REGULAR readers may know that I have recently been coaching kids at St. Vincent’s GAA club in Dublin.
My involvement is an accidental confluence of geography and parenthood (just to be clear, only the geography bit was accidental). It’s not that the famous club read my Irish Examiner musings and reckoned I was just the sort of inspirational figure to guide the next generation, or anything.
No, like many thousands of well-meaning helicopter parents around the country, I just turned up one evening and was handed a bib.
And, as the extent of my coaching expertise could be passed on in the time it takes 35 eight-year-olds to do ten star jumps (which, to be fair, is longer than you might think), my contribution mainly involves randomly blowing a whistle and general crowd control.
But hey, they also serve who only stand and wait.
Recently, the club asked me to help out with an oral history project, which involves interviewing players from bygone days, as part of an effort to build an archive of their storied past.
I like to think that the spirit of the late club legend Kevin Heffernan was at work here, him being a famously good judge of the measure of a man. “Get that eejit away from that whistle,” the ghost of Heffo no doubt whispered to club officials.
And so it was that I had the immeasurable privilege last Monday of meeting Norman Allen and Mick Moylan, members not only of the Vincent’s teams that dominated Dublin GAA throughout the 1950s, but also part of the first Dublin team to truly capture the imagination of the city.
Norman is 91 years old now, and Mick 87, but both have razor sharp recollections of the extraordinary rise of Vincent’s and, in turn, the Dubs. Norman was a huge star of both codes. He was the standout player in the Dublin team that lost the 1952 All-Ireland hurling final to Cork (they’ve only reached one since) and won the national award for ‘Sportstar of the Year’ in 1953, beating Christy Ring into second.
That was a helluva year for Norman. He led Vincent’s to a double of football and hurling county titles (their first with the small ball) and was the star man when the club took on Glen Rovers, Ring and all, in an unofficial All-Ireland club final, staged at the behest of the clergy who needed the cash to build churches.
Over 20,000 turned up at Croke Park for the match, which Vincent’s won, but by that stage these men were used to big crowds. Nearly 40,000 had flocked to that year’s National Football League final, when Norman, Mick and Heffo were among 14 Vincent’s players on the Dublin team that hammered All-Ireland champions Cavan. Thanks to a jersey clash with Cavan, the Dubs even wore Vincent’s jerseys that day.
The story of the great Vincent’s teams of the 1950s has been well documented at this stage, mainly because it pulls together so many important strands in the history of the GAA.
In fact, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that these guys and their pals from that small corner of the city invented ‘The Dubs’. Prior to them, successful Dublin teams were littered with countrymen moonlighting from their home counties while working in the capital. But the decision by Vincent’s in 1948 to restrict club membership to Dublin-born players, or those born elsewhere but eligible for juvenile ranks, changed everything.
Vincent’s swept to dominance in the capital, and the crowds that flocked to watch this exciting young, homegrown team begat the multitudes who watched most of the same players in Dublin colours, which in turn began the great swaggering movement that became Heffo’s Army and rolled on all the way down to the five-in-a-row.
Furthermore, if it’s the background to the Dublin-Kerry rivalry you’re looking into, you come to the 1955 All-Ireland final, when 87,102 (and probably many more) squeezed into Croke Park to see Kerry beat the Dublin. This was a game which had, by 1950s Ireland standards, been the subject of quite insane levels of pre-match hype: it was the first proper Dubs against culchies final.
Dublin were without Norman, struck down with appendicitis, and his replacement Mark Wilson, injured in the semi-final against Mayo. Heffernan had been getting injections in his ankle and under-performed in the match, and the whole crushing experience would fuel his obsession with beating Kerry in later years.
That game also has a chapter of its own when it comes to the tactical history of Gaelic football. It was billed as a battle between Kerry’s traditional ‘catch-and-kick’ approach and Dublin’s ‘scientific’ football, a type of pass-and-move game influenced by soccer and about which traditionalists were deeply suspicious. Kerry’s victory was hailed as vindication for the old ways, but debates about tactics and the soul of the sport were only beginning.
But history is a mirror in changing light; every time you look at it, it shows you a different reflection. As well as all those other things, the Vincent’s story is also a very current one, a story about social housing and community-building.
THE Marino housing development and its subsequent Donnycarney sister project provided the raw materials for Vinnies’ later success. Work on Marino began in 1924; it was the first public housing project that the new state had undertaken and, despite those penurious times, was built in response to the dire state of the city’s overflowing tenements.
Imagine that, a government building homes because its people needed them!
They also needed a community, and given the times that were in it, the church stepped in. Primary schools were built either side of Marino church on Griffith Avenue, Scoil Mhuire for boys, St. Vincent De Paul for girls. Both were completed in 1928 and Scoil Mhuire became an academy for Gaelic games, fired by men of the cloth infused with nationalistic zeal.
One day, a brother in Scoil Mhuire, Ernest Fitzgerald, suggested to parish curate Dr. William Fitzpatick that it might be an idea to set up a GAA club in the area to keep the local boys out of mischief once they’d left the school. St. Vincent’s was born in 1931 and Doc Fitz was the driving force behind its early decades, rounding up lads in his Baby Austin to line out for the new club.
The community they built still stands today, when governments refuse to build houses and the church...well, you know the story. The two schools still bustle with kids, most of whom pass through the gates of Vincent’s too; all of them, like Norman and his boyhood pals, benefitting from a happy accident of geography.