The host of RTÉ Sunday night’s Gaelic Sports results, the longest-running radio results service in the world, Ó Ceallacháin has just published “The Dubs”, a history of Dublin’s intercounty teams he describes as a “labour of love”.
The historian wasn’t always an observer, either; in the early seventies he was a participant.
“I was writing a column for the Evening Press on the GAA in Dublin at that time, and highlighting the country lads doing well with Dublin clubs.
“These were lads who weren’t bothering with their own counties, but after getting written up their county boards got interested in them and they disappeared back home! “Dublin were down in the dumps in the seventies, playing against the likes of Kilkenny, but Jimmy Gray became chairman of the county board, and he had a vision to get Dublin up from where they were. I rang him one Monday and he told me he felt if Kevin Heffernan became manager it would be a great start.
“He rang me back to tell me it was off, as Heffernan had committed himself to the St Vincent’s club team for the year, so on the Tuesday I wrote that the man Dublin needed was Kevin Heffernan, a former great, to take over.
“Little did I know that I was putting him under pressure — the club got onto him and said he couldn’t let the county down, so he got back on to Jimmy Gray and took over the Dubs.”
Ó Ceallacháin sees the 1974 All-Ireland semi-final win over Cork as a huge win for that Dublin side.
“That was the start of it. Cork had a bad record against Dublin and beating them, as All-Ireland champions, was a big boost for Dublin. That led to the sequence of games against Kerry throughout the seventies, starting with 1975.
“You’ve to remember that, that Dublin team were old players — by the time they got to 1978 the age factor came into play, but it was too late to start rebuilding, and it took until 1983 for them to win again.”
He feels Brian Mullins and Tony Hanahoe were the crucial figures.
“Mullins was the man — he was the dominant force and I don’t think they’d have won the All-Irelands in 1976 and ‘77 if he hadn’t been on the team.
“What was also crucial was the ploy of getting Tony Hanahoe out of the centre, drawing Tim Kennelly out of position, to allow Bernard Brogan and Brian Mullins to come up the middle of the field. Tony didn’t mind when Kevin told him to move out to the wings, and he was responsible for the success of the tactic.
“Also, Jimmy Keaveney had retired from inter-county football at that stage, and a chance remark from ten-year-old Terence Jennings brought him back. Kevin was chatting one day and saying he needed a place-kicker and Terence said ‘What about Jimmy Keaveney?’ “Kevin got on to Keaveney, who was 15 stone at the time, and as Jimmy says, if anyone else had asked him he’d have told them where to go. Kevin got him down to 13 stone and he became the best free-taker in football at that time.”
Ó Ceallacháin was a fine hurler in his day and still laments the ‘61 All-Ireland hurling final as a lost opportunity for Dublin hurling.
“That was probably the greatest disappointment for Dublin hurling, as a win then would have transformed the whole scene. Lar Foley’s brother was hit and Lar being Lar, he went in with the hurley swinging and clouted all around him. He and Tom Ryan of Tipp were sent off, and that was a big blow because Lar was a very strong defender.
“Also, Dessie Ferguson picked up a rolling ball and was penalised by the referee. That free put Tipperary ahead after Dublin had wiped out a three-point lead. The great Paddy Leahy of Tipperary saw the danger and switched Liam Devanney from centre-forward to centre-back after he scored that free, and that broke up Dublin’s dominance in attack. No better man than Paddy to see it — he was probably the only man who saw that change — but if Dublin had won it would have done wonders for hurling in the city. Donie Nealon said to me after the game, ‘Seán, I feel we robbed it today’. He was right. Dublin hurling never really recovered.”
Asked to pick a memory from his decades on the airwaves, Ó Ceallacháin responds immediately.
“What stands above all, of all the programmes, was the Sunday that Christy Ring won his eighth All-Ireland medal. I was a great friend of his, we went to New York for the Cardinal Cushing games, and that Sunday I brought him in to Radio Eireann for the programme. When I spoke about the game that night and referred to him missing a free, he was putting his fist up to me to give out, and I couldn’t say anything.
“I asked him at the end of the show whether, having won his eighth All-Ireland, he’d retire. He said: ‘I’ll never retire from the hurling that I love as long as God gives me the strength to play for Cork’.
“That was his closing line for me that evening.”
* The Dubs by Seán Óg Ó Ceallacháin is published by Gill and MacMillan.