Longford football legend Hannify dared to dream and he strode among giants

Longford football legend Hannify dared to dream and he strode among giants

The Hannify family name has been linked with Longford and Drumlish football for as long as anybody cares to remember. The family also has the unique distinction of having had a father and son combination, Jimmy Snr and Jimmy Jnr, feature on the Longford Leader team of the Millennium.

And so it’s a surprise to learn that the latter part of that unique billing had little or no real interest in GAA as he grew up on the hill of Drumlish. The sport was rarely mentioned in the family home and he opines that his celebrated father didn't care whether he played football.

It was undoubtedly a unique background for a career that saw Jimmy Hannify Jnr emerge as one of the giants of Longford GAA in the 1960s and he went on to feature prominently right up to the noughties.

“Win, lose, or draw and even when I was playing with Longford, and regardless of whether it was the League or Championship, I’d come home, and neither my father or mother, would make the remotest reference to the game.”

After 38 years teaching, Jimmy Hannify retired 13 years ago and is now back, living part-time in the house he built himself - just a few hundred yards from where he grew up in Drumlish. It’s a clear an indication if any was needed, of his great regard for the community and people that moulded him.

Jimmy had eight siblings – and he wonders how they all survived in such a small place. His father came from the very place where Jimmy now lives. His mother was Mary Reynolds from Bohey, Co Leitrim.

Jim Hannify Snr had the distinction of being the first Longford man to play in an All-Ireland Final, lining out with Galway in their 0-7 to 1-8 loss against Kerry in the 1941 decider.

A good kick-out

Like many others of his time, Jimmy Hannify went to St Mel’s College in September 1959, having spent one year in Moyne, where he was taught by the likes of Fr McGee, and Mel Murtagh. Remarkably he was three years in St Mel’s, before he ever kicked a ball.

Two young fellahs from the home parish, Raymond Daly and Tommy Murtagh from Doorish, were on the College team at the time, and consequently he followed their exploits with a keen interest.

The team trainer at this time was the famed Fr Jimmy McKeon who had something of a dilemma. Seemingly he was without a decent goalie as the first choice netminder, Pat Muldowney from Bornacoola, was out injured. Being a clannish crew, the Doorish pair told him that their pal, Jimmy Hannify had on occasion played in goals with Fr Manning Gaels, when they were stuck.

Sure enough, a young Jimmy Hannify was watching his friends train one evening when Fr McKeon called him over and asked if he wanted to go in goals. He nonchalantly took his place in the goal and surprised both himself and the team trainer on discovering that he actually had a very good kick-out.

“Sure I thought everyone should have a good kick-out,” he said.

Fortunately for Longford, the young lad’s career in the goals was short-lived. It was an inauspicious debut and all rather forgettable. Fr McKeon told him to join the team training sessions and so it was that one of the great Longford GAA careers began.

Rapid rise

Jimmy started training with St Mel’s and in the course of the next four months, they won the Junior and Senior Leinster, and the Senior All Ireland. He was no longer in goals but was a first choice corner forward on the Junior Leinster winning team. Success there saw him break into the senior team and a defining moment came when Fr McKeon began coaching him to take frees.

By now the seniors had reached the All-Ireland final and the footballing bug had firmly taken hold. Young Hannify was desperately hoping to make the first 15 for the big match with Jarlaths. Sure enough he featured in the starting line-up when the final team was announced. And so, within a year of starting to play any meaningful football, the youngster was poised to play in a first All-Ireland final.

It was the sort of stuff you daren’t even dream about.

He enjoyed the big stage and the manager’s faith in his new free-taking star was duly repaid when the youngster slotted over four valuable points en route to a first All Ireland medal. It was a remarkable start to one of the great Longford GAA careers, and it got better with a second All Ireland title following then in 1963. This time the mighty Mel’s conquered St Brendan’s Killarney with Hannify again one of the pivotal stars.

Needless to say his exploits with the college didn’t go unnoticed out at home in Drumlish. He was still but a slip of a lad but fondly remembers the day that a club elder came and said: “Young Hannify, you’re playing with us now”.

