Donegal’s first All-Ireland winner remembered in new book

Donegal’s first All-Ireland winner remembered in new book
In in this extract from a new book called The Fairytale in New York, penned by Cavan-based Paul Fitzpatrick and focused on that county’s win the 1947 All-Ireland SFC, we are introduced to Donegal’s greatest export to the Cavanmen, the late, great Columba McDyer from Glenties.

In in this extract from a new book called The Fairytale in New York, penned by Cavan-based Paul Fitzpatrick and focused on that county’s win the 1947 All-Ireland SFC, we are introduced to Donegal’s greatest export to the Cavanmen, the late, great Columba McDyer from Glenties.

Ahead of the 1947 All-Ireland semi-final, Cavan and Roscommon had history. It had been festering since 1943 and then, four years later, the fire was still burning.

Maybe Cavan were envious – while they’d let Sam slip from their grasp on a couple of occasions and by the end of 1946, were no longer even rulers in their own province, Roscommon had clocked up two All-Irelands, lost a replayed final in 1946 and were second favourites after Kerry to win a third in 1947.

Cavan against Roscommon, then, for a place in the Polo Grounds, was a delicious appetiser to the following month’s final.

Against that backdrop, the teams took the field on August 3 before 60,075 spectators.

Cavan made one change, Phil “Gunner” brady moving to centre-field in place of Tony Tighe, who played right half-forward, with Terry Sheridan the man to miss out.

Cavan, it was reported, had prepared better than ever and captain John Joe O’Reilly didn’t over-elaborate when he spoke to The Anglo-Celt’s reporter at the training camp in Ballyjamesduff; “we will get there this time,” was the only line from the captain carried in his local paper.

Opinion as to who would win was split. Cavan, mesmerising in the rain of Clones a fortnight earlier, were moving well but Roscommon, in that era, were an awesome outfit, compared decades later to the Down team of the 60s.

Andy Croke, writing in The Sunday Independent, did nail his colours to the mast – and they were primrose and blue. The match-up had Gaeldom “buzzing with excitement” but, admitting Cavan’s stock had soared after the Antrim performance, he still came down on the side of Roscommon.

Analysing the Cavan team, there was one man Croke gave special mention to - Columba McDyer, a Kilraine native who made a massive contribution to Cavan’s Polo Grounds win and who, amazingly, would have a direct, post-humous link to his native county’s second All-Ireland triumph in 2012, too.

“I still have visions of McDyer’s red head dominating the scene of Ulster’s Railway Cup win in 1942,” Croke recalled.

“Since going to Cavan, he has retained his early brilliance and I fully expect him to hit it off with Brady.”

Hit if off they did. McDyer – commonly known as Colm - was a special talent and was, in a way, the missing link on the Cavan team of 1947. A very clean player, he was tall, athletic and blessed with a great engine and a tremendous burst of speed. His father Alec had been joint-secretary of the first Donegal county board and he had played for the Donegal senior team in a challenge game at the age of 16 in 1937.

When Ulster won their first Railway Cup title in 1942, McDyer was a key man and, working in Sligo, he would declare for the Yeats men in time, playing club football for Craobh Rua and winning a Connacht League title against Galway in the Showgrounds in 1945.

A carpenter by trade, he came to work in Monaghan in early 1947, Cavan got wind of it and, despite lobbying from the Farney men, he began working for Elliott’s builders, Church St, Cavan, while living 16 miles away in Clones.

Alongside the Gunner, McDyer shone. The Mullahoran man sorted out any rough-housing and McDyer hoovered up ball around the middle, dominating in the air and bombing forward.

Years later, Higgins would describe McDyer as a “gentleman” and “an outstanding player”.

“He was a gentleman on and off the field and was fortunate to have a midfield partner in Phil “Gunner” Brady who looked after anything that was needed to be looked after,” said Mick, showing a fine line in under-statement.

“I played against him when he was playing for Donegal. He came to Cavan at a time when we were having centre-field problems.

“We found him to be an outstanding player and he solved our problems in this area of the field in partnership with Phil Brady.

“He was a great athlete with wonderful fielding. His chief asset, at least I felt, was his fetching. He was a fine fielder of a ball and never relied on punching, he always caught it.

“Columba was a genius too to launch an attack. He didn’t play defensive football as was commonly understood and he always managed to get scores at vital periods.

“He never resorted to rough play and was always skilful and naturally fit throughout his life. We used to train only for finals at that time and he would always be supremely fit. He had a tremendous attitude overall.”

He would show as much the following month when he waved goodbye to his new bride Peggy, cutting short their honeymoon, to join up with the rest of the Cavan panel in Ballyjamesduff and hit the road for Rineanna.

McDyer signed for Cavan Slashers to legalise the move and despite not having an array of medals like some of the Breffni galacticos of the time, he immediately won their respect.

Mickey Walsh, a regular on the Cavan junior team and an oft-time senior panellist who wasn’t far off the ‘47 squad, remembers McDyer regularly being asked to referee matches in Cavan – his roots in far-off Donegal perhaps rendering him somewhat neutral.

Weeks before to the Polo Grounds, Walsh ended up making up the numbers in Butlersbridge in a challenge match between the home team and Cavan Slashers and having a run-in with Willie Doonan, his own Cavan Harps clubmate.

McDyer was the man in the middle. There had been a collection for Doonan around the local shops and businesses for his trip to New York and, later, the lads set out to watch the match in the Bridge and were roped in to play.

“It was an oul challenge thing,” remembers Mickey.

“Jaysus, Doonan hit me a kick in the back of the leg. Colm McDyer was refereeing the match ... I went for Doonan and I said ‘if I get you, I’ll bloody kill you’.

“McDyer says ‘you know that man is going to America?’ I says ‘well not if I can f**ckin’ help it!’

“So after the game we went up to Con Smith’s for a drink and Doonan felt so bad, he was trying to give me half the money. Oh, a big eegit!”

That was Doonan – a different man to his team-mates, but still a team-mate. And that was McDyer – helping out and playing his part in one of the greatest footballing journeys of all time.

He played just one year but was the greatest transfer Cavan ever had. And, almost seven decades later, his legacy touched on another momentous All-Ireland success. When another Glenties man, Jim McGuinness, took the Donegal team through their warm-up before the All-Ireland final against Mayo, in his hand was a whistle, in the Cavan and Naomh Conaill colours, given to him 20 years beforehand by McDyer.

“Me and Columba would have been fairly close,” McGuinness remembered before that final.

“He was an absolute gentleman to the fingertips, very well-educated. He went on his travels when he was young, played with Cavan and then Sligo before returning to Donegal, playing first and then managing the team. He came down to the field one night with his wife Peggy. I was out with the young fellas when he called me aside. He handed over a whistle, a blue and white whistle and said: ‘I think you are going to be a coach. I want you to have this whistle’.

“Jesus, that’s at least 21 years ago but I have never lost that whistle. Oil has been spilled on it. The pea is probably gone in it, and the boys slag me about it. But there would be panic in the dressing room if I mislaid it. It actually happened one day. All the boys could hear was, ‘where’s the whistle? Where’s the whistle?’ Now they know the full significance of it.”

All of that, though, was well in the future. On the morning of August 3 1947, McDyer and his team-mates, in a convoy of cars, were headed for the Big Smoke with just one thing in mind – evening the score with Roscommon and booking their seats for the greatest trip of all.

Paul Fitzpatrick’s book ‘The Fairytale in New Yotk’ is available for purchase in Eason’s and online. For more information, please email