Taking the plunge for the Tribe

In the GAA Team of the Century, named in 1984, Tony Reddin was the man chosen in goal.

What most people don’t know however is that Tony Reddin of Lorrha and Tipperary was actually Martin Charles ‘Thaudy’ Reddington of Mullagh and Galway, and it wasn’t until he made the short journey across the Shannon at 28 that his career really took off.

The reason Tony (‘Thaudy’ became ‘Tony’ in Lorrha) had to wait so long? Already in situ on the Galway team was another outstanding goalkeeper, a man even Tony couldn’t dislodge — Seánie Duggan.

How good was Seán? To this day, there are people who would argue that he was the greatest of all and had Galway managed to make the breakthrough that they threatened so many times in the 40s and early 50s, then perhaps Seán Duggan would have ended up on that Team of the Century, rather than on the consolation Team of the Century of those who had never won an All-Ireland medal.

Only a few weeks short of his 90th birthday, Seán Duggan is still hale and hearty. Every day he joins a few old friends and they go for a swim; not at their local indoor pool, however — outdoors, all weathers, year round, at the Black Rock in Salthill.

“I had a lovely swim today actually,” he said last week, during this interview. “I’ve been doing it for 40 years now. I never missed a day, I’d say, in all that time.” Even in the chill of winter? “Ah winter is the most enjoyable part of it, the demand that’s on your body! It keeps you fit and mentally it keeps you in top form and there’s a lovely group of people there, you can exchange views and have a bit of a laugh.”

Seánie Duggan has that special kind of attitude so prevalent among those of his generation. Life isn’t to be endured, it’s to be lived, to be enjoyed.

Hardship? What hardship? The daily swim in Galway Bay is bracing, physically and mentally, and for that, it is embraced.

Meeting a man with such an attitude then, meeting also his younger brother Jimmy, who played alongside him for so many years with Galway and with Liam Mellows, is an uplifting experience.

This is not to say they don’t remember the dark days — they do, and vividly so, regretting opportunities lost. For Jimmy there was a day when he was only a youngster, watching Seán from the sidelines.

“The 1947 team that won the Railway Cup was very unlucky in the All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny, in Birr. We should have won that one but the referee made a bags of the timing. Galway were winning by a point when he blew the final whistle. They thought they’d won it and there were thousands out on the field. But he had blown up a few minutes early, they cleared the pitch, and didn’t Kilkenny get two points to win it by a point. It was something similar to Clare and Offaly in 1998 except they got the match restarted.”

For Seán it was a few years earlier, against another hurling powerhouse, and again there was a refereeing controversy which cost his county dearly.

“1944 was another one, against Cork in Ennis, another All-Ireland semi-final. The referee blew the final whistle and all the [Galway] backmen stopped playing; [Cork’s] Seán Condon had the ball, hit it and put it over the bar — the referee allowed the score to stand and Cork won by a point. That was another one.”

Cork denied Galway again in 1953, this time in an All-Ireland final and with all three Duggan brothers on the field (Jimmy was at right-half-forward, Paddy — now deceased — came on as a sub). That game was marred by an injury to Galway’s Mick Burke in an incident involving Christy Ring which, according to Jimmy in an interview a few years ago, marked a turning point. “It badly affected our performance. Mick was a key man for us because he kept the shackles on Christy Ring up to then. They won with a few points to spare [3-3 to 0-8] but they only scored one of their goals in the closing stages of the game.”

Given such history you’d be forgiven for thinking the Duggan brothers would now harbour a lot of resentment towards Cork — the opposite is the case, and Seán’s admiration for the Cork four-in-a-row team that denied Galway in 1944 is proof positive. Not alone were they a great team, he says, they were probably the greatest of all, better than even the current Kilkenny team.

“I would say the Cork team were better hurlers. Micka Brennan was playing, Ring, Lynch, Con Cottrell the priest, Jim Young, Con Murphy — they were the cream of hurling.”

And what of Ring himself, was he in fact the greatest? “It all depends on the era,” reckons Seán. “It’s easier to be a great hurler or footballer if you’re playing in winning teams but there was many a great hurler who never got the chance to play in an All-Ireland final, never mind winning it, and they’re never mentioned. From my own time we all know about Christy Ring and Nicky Rackard, Jimmy Langton, Jimmy Kennedy from Tipperary, Mick Mackey from Limerick, but there was Jobber McGrath from Westmeath, Kevin Armstrong from Antrim, Matt Nugent and Jimmy Smyth from Clare. Our own Paddy Gantley was the most outstanding centre-field player I ever saw. He’d often be within three yards of me in goal, having been out the field only seconds earlier — he was a great man to anticipate play that way, and it was always handy to have an extra man around the goal when the ball was coming in. He was an outstanding hurler, as was Josie Gallagher from Gort, all the others on those Galway teams — John Killeen, Hugo Gordon, Seán and Pierce Thornton, Willie Fahy from Castlegar, John Molloy, Joe Salmon, all those lads.” The best of them all though? “I would agree it was Ring.”

