Sean Boylan reckons it was about 3am when he and Brian Smyth finally cleared the tea-cups from the kitchen table.
It was autumn, 1982, and Meath football was flagging. They’d lost to Longford in the first round of the Leinster championship and Boylan, with 20-odd years of service to Meath hurling behind him, was the unlikely choice to take over as manager.
So unlikely, in fact, that even Boylan himself presumed he was being offered the hurling job when the county secretary rang to sound him out.
Mattie Kerrigan, Mick O’Brien, and Gerry McEntee, all renowned football figures, had been unable to take on the role, leading officials to Boylan’s door in Dunboyne. Initially, he was hesitant though Smyth, a neighbour and confidant, and chairman of the county board, asked him to mull it over.
“My natural reaction was to say ‘no’,” Boylan recalled. “But I said I’d go up to Brian and have a chat. So we talked away and the next thing he has to go up to a meeting in Trim for 9 o’clock. He got back about 12.30 and rang me. He said, ‘come up to the house and we’ll discuss it’. So he did the whole devil’s advocate thing on it until about 2.30, 3 o’clock in the morning. He gave all the reasons why I shouldn’t do it. Then, the last thing he says, ‘sure why don’t you have a go for a few months, anyway?’ So I did and a few months turned into 23 years!
“One of his great traits was that he never divulged all the things he was thinking. He’d nearly test the water with the things he’d say to you, but when he would speak, you know he’d thought about it upside down and inside out and you knew it was coming from the right place and for the right reasons. He was the most unassuming man, a class act and, as a neighbour, second to none.”
Smyth passed away last month, at the age of 92, a rich legacy left behind from almost a century of devotion to his family and to Gaelic games. Often, there was little distinction between the two.
They will say his best day’s work in the GAA was when he talked Boylan into taking over Meath, considering the four All-Irelands that followed. Pushed on it, Boylan concedes that, “hand on heart, no, I probably wouldn’t have taken it” but for Smyth’s intervention.
However, there is a much broader footprint that the Batterstown man left upon the GAA than just that highlights reel of successes inspired by his protégé, Boylan.
Consider, for example, the impact of the Christmas presents that his nephews got from uncle Brian each year. Always GAA gear.
“Shorts, socks, and jersey, every Christmas,” smiled Fergus Smyth, his nephew, who would go on to become a respected national hurling referee. “It mightn’t even be anything to do with Meath, could be a Kilkenny jersey, anything, but it was always a GAA jersey of some sort.
“It was him that got me into refereeing, because he’d refereed himself. He just became a huge influence on me.
“I only retired there two years ago, myself. I did 13 years unbroken on the national referees panel and did every Leinster final in hurling except a senior final. I did Lory Meagher finals, a couple of Leinster minor finals, games abroad, you name it.
“But early enough on, I’d had one or two bad games and kind of decided it wasn’t for me. So, we chatted about it and Brian happened to be going down to a Leinster Council meeting in Portlaoise and he said to come along. Between the talking in the car and the chats down there, I said I’d stick at it. Thank God I did, it was the best decision I made.
“It was my first or second year on the Leinster panel at the time and, in hindsight, there was no way I was going back refereeing, but that was Brian, he talked me around.”
Those closest to Smyth say that’s what he enjoyed, cajoling and advising, all the time investing in the greater good.
Two years ago, Joe Connolly, the former All-Ireland-winning Galway hurling captain, was organising a walk to raise funds for Pieta House. It was the family’s way of honouring the memory of Cormac Connolly, Joe’s nephew, who was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour and passed away following a prolonged battle in 2011.
Specifically, the walk was to be the largest ever gathering of All-Ireland winning captains and Smyth, the oldest one alive at the time, as Meath’s All-Ireland winning football captain in 1949, led the procession. He was 90 at the time and the Connollys were deeply touched by his solidarity.
The funny thing is, while Smyth represented Meath football that day, he was a hurler at heart. A year before that success in ’49, he was part of the Meath junior hurling team that won the All-Ireland; a forgotten fact.
Also, in the wake of that football win, he couldn’t help but wonder how hurling might be impacted by the breakthrough moment.
“I’ve sounded the death knell for the game I love most,” he concluded earnestly.
There was more than a touch of truth to that. Five years later, he and Meath were All-Ireland football winners again and, to this day, hurling is an after-thought for many in Meath.
— RIP2017 (@RIP2017x) March 19, 2016
The ball and ash game never left his heart, though, and, in an interview in 1993, following lengthy service as an administrator with the Meath County Board, Smyth lamented that “once the footballers made the breakthrough, hurling was, more or less, shoved to one side”.
Shortly after that charity walk in 2014, Smyth was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Gaelic Players Association. A story told at his funeral sums up why he was a deserving recipient.
“They were all up at Annual Congress in Sligo, years ago,” recounted Boylan. “Apparently, there’d been a load of conversation and a load of pints on the Saturday night. Now, Brian was a pioneer, but he was well able for the chat and the next morning the Wicklow lads they were with wanted to go and see Wicklow play Meath’s U21s in a hurling game in Trim.
“So, eventually, they all said, ‘right, we’ll go’ and they headed for Trim. The roads were a lot poorer back then and they hit a rock in the road and burst the petrol tank in the car. They were stranded, but all they were interested in was getting a lift up to watch the U21 hurling and they ended up getting the lift! I don’t know what you’d say about that passion for the GAA. You could probably say men like Brian were addicted to it.”
Smyth won five county titles as a footballer with Skryne and it is a remarkable feat that the club had players on all seven of Meath’s All-Ireland winning teams, from 1949 to 1999. One of those Skryne players, Paddy ‘Hands’ O’Brien, full-back on the ’49 Meath team, passed away recently, too.
Smyth’s late wife, Mairead, was a sister of Micheal O’Brien, another Skryne clubmate and colleague on the Meath side of ’49. Before that final, nobody was quite sure who should captain Meath, Smyth or O’Brien, as both were part of Skryne’s county-title winning team and the club had left it to them to sort it out.
Minutes before taking to the field, they were still discussing it and, when the team eventually ran out for the pre-match parade only 13 men were accounted for. Eventually, Smyth emerged with the armband. He wore it well and made a vital contribution from centre-forward in the famous win.
Afterwards, amid the chaos, he was called to give a victory speech. What would the first Meath man to lift the cup say? Nothing, as it panned out. Not wanting to jinx the occasion, and not quite sure hours earlier if he’d even be captain, he hadn’t prepared a speech.
“An extraordinary man,” said Boylan, who told another story of the Meath side, All-Ireland champions at the time, that travelled to Australia for a series of games in early 1968. “Brian and Peter McDermott and Fintan Ginnity were the main fundraisers for that trip and it was by all accounts an incredible time had, because they played five matches over there, all over the place. Brian was the only one of the selectors that didn’t go to Australia. He stayed at home to keep the show on the road here. That was typical of the man, the quiet man in the background keeping everything going.”
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