Whilst football wasn’t discussed in the family home, it was some years year when he learned that his sudden rise to prominence and likely appearance on a Drumlish senior team had given his father some cause for concern.

The late Jimmy Hannify Snr had discreetly gone to Pat Crowe and expressed some concern for his young lad in the no holds barred arena of senior club football.

His mind however was quickly put at ease because in Drumlish they look out for each other and Pat Crowe told the troubled father: “You’re not to be worrying. I’ll look after him as if he was my own son.”

By now football was starting to consume his life. He recalls: “I remember the following year I played a hard Junior match with Mel’s on a Saturday, and the next day played with Drumlish seniors in the League. There was little talk of recovery back then and the fellahs from Ballinalee were fairly unrefined!”

Debut senior campaign

Still only 19 years of age but with two All-Ireland College medals on the fireplace and a regular spot on the Drumlish team, the next obvious route was a call-up to the Longford senior team.

Against the backdrop of the current exploits of our county team, Hannify’s debut championship campaign in 1965, seems a million miles away. They beat Offaly in their first game, Laois in round two and then overcame Meath in the semi-final to secure a Leinster final date with Dublin.

Alas he remembers that first Leinster final as a game they should have won. He recalls: "Sean Murray was our penalty taker. It was a terribly wet day. He slipped as he ran up to take it. That was one game we let go. We left it behind us.”

Nonetheless Longford were now a force to be feared. The players dusted themselves down and progressed with purpose in the subsequent League. They beat Sligo, Cavan, and Meath en route to a place in the national League final.

Over the years, key coaches and trainers have had a defining influence on Hannify’s career. There was Fr McKeon in Mel’s and with Longford he played under the celebrated Cavan man, Mick Higgins.

It was the first time ever for Longford to reach a national final and not surprisingly the county was alight with colour. Flags and bunting were everywhere.

The media descended in force, and everyone went crazy.

For Higgins and his team however, it was a case of staying out of the limelight, getting the heads down and putting in the best possible preparations for that 1966 League final date with the mighty Galway.

Leinster kingpins

Hannify will always remember the intensity of the match and it seemed as if everything was passing by in a blaze of pressure as he sought to focus and deal with all aspects of a high tempo game. The match was poised on a knife edge as it entered the final minutes and nobody can better describe those final few minutes than one of the men who was very much in the thick of it.

“I remember coming up to the finish, after heroic defending by the likes of Larry Gillen and Brendan Barden, we were level. Suddenly Sean Donnelly won possession and was racing towards goal but was smothered by several Galway defenders. One of his hands was being held but sharp as ever, he saw me and bounced the ball out towards me.”

Hannify managed to hold possession and crucially he was fouled by the despairing Galway defenders. The famous Bobby Burns made no mistake with the ensuing free and Longford were duly crowned National League Champions.

For the young Drumlish man it was a day never to forget but even in the euphoria that followed he thankfully had the wherewithal to seek out the match ball and today it has pride of place in the family home.

Within two weeks a huge wave of expectation and pressure surrounded the new League champions’ Leinster clash with the wee county, Louth. But it proved too much too soon for a tiring Longford team. Recalls Hannify: “We failed miserably, and some of the older players were running short of time and when we were beaten again in ’67 by Offaly, we knew it was time to take stock.”

Twelve months later there was a new steely resolve about the team for the 1968 championship. It was the era of collective training and remembers Jimmy: “We trained for a full two weeks – we were effectively living in the Park. Two training sessions a day and a complete and absolute focus on the game ahead.”

Every effort was made to have the team at their best. Food was laid on in Harte’s restaurant on Longford’s Main Street.

The hard work paid off.

They met Dublin, who boasted the great Lar and Des Foley, in the first game and beat them.

All Ireland Champions Meath were the next up in the semi-final, in Mullingar. Meath had come back from Australia a few weeks before. They were a powerhouse team backboned by Martin Quinn and his brother Jack. Longford beat Meath after a dour hard contest, and were in the Leinster Final once again. They met Laois, and Jimmy remembers that game mostly for his goal when he finally realised Longford were going to win. He scored 1-1 that day.