So too does Jimmy. “I’d agree with those fellas Seán named, great hurlers all of them. Fellas like Henry Shefflin win so much and you can’t take that from them, they’re in the history books, but all the other lads are quickly forgotten except by their own people in their own county. The best though was Christy Ring, his ability to score, to be able to beat two or three fellas on his own to do so, that’s what separated him. I saw him one day myself, we were playing in the Railway Cup, Connacht against Ulster in the first game and we won that. The second match was Munster against Leinster and with only a few minutes to go Leinster were winning by eight points; Christy Ring was corner-forward, the selectors brought him to the half-forward line — he wasn’t there five minutes when he scored three goals, turned the match around and Munster won. And that was when the Railway Cup was a huge competition. People used to come in their tens of thousands to see Ring in action, his skill, his style, but also the workrate he had. I was in America for the Cardinal Cushing games, he was there with Tom Neville of Wexford, Paddy Molloy of Offaly and myself, we were the four hurlers. I was with him for a fortnight and saw him doing some fantastic things. He was in his mid-40s at the time, 1965, and he was still doing as much in a game then in Gaelic Park in New York as he would have done in Croke Park 20 years earlier. The skill, the speed he still had, the strength in his arms — he had very big hands, and big wrists.”

You wonder though, with all the great players Galway themselves had, how close they came to the great Cork team of the 40s, how they beat the cream of Leinster in the 47 Railway Cup — why didn’t they make the breakthrough? Seán: “The biggest weakness in it was that while the refereeing wasn’t good at times, we lacked championship hurling. Like a racehorse that hasn’t had a race for a year and is beaten a head because he had no experience of racing against top-class racehorses who had been running. We were close, but we couldn’t get through because we weren’t crafty enough and in the end we’d be making mistakes, beaten by a short head because we didn’t have that competitive experience. But there were some great players on that team. The Thorntons, Paddy Gantley, Inky Flaherty, Michael Tom Flaherty, John Killeen, Jimmy Brophy, Josie Gallagher and all those lads, they were equal to anything that was in Cork or Tipperary or Wexford or Kilkenny but it was like sending a carpenter to do a job with no hammer. We didn’t have the experience.”

Those were the days of course when hurling was a very different game to what we see today, no TV cameras covering every incident, when there was all kinds of skullduggery on and off the ball, and just one referee to try and keep an eye on it. Days also when the goalkeeper was considered fair game for every inrushing forward, their eyes all on him as he tried to keep his eye on the dropping ball. “You didn’t think about that,” says Seán, who himself was noted for his ability to catch that dropping ball in the midst of a small forest of flailing ash; “You just took the game as it came. If there was a high ball dropping in you kept your eye on it, caught it, cleared it, trusted your backs to protect you. The goalkeeper was a target but in all my time playing in goal I never met an ugly hurler, and I hurled from 1939 to 1953, minor, junior, senior.”

Believe this, there were ugly hurlers playing the game in those days, hurlers who were mean in spirit and in intent.

Yet throughout a long career at club and county level, such was the esteem in which he was held none vented their venom on Seán Duggan.

Their memories are still good, Seán and Jimmy Duggan but they both live very much in the present. Now their thoughts are very firmly fixed on tomorrow’s All-Ireland senior hurling final.

Both have been impressed by what Galway have already achieved this year, the historic first Leinster title particularly. Jimmy: “I think they surprised everyone the way they came through Leinster, beat Kilkenny by 10 points in the final which is a great achievement. They were only a puck of a ball away from it again in the (drawn) All-Ireland final. Whatever this management team has done during the year, they’ve certainly strengthened the backs. They’ve developed a style of defence that’s paying off, especially when you can keep a team like Kilkenny goalless in an All-Ireland final, a great achievement. That’s been the strength of this Kilkenny team, their defence — they annihilated Tipperary in the semi-final. Of course the forwards then are playing reasonably well but Joe Canning is the main player there. He’s top class. People talk about that being his first All-Ireland final but Joe has won three All-Ireland club titles with Portumna, four county titles, a Fitzgibbon Cup with LIT, All-Ireland minor and U21 with Galway, Railway Cup with Connacht, so even for a lad of only 23 he had all that experience of big occasions, in comparison to the likes of us who were thrown into games with no experience.”

Seán: “I have great faith in this management, that they can move when they have to. This team has achieved something no Galway has ever before achieved; they played in four championship matches before the All-Ireland final and won them all. Out of every one of those matches you have to learn something — they did. Against Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final then we were able to hold them to a draw; we must have learned another little bit again from that, about the skills of the game. I think that will stand to us in the replay.”

And talk of ill-will in Galway for Kilkenny? “Ah no — the opposite, just great respect. You’ll get hard knocks in any match but when the match is over it’s all forgotten.”

Seán: “There was never any bad feeling between Galway and Kilkenny, not in my long association with Galway — never. You played it hard but clean, shook hands when it was over, and that was the end of it.”

It was late in the evening, and there comes a time to leave. About to turn off the recorder, I remarked we were blessed to have the greatest sport of all. Gently, I was corrected by Seán. “Hurling is more than a game. Hurling is an art and people who go to a match see the artistry of the man with the hurl, how he is able to wield that stick using his wrist, the same as the artist with the brush or the orchestra conductor with the baton. That’s what hurling is.”


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