during the 1960 All-Ireland Semi-final against Offaly, which secured the Mournemen a re-play.

“We were behind by five points, and playing like a beaten side. Nothing was going right. The situation was critical, for we were opposed by one of the best defences in Gaelic football. Then James McCartan grabbed the ball and headed for goal. At the edge of the square he was confronted by a barrier of Offaly backs, who just stood there, and made no attempt to tackle or foul him.

“So James turned his back to the goal, and I shouted for him to feed the ball to me. But he just stood his ground. Suddenly, to our delight, big Paddy McCormack panicked and made a wild rush, grabbing McCartan around the mid-riff, in a rugby tackle. A penalty was awarded, and Paddy Doherty rammed the ball well clear of the goalkeeper, to put Down back in the game,” said Sean O’Neill.

However, as soon as the article was published, I received a `phone call from James McCartan, challenging his cousin’s version of what had happened. I seized the opportunity to enlist “King” James for the next interview, which took place at his public house in Donaghcloney.

Other locations included Paddy Doherty’s car, outside a building site at Ballynahinch; Leo Murphy’s home in Rostrevor; Dan McCartan’s mobile home at Tyrella Beach; the headmaster’s study at Dundrum school for Jarlath Carey; Tony Hadden’s home at Ashgrove; Kevin Mussen’s school in Hilltown; and P.J. McElroy, in the head forester’s cottage at the entrance to Tullamore Forest Park, Newcastle, etc.

The versatile Patsy O’Hagan, a surveyor from Hilltown, was living at Tuam, Co Galway. His sister `phoned to inform me that Patsy would be home on holiday the following week, and would be available for interview. That solved a major problem.

Meanwhile, Mitchels’ maestro, Sean O’Neill paid tribute to the progressive policy, adopted by the county team-management in the late 50’s. And he revealed how some of the players had defied medical advice, so that they could play a part in making history on that red-and-black-letter day in September, 1960.

For example, he reported that James McCartan had been concussed in the first-half, and had no recollection of that magnificent last 30 minutes, when the men of Mourne destroyed the pride and tradition of the Kingdom, inflicting the heaviest defeat ever suffered by Kerry at Croke Park.

Leo Murphy could only take the field, after receiving pain-killing injections for a thigh injury. He played a brilliant game, and no one in the record 90,000 crowd was aware of his serious handicap. And Brian (Breen) Morgan suffered from a fractured jaw, inflicted during the game, being almost blinded by pain.

“There was no way that any of those players were going to be left on the bench, during that All-Ireland Final. It was death or glory,” Sean commented.

The partnership of Sean O’Neill, James McCartan and Paddy Doherty has been described as the greatest forward-line in G.A.A. history. But Sean was sceptical about this claim, denying that the gifted trio had ever worked out any tactics before a match, - but there was no denying the uncanny understanding between them. One particular incident stands out, during the 1961 All-Ireland Final, when Offaly had scored two early goals.

Sean explained: “We were playing nonsense, while Offaly were living good. Then Paddy Doherty floated a ball, which came across high. James McCartan went for it, and I was behind him. But I spotted Egan about to crash-tackle James, and shouted: `Leave it, take Egan.’ Without hesitation, McCartan blocked the Offaly defender, shielding me, so that I was able to take the ball, turn inside and beat the `keeper.”

But the prospect of playing for a Down team, which won the Sam Maguire Cup, was far from the dreams of four young boys, - Kevin and Sean O’Neill and their cousins, Dan and James McCartan, kicking a ball about the farm-yard of the legendary “Briney” McCartan. Not only did the quartet gain All-Ireland fame, but Sean and “King” James went on to become household names, all over Ireland.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008