Peaks and troughs

There’s a ‘peaks and troughs’ timeline around the fortunes of most GAA clubs and it seemed that the Drumlish club hit one of those troughs in mid-sixties. By now Jimmy was working in Dublin and eventually agreed to transfer to the Civil Service club based in the capital.

It featured several Longford players and foremost amongst them were his inter county colleagues, Sean Murray and Bobby Burns.

But Jimmy always knew he would return to play with Drumlish and with a better organised set-up emerging in the late seventies, he knew the time was right.

“We had good players then – Gerry Brady, Mickey Lennon, and a Ballinalee man, Noel Brady. We had my brother, Kevin, at corner forward who was a good player too. He had skills I don’t have. There was also Sean Lennon and of course, Pat Joe Brady, he sadly was killed in a road accident.

“We were Junior back then, and we won the ’74 Junior League and the Junior Championship”.

The team moved to Intermediate, and won the Intermediate Championship Final in 1975.

In ’86 and ’87, they won the Senior League and Leader Cup.

Remarkably he was still playing competitive football into his forties with Drumlish and in a playing career that spanned almost 25 years he’d never been sent off.

However that changed when he crossed paths with a new and enthusiastic young referee, called Ciaran Mullooly, he of the RTÉ parish. It was an innocuous junior match but he still cannot fathom why he was sent off and as their paths have crossed many times since over the years, the Rathcline réiteoir has never been able to adequately explain the sending off to Jimmy’s satisfaction!

No man is better placed to see what makes the GAA tick and for Jimmy Hannify, it will always be the mentors and coaches at club level, who are all too often taken for granted and rarely get the credit that they truly deserve. He says: “The likes of Eddie Crowe, Maurice Murphy, Pat Flynn, Pete McQuaid, these people never got the real credit they deserved but they helped make Drumlish the club that it was and is today."

Then there’s the tireless supporters who regardless of the results and disappointments will follow their team to the very end and he points to the likes of Sean Allen (Clonguish) and Gerry Quinn (Killoe).

Players should be paid

For Jimmy, the GAA is a truly remarkable organisation, that has withstood challenges from rival codes, and remains central to life in the vast majority of parishes.

He says: “The quality of pitches and facilities is testament to the tremendous work by volunteers in villages and towns the length and breadth of the country.”

However he takes grave issue with payments for inter county and some high profile club managers and insists that this money would be much better spent if it was used to fund coaching at Primary School level.

His time spent managing Drumlish, yielded three senior Championships in-a-row, and a fourth.

He remembers fondly the players he had at the time – Frank McNamee, Padraic Davis, Martin Mulleady, James Breslin, etc. But he was disappointed that they never managed to win anything in Leinster. The reason is because he considers the team then to be less interested in physical stuff, which is part of the game.

He believes the referees are failing by refusing to use the ‘black card’, which is now being treated abysmally.

He says that the GAA should consider awarding a harsher penalty in the final period by awarding a free 20 yards closer to goal.

A new DFL (deliberate foul line) should be introduced, 40 metres from goal, and a deliberate pull down be credited as two points.

If the infringement happens closer to goal, then the award is one point.

With regard to the proposed championship for weaker teams, he feels that it is imperative that they structure it in such a way that the winner of the ‘weaker’ championship, are allowed into the main senior championship. There must be a reward, to garner interest.

Whilst steadfast against payments for managers, he feels payments for players is a very different issue.

Showing himself to be surprisingly up to date with modern culture, he opts to quote the infamous Joker from the Batman movie and says:

“If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”

His own career was very different to the lot of so many modern day players.

He says: “I was one of the lucky ones. Few lads win a Junior and Senior Leinster, two All Irelands, a Leinster Championship; a National Football League, and a Dublin County Championship.

“Players should be paid, they put their lives on hold, travel to training, nobody realises the effort for very little reward.”