The GAA’s lost icon: 'Charlie Gallagher couldn't come to terms with his career-ending, of being AN Other'

Cavan’s Charlie Gallagher was the George Best of Gaelic football in the 1960s, renowned for his prodigious scoring ability, handsome appearance, and larger than life persona. This extract from Charlie: The Story of the GAA’s Lost Icon by Paul Fitzpatrick covers the years after retiring from playing and his battle with alcohol.
The GAA’s lost icon: 'Charlie Gallagher couldn't come to terms with his career-ending, of being AN Other'

Cavan’s Charlie Gallagher was the George Best of Gaelic football in the 1960s, renowned for his prodigious scoring ability, handsome appearance, and larger than life persona. This extract from Charlie: The Story of the GAA’s Lost Icon by Paul Fitzpatrick covers the years after retiring from playing and his battle with alcohol.

Charlie Gallagher with the Anglo-Celt Cup in 1967. When his career ended alcohol would become the tightest marker of all and the one he couldn’t shake off. In time drink became the only thing.
Charlie Gallagher with the Anglo-Celt Cup in 1967. When his career ended alcohol would become the tightest marker of all and the one he couldn’t shake off. In time drink became the only thing.

Football made him and football broke him. Charlie was wedded to the game and the divorce was messy.

Derry City was a soccer town; Gaelic activity was minimal. Charlie was cut off from the source of his celebrity, to the point where his younger children, Peter and Louise, would not have been all that aware of his status in the game.

His eldest, Adrian, was. He overheard stories in hotels and bars, especially around Cootehill. Sometimes, he would accompany his dad to the All-Ireland final in Croke Park.

“I would have been aware in Croke Park of him talking to everybody and having a special sort of status, knowing that he was popular,” Adrian says.

But in later years, Charlie was never good at keeping in contact with old comrades – or old foes, for that matter. On his occasional trips to matches, he approached with a degree of wariness that wasn't in keeping with his generally open personality.

“He wouldn't have been relishing the contact he would have with people on match days,” explains Adrian.

“I wouldn't say apprehensive but he wouldn't have been embracing the whole thing. I think there was a lot going on in his subconscious with regard to that and when he had a few jars, that would have come to the fore. Then, he welcomed the whole chat and reminiscing and celebrity side of things and talk for hours. But on an ordinary day, no, he wouldn't mention football.”

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Charlie Gallagher is presented with the O'Gorman Cup by Ambassador John Molloy after captaining Cavan to victory in Wembley in 1966.
Charlie Gallagher is presented with the O'Gorman Cup by Ambassador John Molloy after captaining Cavan to victory in Wembley in 1966.

Derry City in the 1970s was a mean scene. There was blood on the streets. People looked for refuge. Some found it in politics, or in the war. Others in sport. Some just got out. And many found what they were looking for in the bottle. If you were that way inclined, drinking partners were never scarce.

"That was a different time in Derry," says Msgr Iggy McQuillan, the former Fermanagh full-back and football guru at St Columb’s College in Derry City.

"A lot of people were drinking; everybody was sort of drinking. It was a tough time. People were looking for a means of escape in a way.

"If you were walking down the street and you saw a car parked somewhere, you would walk over to the other side before you'd pass it. There were murders. It was fairly dark. That would have caused people to drink, people would drink in houses until early in the morning. Or late in the morning. "

That drinking culture, like the Nationalist community in general, was entrenched.

“It was just untrue,” says John Cully, whose father was 15 years Gallagher’s senior.

“I can remember the parties in the house, all Dad’s professional friends. In the ’50s, the ’60s, there was a whole culture of drinking.

“People my dad’s age would have grown up in the thirties and things would have been difficult and suddenly there was a flow of money and affluence beginning. They would go out a few nights a week. Charlie would have been with a different, younger set, I'd say.”

Maureen Gallagher [Charlie’s wife] remembers how people “went to houses and had parties”. That was the social scene.

