To the brave and faithful nothing is impossible

To grow up in Offaly in the 1980s was to live in a sporting wonderland. The hurlers and then the footballers and then the hurlers, again, performed feats that are without parallel in the history of the GAA.

To the brave and faithful nothing is impossible

To grow up in Offaly in the 1980s was to live in a sporting wonderland. The hurlers and then the footballers and then the hurlers, again, performed feats that are without parallel in the history of the GAA.

Viewed back through the historical prism of a new millennium, these are feats that appear somewhat incredible.

That a county of 58,312 people should win All-Ireland championships in hurling and football in two glorious years – 1981 and 1982 – defies all historical experience across the 135 years since the foundation of the GAA.

To put these successes in context, in the 1980s, Offaly was one of only three counties to be competitive enough to win senior provincial titles in football and hurling. And the other two counties to manage the feat – Cork and Galway – had cities within their boundaries. Their network of clubs and the balance of their infrastructure was hugely in advance of what the people of Offaly had at their disposal.

It is true, also, that smaller counties than Offaly have won All-Ireland championships – the footballers of Cavan (5 times between 1933 and 1952) and Roscommon (1943 and 1944), and the hurlers of Laois (1915) – but none of these counties have ever managed All-Ireland success in both codes, let alone at the same time.

The scale of what Offaly achieved can be measured in multiple ways. But there is one measure that beautifully illustrates the dual nature of these successes in a way that is beyond dispute.

In GAA clubs and pubs and private houses across the county, a framed graphic sets out in the style of a teamsheet in a match programme the All-Stars that Offaly players were awarded in football and hurling following the establishment of those awards in 1971.

That Offaly was the first county to win All-Stars in every single position in both teams is a huge badge of honour and a singular testimony to the achievements of that era.

On that first year of the scheme, Offaly won the All-Ireland football championship and All-star awards were given to four of the players on that team: Willie Bryan, Tony McTague, Nicholas Clavin and Eugene Mulligan. That the championship winners should be well-represented was no surprise.

But an Offaly hurler was also awarded an All-Star that year when its brilliant goalkeeper, Damien Martin, won an All-Star, chosen ahead of luminaries such as the Kilkenny goalkeeper, Ollie Walsh.

Damien Martin was still in goals in 1981 when Offaly won its first All-Ireland senior hurling title, but back in 1971 the county’s only successes were junior championships won a half-century previously.

In that same year, that Damien Martin won an All-Star, so too did the brilliant corner-forward from the Ferbane club: Brendan Lowry.

And for all of that year, 1981, Brendan Lowry was exceptional. He was still relatively new to the Offaly team, but had helped the county defeat Dublin in 1980 and retain the Leinster championship in 1981.

He was a magnificent corner-forward – his capacity to read the play and to find himself on the ball in exactly the right place saw him score time and again.

But, in 1981, when Offaly lost to Kerry in the final (much more narrowly than the 8-point deficit on the final scoreboard suggests) Brendan Lowry did not play particularly well. He later told the journalist, Brian Keogh, that it was one of two matches he’d like to have back:

“I;d love another go at the 1981 All-Ireland final again. I'd had a good year up to that but I played poorly that day. We won the following year but that is one I'd love to play again.” 

The other match that he wished he could play again was the 1993 Offaly club championship semi-final, when he was playing for Ferbane: “I got sent off and I was suspended for the final which was against Clara. I'd love to have played in that final because Shane was the Clara mascot that day. He was only five. Clara beat us but I'd love to have played.”

As it was, Brendan won seven county medals with Ferbane, as well as a Leinster club championship.

And his disappointment at the way he – and Offaly – played in the 1981 All-Ireland final was reversed a year later when he played brilliantly to help Offaly beat Kerry in the 1982 final. He shot three points that day – all of them showcasing how quick his feet were in getting a shot away.

The genius of Matt Connor has somewhat overshadowed how good other forwards on that Offaly team were, but there is no denying the brilliance of Brendan Lowry. For example, his goal against Galway in the 1982 All-Ireland semi-final was a perfect example of how sharp his football brain was and how lethal he was as a finisher. For the remainder of the 1980s and into the 1990s, Brendan Lowry continued to play for Offaly. Even as the team disintegrated around him, he showed up year after year – overcoming serious knee injuries – and committed to what was an increasingly forlorn cause.

Like most of the 1982 team, he now wishes for a new chapter in Offaly GAA; he is on record of saying he is sick of talking about 1982.

And yet, the success of his son, Shane, and Shane’s abundant love for the GAA means that the Lowry connection with Offaly GAA will continue to be told and retold.

Nobody in Offaly harbours any illusions about how hard it will be to bring success again to the county. But there is a huge amount of work being done. And Shane Lowry has contributed a huge amount to that – when the Training Centre in the county was being built, his commitment to the fundraising was exemplary.

The pride that Offaly people feel in Shane Lowry is real and goes beyond a shared geography. He is a link to a special time in the history of the county, there is no denying that. But it is almost entirely because of the type of person that Shane is that he inspires such warmth.

His obvious loyalty to his home town and his home county is not something that can be faked. He has a humour and a humility that people like. The people who were around him as he celebrated his success in Portrush were old friends, the boys he went to school with and hung around Clara with.

It is, in many respects, odious to compare the exploits of the father to the son and to rank them; there is obviously a profound difference between a local team sport and an international individual competition. That being said, there can be no doubting where pride of place must sit: Shane’s achievement must be considered the greater, by virtue of how few Irish people – or people of any country – have managed it.

Rather than separate them, however, what unites both achievements is how it makes people feel, the joy it has brought, how moving it was to see how happy it made Shane and his family. The scenes in Dublin on Monday and, most of all, in Clara on Tuesday had all the hallmarks of an All-Ireland homecoming. It is fair to say no other winner of a golf major has been received in this way and it makes that victory of the more special.

The headline in the Tullamore Tribune this week said all that needed to be said: ‘The People’s Champion’.

Paul Rouse is associate professor of history in University College Dublin.

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