A Leader And A Cub

In this chapter from his new book, Country Wide, RTE presenter Damien O’Reilly, recalls meeting Longford Leader Managing Editor and Offaly 1982 All-Ireland winning manager Eugene McGee

Damien O'Reilly

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Damien O'Reilly

‘Country Wide’ is a unique collection from the award-winning radio presenter and Farmers Journal columnist, Damien O’Reilly. Published by Ballpoint Press, the book is on sale in bookshops for €14.99.

When my mother’s school friend Seamus Darby scored that famous goal for Offaly to snatch a historic fifth consecutive All Ireland from Kerry’s grip, the manager of the team was a Longford native called Eugene McGee. He was a sports journalist who had previously managed UCD to success in colleges competition.

He was revered as a messiah in Offaly and had been catapulted to the pinnacle of top managers. Two years later, he was wooed by the Cavan county board chairman at the time, the late Phil Brady. McGee lived a stones throw from Arva where Phil Brady ran a car dealership and was one of the best known businessmen in the county. He convinced McGee to take on the challenge of Cavan after the resignation of Gabriel Kelly, who had led Cavan to an Ulster final in 1983 where they lost to Donegal.

I remember wearing one of those blue and white paper hats to Clones that day. We were beside the press box and Dad edged me go over to shake Micheal O’Hehir’s hand. He was commentating on the game. Ironic then that about 20 years later, I performed the sideline reporter role for RTE Radio working with that legend of Irish broadcasting, Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh, at the Ulster final. That day in 1983, Seamus Bonner was the Donegal hero. Martin McHugh was the up-and-coming star of Gaelic football. In subsequent years I would become friends with both and, in fact, was honoured to deliver the eulogy at Seamus’s funeral in 2012.

Back in 1984, Eugene McGee to me was like what Brian Cody is to a young Kilkenny fan or Jim Gavin to a Dub today. I remember his first match in charge, a Division Three league match against Leitrim in Breffni Park in the autumn of ‘84. I was at an age when my interest in sport was being moulded. By the age of 11 you have a fair idea what your sport of choice is going to be. For me, it was Gaelic football followed by soccer and snooker. Since then my interest in aspects of the green baize has been replaced by a strong interest in hurling, athletics and rugby which I have developed over the years alongside my two favourites Gaelic football and soccer.

McGee managed Cavan for four years with relative success although no elusive provincial title which the once Kings of Ulster had last annexed in 1969. Around this time, McGee opened The Cavan Leader newspaper. It was modelled on the well established mother ship , the long established Longford Leader, of which he was owner and editor-in-chief. A young whipper snapper journalist from Lanesboro, Co Longford called Ciaran Mullooly was installed as editor.

On a Wednesday night during the summer, I cycled into Ballyjamesduff to get the Cavan Leader. It had to steal a march on its much bigger competitor, the long famed Anglo Celt , which printed on a Thursday. But with McGee in charge of the county team, the Leader had plenty to offer the avid Cavan fan.

By this stage back in Dublin, the Cavan GAA Supporters Club had been established by a group of diehards. Supporters Club were all the rage particularly in Dublin where the ex-pat money was. Tipperary were the pioneers. Their modus operandi was to help fundraise for the county board while also acting as a social club for likeminded fanatics.

Dad was involved as was most Dublin based Cavan businesspeople. Builders and publicans made up the bulk of the Cavan businesses in Dublin, fairly rich pickings so for an only too delighted county board. Dad had just bought The Roselawn Inn pub in Castleknock after 20 years managing the famous Harp Bar on O’Connell Bridge. The Roselawn became a hub for the Cavan Supporters Club which was exciting for me. The annual player of the year award was hosted there and all of the Cavan players would be in attendance with me serving them pints. There were quizzes, race-nights and golf classics and I took on the job of sending off the “Cavan Supporters Club (Dublin Branch) news” by post to the Cavan Leader once a month or so.

In building the papers GAA coverage which included the all important GAA club notes page, Ciaran Mullooly had made contact with Michael Martin, the secretary of the supporters club, looking for news of our events, a job which was delegated my way. It was my first time to see my name in print. Yes, the two or three paragraph notice board had my byline! Little did I know then I would end up as best man for Ciaran Mullooly and his wife Angela O’Reilly from Mullahoran whom he met while both were working in the Leader.

So you could say penning these sporadic newsletter-like notes of the Cavan Supporters Club (Dublin Branch) was the beginning of my career. Like the trickle that must begin somewhere to give us the River Nile, writing those 100 word notes was the real sowing of the seed. The excitement of seeing my name in print was the clincher. I wanted to be a match reporter, a journalist.