The city itself was a war zone. The army had been deployed and there were running battles. Riots were commonplace – they broke out a couple of hundred metres from Clarendon Street and the CS gas would waft through the windows of Gallagher’s dental surgery – and death stalked the banks of the Foyle. Bombings were a regular soundtrack; atrocities were commonplace.

Poverty was not an issue for Charlie, who had a good job as a dentist. While most of his patients were from the NHS, many of them on social welfare, he had built up a private practice on the side and was particularly popular in Inishowen, across in Donegal. Patients loved him.

One, a man named Noel McLaughlin, wrote a poem in his honour, addressing it to "Charlie G, Le Dentist Terrible". He was well-known in Gaelic football circles, obviously, but his gift for mixing, for attracting people, knew no bounds.

In time, he made friends - and patients - from all areas. The predominantly-Unionist rugby crowd was one unlikely base.

"There was very little integration that time," says McQuillan, "but, ah, Charlie was so likeable, most creeds liked him, put it like that."

Charlie, Maureen and family lived in Ardmore parish, two miles out of the city, in a comfortable home. He sang informally in the church choir. Gallagher should have had the world at his feet but those feet were now all-but-redundant – he was a former inter-county star.

"Charlie couldn't come to terms with his career-ending, he couldn't come to terms with being AN Other, an ordinary guy. He missed the flag of 'howya Charlie'," says Frankie Kennedy.

"Other great footballers had been the same. A hero of yesterday. Never adjusted. Sport is great but when it's over you've got to be yourself and keep sport in its place.

Charlie garnered such heroism and took it to his heart and thought it was a reality. But as you stop playing, you discover you're yesterday's man and nobody gives a damn.

While the family got on with life and were never involved in any sort of politics, the Troubles were unavoidable. A bomb across the road, in a water tower, once blew in the windows of their home. Charlie once felt threatened in a pub – someone tipped him off, a word to the wise, that he could be in danger. On another occasion, a story went around that he had been taken out.

“I was only a child at the time,” says Derry native Kevin MacDermott, a journalist whose father, a doctor, was a friend and colleague.

“I clearly remember this rumour going around one day. And there was almost out-and-out war. Shooting a man like Charlie, who was so popular, would have been crossing the Rubicon.”

Day-to-day life was difficult – checkpoints, blasts, killings. In 1976, Maureen's car was hijacked.

It was a beautiful summer's day and she had left three-year-old Louise with a child-minder, dropped Charlie back to work after his lunch and headed into town to do some shopping. She took a shortcut through the staunchly pro-IRA Bogside at three o'clock in the afternoon when two gunmen stopped her car.

“One fella got into the back and put something to my neck. The other fella got into the front and put a gun to my knee. And all he said was 'drive!'”

Maureen was directed to Capel Street, past men in vests sunning themselves and into a backyard off the beaten track.

“I can still see this boy with rimless glasses standing at the back door of the car. Derry was small enough, you nearly would have known them to see. And I didn't know these two boys.

“Out they got and opened the boot. And they went into the house and came out and asked me for my licence. And they said: 'What the fuck are you living in the Waterside for with a name like that? Who are you?'

“And they went back in and came out. I think what they were trying to do was get this boat motor I had belonging to my brother out of the boot and I don't think they were able to.

“I said to them: 'Look, I have a child with a baby-sitter and they'll be worrying' and he said 'none of your soft talk'.

"And at this stage I started crying. That was worse!

“In again they disappeared. I remember the heat was beating down and I was shaking. And they came out and I said: 'You know my husband works about a quarter of a mile from here'.

'Who's he?'

“And as soon as I said 'Charlie Gallagher' and there was no recognition, I knew they were strangers.

'Well,' I said, 'we were at Martin McGuinness's house only two weeks ago. My husband is a dentist and he had to do a house-visit to Martin McGuinness's mother. I sat in the car and he went in.'

“In they went again but this time, whatever they were told, they came out and said to me 'keep your mouth shut and go!'

“I don't remember reversing out of that place. And I phoned Charlie and he laughed! He says 'you're joking!'; I said 'I'm not'. Whenever I mentioned McGuinness, that was it. They went and checked.”

