It was a crisp January night in MacCumhaill Park. Dr McKenna Cup 2012 and only the die-hards were there to watch Donegal take on Derry. One of those was John Murphy from Ballyshannon, adopted son of Donegal Town and one time minor for St. Eunan’s.
After the game he engages in conversation with Derry’s man of the match Conleth Gilligan and he is genuinely interested to learn of the team and his comeback from injury. No big deal you might say, but then John was in Croke Park the day that Jim McKeever first captained a Derry team to the All Ireland final of 1958.
He was first there in 1953 to watch Armagh make their first appearance in the final and he saw Kevin Armstrong lift the Anglo Celt Cup for Antrim in 1946. The car trip was five hours approximately in ‘53 from Ballyshannon and in the car with him were the late Sean Slevin, Hugh Daly and Robbie McShea.
As for his Donegal pedigree whether it was the Ulster minor final of 1949, the first Dr Lagan Cup final victory of 1952, the first McKenna Cup final victory of 1963, or the All Ireland final of 1992, John was there.
John can name teams and players on photos that would have consigned the legendary Micheal O’Hehir to the subs bench.
He recalls the All Ireland junior final between Donegal and Kerry in 1954 with a glint in his eye and a classic comment.
“I never played in Croke Park, but my boots did,” he recalls.
The reference is to Matt Regan from Belleek who played midfield that day. John says that many players did not have their own rigs in those days and that Matt qualified to play for Donegal as he played with Corlea.
In three consecutive years, John himself played minor for Ballyshannon in ‘48, minor for St. Eunan’s (losing the county final) in 1949 and junior for Four Masters in 1950. He returned to Aodh Ruadh in 1951 and continued playing until an injury in the early seventies, despite living in Donegal Town.
He was 62 years living in Donegal Town on January 22nd of this year and until his retirement it was with the Post Office that his strongest links with the town are.
“I came to Donegal Town after training for 15 months in Letterkenny as a clerk after getting the Post Office exams. It was different then and part of the training included learning the Morse Code. I joined on November 1st, 1948. We learned the routes and it was much more labour intensive than today. We worked for the Department of Posts and Telegraphs.
His memories of being away for the first time from home as a fresh faced 17-year-old are equally strong:
“It was my first time away from home and it was the middle of winter. I hadn’t the price of my digs as wages were very small. I had to get a few bob to subsidise the digs. I spent the winter evenings window shopping. It was two months until Christmas and I couldn’t get home as there was no suitable bus service to get back in time on the Monday morning, John explains.
He adds: “For those two months I thought I was lost. I could have been in Hong Kong as I was never as lonely in all my life.”
But things did perk up and John joined St Eunan’s only for them to be defeated in the minor final of 1949. But back to his ‘post office’ training:
“There was a Cork chap there from Ballydehob a few months ahead of us on the course. We used tell him that he never heard of Chrsty Ring ‘til he came to Donegal. This used to drive him mad. He was a real character and Pat Maguire returned to Bantry which he never left again and later became Head Postmaster.”
John himself married Florrie Gallagher from Ballyshannon, who was a national school teacher at Meenglass NS, Ballybofey and among her contemporaries was Paddy Coyle, the great Gaoth Dobhair footballer and the late Cormac “the Follower” McGill.
“Florrie never had any interest in football. She might watch if Donegal were in a big All Ireland final, but that was it.”
Working for the Post Office brought in a stable income, but it was hard and long work, with starting times as early as 3.30 in the mornings in all sorts of weather.
“You were supposed to reside within three miles of the Post Office but I got ‘special permission’ to travel from Ballyshannon, until I moved permanently to Donegal Town,” he recalls.
Rivalry was intense between the towns especially the GAA clubs. John remembers “on the evening of a match” being threatened by a senior GAA official that he would get him “transferred” from Donegal Town Post Office.
It was deemed “inappropriate” at that time that John was working in one town while playing his games for his “home” team. Later the two buried their differences and even became neighbours and friends.
“Regarding the job itself I was very lucky, I got four or five promotions and eventually became Head Post Master for south west Donegal. When P&T was centrally run by government the appointment for jobs was through the Minister and some of the appointments were political, no matter what qualifications you had. Later as a semi-state agency it was the man on the ground that had the say on appointmnets, so things became more balanced.”
One quick story: “We would be in at 3.30am to sort the early incoming mail. Mail was then dispatched from Donegal Town to the various offices at 7 o’clock. This mail bag was being opened, a parcel burst open and sweets went all over the floor. There were seven or eight on duty at the time and he went around offering the sweets. Eventually he looked at the address to see that it was addressed to the mother of one of the post office clerks. You never saw a boy move faster.”
That clerk in question was a young Paddy Meehan from Donegal town and the parcel was for his mother - Mrs Vincent Meehan.
John recalls: “They parcelled it up as best they could, it was duly dispatched and thankfully no remarks were made by Bridie, Paddy’s mother.”
John feels many things have changed down the years: “People had more time on their hands and time to talk to you. Neither could I have imagined how communications would have changed since I began in the Post Office in 1948.”
John is thankful for a good life, his patient wife, his wonderful children and grand children.
“I have so many things to be grateful for and while life is tough at times you get on with it. I have been blessed with many good friends and work colleagues as well and then there was the GAA,” the sprightly Octogenarian plus sums up.
And John himself has always been a man that has stood by his Post - be that a GAA post or his beloved ‘Post’ Office.