Stars Of Sport and Politics

AS the Armagh GAA side parades around Croke Park, prior to an All-Ireland final, memories come flooding back of that epic encounter when the “Orangemen” came close to defeating the legendary Kerry squad, in the 1953 All-Ireland Final.

“Man of the match” was the strapping midfielder from Jonesboro, Malachy McEvoy, whose superb display, including a brilliant goal, was described as “majestic and magnificent” by ace-commentator Michael O’Hare.

Also in the squad were Newry-born solicitor, John McKnight and his brother, Michael; Killeavy teacher Sean McBreen; International show-jumper Frank Kernan from Crossmaglen, while the goalkeeper was Gerry Murphy, later manager of McCann’s Bakery, and President of Newry Chamber of Commerce.

Of course, many fine players have worn the Armagh jersey with pride and distinction, ranging from the Forkhill quartet, who were members of the squad, which won the All-Ireland Junior Championship in 1926, right down to the present panel, with its quota from the Slieve Gullion region.

Indeed, two players, who have won Ulster Minor Championship medals, have become prominent politicians, - Paddy O’Hanlon, a native of Mullabawn, was elected MP for South Armagh, and a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, while Pat Toner from Forkhill became Chairman of Newry and Mourne district council.

Bearded, convivial Paddy, who was on the St Colman’s College side, which won the MacRory Cup and went on to collect the All-Ireland trophy, the Hogan Cup, also played on the county senior squad in 1965 and `66, forced to retire after receiving a leg injury.

Meanwhile Pat Toner, whose father was in the 1926 squad, and is Deputy Project Director at the Simon shelter for the homeless in Newry, starred for Forkhill Peadar O Doirnin GFC side, and played for the Quinn’s the Milestone team in the Newry and District GAA Works League, along with future Down stars, Tony Hadden and Kevin O’Neill.

But he still cannot understand why, after playing a “blinder” in the 1957 Ulster Minor Final and the All-Ireland Semi-final, he had to watch from the dug-out as the team in orange went down to defeat in the All-Ireland Final.

Huge support was galvanised in 1953, as thousands of fans, from Dromintee to Maghery, flocked to Croke Park for an historic battle between “the boys from the county Armagh,” and the men from the Kingdom. For, while their ancient rival in red-and black may have drunk from the chalice of success in the 60’s, Armagh could proudly claim to have been the first from the “wee Six” to challenge the Kerrymen for the Sam Maguire Cup.

On that memorable day, more than 50 years ago, the “Orangemen” were thwarted by a disallowed goal and a missed penalty, finishing only four points behind. The referee refused to allow the goal, even though the ball had clearly crossed the line. He then awarded a penalty on the dubious decision that the goalie had handled the ball on the ground. And he allowed the Kerry forwards to charge alongside Bill McCorry, as he was taking the spot-kick, causing him to miss.

By coincidence, the referee was the Meath maestro, Peter McDermott, who had coached the Down side which won the All-Ireland Junior Championship in 1946. And he was recruited by the Mourne team management again in 1960, following the drawn All-Ireland semi-final against Offaly.

It is ironic that, despite being one of the all-time greats, Malachy “Style” McEvoy, who starred for the Abbey CBS, Dromintee, Killeavy, Longstone and Armagh, as well as for Ulster in the Railway Cup, and for Ireland against the Combined Universities, won only one medal in his illustrious career, as a member of the Killeavy side which won the County Championship, - and that was not presented until 36 years later!

Explaining his technique, in an interview about 15 years ago, big Mal said: “Once I would go for a high ball, I would be on the move. It’s bad to stop when you hit the ground, for you will be surrounded, and can’t get rid of the ball. I would be yards away when I landed.”

Sadly during that interview, - which was conducted at his home, close to Glassdrumman primary school outside Kilkeel, where he had been principal, this one-time sporting hero was in a wheelchair, being spoon-fed by his devoted wife. He had suffered a disabling stroke in 1979.

Another gregarious footballer, Paddy O’Hanlon, a UCD graduate on the staff of the Abbey CBS, emerged into the leadership of the civil rights movement in the Newry area. Elected MP for South Armagh, he joined forces with Gerry Fitt, John Hume, Paddy Devlin and Austin Currie in founding the SDLP.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008