That night, the Odeon Cinema was blown up. The bomb had been placed in the boot of a car.

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Charlie Gallagher with the Anglo-Celt Cup in 1967.
Charlie Gallagher with the Anglo-Celt Cup in 1967.

It felt, in time, like he was an actor playing the role of Charlie Gallagher, the man who had it all. One night, in a taxi from a bar with a young couple, they hit a checkpoint. The army ordered them out and asked for a date of birth.

"Myself and the late JC, that will do you," said Charlie, a Christmas Day baby. It was a favourite wisecrack of his. He was taken away in a Saracen and spent the night in the cells at Strand Road barracks.

“He was like that, he thought he could get away with things like that and most of the time, he did,” says Maureen, smiling.

That was one of the funnier incidents. Others were sombre.

Alcohol had stalked him and after the years went on, it now grabbed him and wouldn't let go. The tightest marker of all and the one he couldn't shake off. First, football was everything and then, the football and the drinks after. In time, the ‘everything’ faded and the drink became the only thing.

By the late 1970s, the familiar trips home had dried up. It is a big ask for a man with a child-like approach to life to suddenly grow up. Football is a game to be played but real life is no toy.

Addicts find solace in routine and their condition is aggravated when that routine is broken. Sometimes, after a match, Charlie would stay in Cootehill till Monday morning and have a drink – the cure – before heading back up the road. Other days, he returned after the game but made some pit stops along the way.

In Cootehill, it was Tommy Connolly's or Packie Eddie Lynch's. Newtownbutler was Gerry McCormack's, an old college friend. In Pettigo, the old Donegal footballer called Flood, a friend and admirer of Charlie's who ran a bar and liked a drink. In Burnfoot, it was McIver's. In Ederney, another watering hole.

Football was gone and took that away with it. In February of 1979, Charlie's father died. By then, only Brian was in Cootehill. Life began to centre on Derry in its entirety.

After he finished playing, Charlie had written to the Ulster Council asking for two tickets for the Hogan Stand on All-Ireland final day. They refused. He wrote again and called and eventually, a solitary ticket arrived and, scrawled on the accompanying note were the words "don't tell anybody". That hurt.

The years flew. The children were getting bigger. Despatches reached home that Charlie had been drinking a lot. Reports were sketchy. One former team-mate would call to see him and found him, on one occasion, in a daze in a bar.

"There was a fella here used to travel for Whelan's boot shop and he used to keep me informed about Charlie, the odd time he'd see him," says Sean Foy sadly.

"He came in this day and he told me he had been in Derry and he saw five or six of these corner boys sitting drinking bottles on the street and Charlie was in the middle of them. “Another day, he said he didn't believe his eyes; Charlie copped him and he went up an entry out of the way."

In 1984, seeking a clean break, Charlie moved home and set up a practice in his brother, Dr Brian’s, surgery. His nephew Francis helped him get the place ready.

"Francis said it was the best summer of his life," Charlie's daughter Louise recalls.

"He helped daddy get the whole surgery set up and he never stopped laughing."

The local football community were overjoyed at his return. Soon, he was roped into training the Celtics' U21 footballers and was photographed attending a couple of county board meetings as a delegate.

Around this time, Larry McCluskey met his old team-mate on a walk out the Station Road. Maureen and the children were coming down for the weekend - they would soon move permanently - and he was "very pleased and jovial about that."

But it couldn't last. The disease was rampant and overpowering. He began to drink again, surreptitiously.

Now in his late 40s, Charlie was drinking heavily, his handsome face a little bloated.

James Brady last saw him in the Market Square in Cavan, on match day. At one time, when they were young and anything was possible, the pair, of old school and college matches, had lined out together in the full-forward line. James setting them up; Charlie knocking them down. Those days were gone.

"I went up to some match Cavan were playing and he was coming walking down the street with two other mates after the match and they were singing and he was well jarred. And that was the last time I saw him alive."

- The book Charlie, published by Ballpoint Press, is available in all good bookshops.

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