MANY times I’ve kicked around that ‘political’ football/sliotar that has been known to hover around the high stool — the great unanswered question of what the GAA is really about.
Croke Park in September? Or with the grassroots of the games down with clubs?
We all love September, because it’s the pinnacle of the two codes, but September is for the chosen few, the elite players in the elite counties, so it has to be the clubs really.
And it was a rugby man that taught me that — the late great Anthony Foley when he walked into a dressing room in my own club, Éire Óg, Inis with a gear-bag thrown over his shoulder.
It was a famous weekend in the GAA calendar — in Clare and everywhere, but wearing the saffron and blue colours of my adopted home, you’d have to say the importance of the weekend was heightened in the Banner County.
It was the weekend of October 31/November 1, 2009 — it was 125 years to the weekend that the GAA had been founded by Clareman Michael Cusack.
The GAA had set sail on 1 November 1884 — 125 years to the day later was the day of the Clare county senior hurling final that saw Cratloe win their first ever title when Padraigh Chaplin became immortal when goaling with virtually the last puck of the game. It was romance and it was history on a famous day.
And it the same the day before when Anthony Foley landed up in Éire Óg. He was retired from rugby for just over a year after a glittering career, but was now a Smith O’Brien once more, playing for his local GAA club in Killaloe, and enjoying it. Loving it.
It was the Junior B Football Championship final — the lowest rung of the ladder in Clare, as grassroots as you can go, but still important in its own right.
Smith O’Briens went shoulder to shoulder with St Breckan’s that day in Éire Óg, with the title going to Brian Boru country.
Anthony Foley being on the Smith O’Brien’s 15 certainly showcased what the GAA is really about. It’s not about the years to September, but it’s about the club and as grassroots as you can go.
Anthony Foley started out his sporting career in the red and yellow Smith O’Briens jersey – hurling with contemporaries like Keith Wood, Paul McCarthy, Kevin McCarthy, Barry Gleeson and company up in Killaloe’s field in the Shantraud part of town.
Indeed, back in GAA Centenary year in 1984 on county hurling final day in Cusack Park between Sixmilebridge and Clarecastle, a very young Foley was a sub on the Smith O’Briens team that beat Tulla in the Under 16 B championship final.
Foley and Keith Wood played for the East Clare under 16 hurling team guided by future All-Ireland senior winning trainer Mike McNamara and were in the half-forward line together in Dr Tommy Daly Park in Tulla back in ’89 for a minor hurling final when Smith O’Briens lost narrowly to a Scariff team that included Foley’s future brother-in-law Pat Minogue. And they’ll tell you in Killaloe to this day that Smith O’Briens were blackguarded that day.
Twenty years on and the wheel came full circle – he finished his playing career in the same Smith O’Briens jersey. Kevin McCarthy, who hurled with Foley all the way up along the underage grades, was with him on the Junior B team, while Paul McCarthy who played with him in that minor final was over the team.
In between Foley proved himself to be one of the greatest of all Irish rugby internationals – captaining Shannon, Munster and Ireland, winning All-Ireland Leagues, Celtic Leagues, Heineken Cups and Triple Crowns.
He lived his dream of being a professional athlete, but all the while never forgot where he came from.
Back in 2006 before Munster’s date with European Cup final destiny in Cardiff, Foley was interviewed by The Clare People, but amidst all the talk about this greatest of rugby journeys he wanted to talk Smith O’Briens hurling.
“How’s Trevor Howard going,” he enquired. “He’s a good prospect, a good hurler,” he added. “And what about ‘Cue’ (John Cusack), he’s another good one. What did he score?”
Rugby had taken Foley on an unforgettable journey, but he wasn’t going to forget Smith O’Briens.
It’s like when politics took Paddy Hillery around the world and into forums like Dáil Éireann, the United Nations, the European Commission and Áras an Uachtarán – taking him to those exotic corridors of power was one thing, but you could never take Spanish Point, Miltown Malbay or Clare out of him.
It’s what he was and that’s the way he wanted it.
So it was with Anthony Foley, a Smith O’Brien all his life, from always keeping an ear and interested eye out for how they were doing, to coming back and helping them win only their second ever Junior B Championship.
And as ever his father Brendan showed him the way. Another Shannon stalwart, Brendan was capped 11 times for Ireland between 1976 and ’81, and was in the second row with Maurice Ignatius Keane on that October 31, 1978 day when Munster thrashed the All-Blacks in Thomond Park.
Foley Snr finished his playing career in the red and yellow of Smith O’Briens, lining out in goal on the Junior B Football Championship winning team of 1986. They beat Meelick in the final that was played in Newmarket-on-Fergus.
The exploits of Foleys are really what the GAA is all about.
And when it came to getting a photograph of that Junior B winning team of 2009, who do you think came up with the goods and emailed into the paper?
Anthony Foley, of course, pure gent that he was.
Legend that he was. Is. And always will be.