In 1970 New York GAA was on a high and its hurling and football teams were equal to the best Ireland could offer. Only three years earlier in the National League two-leg final, the New York footballers hammered the great Galway three-in-a-row side in both games, 3-5 to 1-6 and 4-3 to 0-10, for a 10-point aggregate win. It was the third league title for the footballers.
The hurlers had never won the league but in 1970 this looked set to change. In October 1969 New York beat the newly-crowned All-Ireland champions Kilkenny in what was called The World Cup, trouncing the Cats in the first leg (3-13 to 1-7), drawing the second leg, to win comfortably on aggregate. Trained by former Wexford great Mick Morrissey and backboned by Pat Kirby, big Jim Carney from Clare and Bernie Ahern (a former team-mate of Christy Ring’s in Cloyne), New York went on to record another bit of history when beating a star-studded Munster side in the 1970 Cardinal Cushing Games.
The momentum very much with them and they were all set for a meeting with Cork, the ‘Home’ league champions of 1969 and 1970, when New York suffered its first setback — a request from Cork granted by GAA headquarters for a postponement of the two-leg final until after the 1970 championship was over.
The long delay broke the New York’s momentum while Cork had built up a head of steam by the time they finally went to New York. Cork won the first game on September 13 in Gaelic Park by three points (4-11 to 4-8). The referee for that game was Dublin’s Clem Foley, who had been brought to New York with the GAA travelling party, and, in what hadn’t been a notably fractious game, he sent off a player from each side.
Trouble was brewing, however. In the second leg of the 1966 National League football final in Croke Park, several New York players, along with New York referee John Nolan had been accosted. It left a bitter taste, but worse was to come.
In the second leg of the 1970 hurling league final New York played to their potential and beat Cork, but only by a point, leaving the Rebels as champions.
The real story of that shameful day was just starting. As he made his way from the pitch, Foley was seriously assaulted by several people.
“He was kicked and struck twice in the face,” said an Irish Press report from the game. “He was subjected to threats and abuse all the way to the dressing room.”
Clem’s son Dave takes up the story.
“The match was over, my dad was coming off the field and was approached by two members of the New York board who shook his hand, thanked him for refereeing the match. While they were doing that a player came from behind and hit him, then others came in. All he can remember is that there was blood pouring out of his eyes, but he was determined not to fall to the ground because he felt if he did, he’d be killed.
“Apparently a Fr Hill came in, a giant of a man, cracked a few skulls, managed to grab my father and guide him into the dressing room. I was at home in Whitehall, only 14 at the time, and I was listening to the match on the radio when I heard Michael O’Hehir shout ‘The referee has been assaulted!’ I ran into my mother and told her, ‘Daddy has been assaulted in America!’
“You can imagine what it was like in the house, no instant communication like there is today. It wasn’t till the Wednesday evening we got the story. Michael O’Hehir and Seán Ó Siocháin [Secretary General of the GAA] came directly from the airport to our house to tell my mother what had happened, that Clem was in hospital and wouldn’t be home for a few days. He was out of work for 14 weeks with his jaw smashed. He had to get a replacement steel plate inserted.”
So, who had hit Clem? “A fella called John Maher was suspended for it and the man who identified him was Michael O’Hehir, who said he saw him take off his jersey and run at Clem from behind, though I’m told he went to court to prove that he hadn’t done it.”
There was however one good news element to emerge from the affair.
“My dad died on May 29 last year and going through his affairs afterwards I found a series of letters from a gentleman called Connie Neenan. It turned out that he had paid for my father’s operation in the New York hospital after the incident.
“He was with Waterford Glass in New York and he was the main man who got the dressing rooms and all that built in the St Finbarr’s club in Cork in the early ’70s. I didn’t know he existed before I found those letters but I’d now like to offer them to St Finbarr’s, if they want them for their archives. They’re phenomenal letters about the New York incident and other things that were going on in the GAA at the time.”
It wasn’t over yet. New York were due to play the World Cup final a few weeks later, again against Cork but this time in Ireland. They had made and paid for all their travel arrangements, time arranged off work, when word came through that Central Council had postponed the game for a week. New York still travelled in the hope the original arrangement would stand, but Central Council stood firm. So did New York, who refused to play.
This led to the cancellation of the gaelic football World Cup final that was due to be played a few weeks after that again, against Kerry in New York. A few weeks later, in light of all that had happened, the GAA imposed a two-year suspension on New York. The break was complete, lasted for over 10 years.
And Clem Foley?
“I met Pat Fanning [then GAA president] in Croke Park several years ago shortly before he died, went over and introduced myself. He was delighted to see me, asked about Clem. I said to him, ‘Pat, I have a question for you and I don’t want you to flower the answer. I want to know about my dad in New York and cut to the chase — did he make a bollix of it?’
“Pat Fanning totally defended my father and that game, said he had met many honourable men in his life but none more honourable than Clem Foley. My dad was a physically powerful man and recovered very quickly. He took up power-lifting after he retired from refereeing when he was 60 and won a few All-Irelands. He had always had an interest in weight-training and tug o’ war, racquetball, handball and all that. But never had an axe to grind over any of this, and I want to make that clear.
“He actually refereed in New York again, in ’85, the All Star game. John Kerry O’Donnell controlled Gaelic Park at the time, tried to stop him getting in and there was a big furore over it at the time. It made all the newspapers. O’Donnell said that even if he came by helicopter he wasn’t refereeing the match!
“It was Frank Murphy [Cork secretary] and Mick O’Dwyer that basically called his bluff. They backed my father, said they’d play the match somewhere else if they had to. They knew O’Donnell had got in extra food and drink for the day and all of that, he stood to lose a lot, and they called his bluff. But they weren’t bluffing, they would have played the match elsewhere. Look, I know he was me father but he was one of a kind.”
And in the annals of the National Hurling League so was 1970.