My mind was fixated. I got brave and wrote to Eugene, to ask if I could spend a week on work experience in the Cavan Leader. It was the beginning of summer in 1989 and I was 16, an age when most of us are asked to start getting out and earning some pocket money.

I was still spending the summer in Ballyjamesduff helping out on the farm, half-enjoying myself, half-working and didn’t really want to give that up. But I posted the letter to McGee anyway. Some days later, the phone rang in Granny’s.

“Damien?”.

“Yes, speaking”.

“Hello, this is Eugene McGee here”. I nearly let the phone fall on the floor.

I had seen McGee on TV on shows like the Sunday Game many times and so he was sort of famous in my mind. And I didn’t know many famous people. Yet here he was talking to me on first name terms. He invited me to spend a week in the Leader offices in Cavan.

My heart was pounding with excitement. I was 16 and I was going to Cavan town to work in a newspaper. But Granny was sad. I was great company for her. Granny was born in 1895 and died in her 100th year in 1994. She reared me like a child of her own and spoilt me, giving me money and loved having me around the place.

She was a great storyteller and told me tales which were personal to her but were really history lessons as well. Stories about friends she knew who perished on the Titanic. There was the one of the black and tans raiding her house. And, of course, she would tell yarns about my father as a child. I was only going 12 miles down the road to Cavan town but it was like a rite of passage and she probably knew that from that summer on, I wouldn’t be spending so much of my time on the farm anymore. As it transpired, it was actually a way of guaranteeing that I would spend a lot more time there when I got my first full-time job a few years later.

I stayed with Dad’s sister, Kathleen and her husband, Michael in the centre of Cavan town. They were well-known and respected business people and it helped me settle in Cavan by softening my introduction to different people around the town.
I brought my scrapbook of statistics which I had kept, ironically enough, since McGee took over as a Cavan manager. That weird hobby of keeping match programmes and match stats came in handy. I hadn’t missed a Cavan league or championship match in five years. My “homework” every Sunday evening was to collate all the statistics from the game. Teams, subs, scorers and so on. Even to this day, I love perusing old team lineouts and rolls of honour. I must have lost my calling as a sports statistician.

So on day one in the Leader, in wanting to write a story, I set about tabling all of the stats which included a list of about 60 players who had donned the blue and white jersey in league and championship over the previous half decade . I had all the match results, scorers and I remember even being able to outline the amount of times that Cavan matches had been featured on RTE television in those primitive ‘Sunday Game’ times.

I sent them to Eugene McGee in Longford where the paper was mocked up and edited. This was pre-internet days so all the copy went on the three o’clock bus from Cavan to Longford every Tuesday evening. When the paper arrived into the office the following day, there was a big double page spread with “By Damien O’Reilly” and my pen pic beside it. Like a gambler winning big, the buzz was immense. This is what I want to be.

Beside the piece, McGee wrote an editorial and described my article as “excellently researched”. A week or two later, I met him in person for the first time. He had this habit of not looking at you when he spoke to you. He was a straight down the line sort of man. He stood with his back to the wall and hands tapping the radiator behind his legs and looking down at his feet, he said: “You have a great aptitude ”. Then he added something about “being mad in the head” to want to be a journalist. But it’s a snapshot in time which I remember and which gave me a great boost.

I ended up staying the summer and on my last Friday, when the envelope with all the pay cheques arrived into the Farnham Street office of the Cavan Leader from head office in Longford, I recall the receptionist Ann Donoghue shouting excitedly down the corridor that there was one for me too.

I opened it up. And there it was handwritten. Pay Damien O’Reilly, £100. Signed. Eugene McGee. I photocopied it for posterity. It is probably in a box in the attic of my parents' house today.

The following summer I did my Leaving Cert in O’Connell's CBS off Dublin’s North Circular Road, just behind Croke Park. It would have been easier to get into Trinity College to study medicine then than into the Journalism College in Rathmines. I wasn’t bad at school but nowhere near the genius territory required to accumulate enough points to go to Rathmines.

Mercifully, a new journalism course had just started in Senior College, Ballyfermot. Following another summer in the Cavan Leader where I was allowed to drive the “Leader van” to cover club matches, I applied to get into Ballyfermot. They weren’t so much interested in my Leaving Cert results. More what interest I had in journalism. “Well, just wait ‘til I show you.”

I remember smiling as I opened my portfolio of articles from the Cavan Leader, My name, My picture. And a gushing reference from Eugene McGee. Brenda Hartnett who was my interviewer and in charge of the Broadcast Journalism Skills course in Ballyfermot was suitably impressed and I was offered a place on the two year diploma course as my mother waited outside in the car park. I skipped out and told her that I would be starting college there in September studying journalism. Now this was for real.