Sixty-one years ago in Foxford, Mayo county board treasurer Pat Conway held Sam Maguire in front of a 10-year-old named John Durcan and told him to grip it tight.
Mayo had defended their All-Ireland title with the 1951 vintage overcoming Meath 2-8 to 0-9. Padraig Carney, nicknamed ‘the Flying Doctor’ had returned from the United States for the final, kicking three late points.
Last Friday in Donegal Town, Durcan met up with two other Mayo men - Mick Murphy and Terry O’Reilly - to discuss the upcoming All-Ireland final. Their native county is playing Donegal, whose panel contains their three sons.
Durcan’s son Paul is Donegal’s goalkeeper, while Murphy’s only child, Michael, is captain. O’Reilly’s son is Martin. At 19, he’s the second youngest member of Jim McGuinness’s panel.
The three retired Garda clocked up a combined service of 101 years. And while a lot of their experiences were shared, some are not - like the last time Mayo won the All-Ireland. Only Durcan was alive then.
“We were listening to Michael O’Hehir on the radio having wet the battery,” he says. “Sam Maguire came back to Foxford. Pat Conway told us we had to get a feel of it.”
As a boy Durcan sold tickets from an old leather schoolbag for inter-county games. As reward, he would gain free admission and get fed afterwards, so long as the pennies and shillings balanced with the amount of tickets sold.
By 1964, he was ready for his first post in the guards, in the village of Carrigans that nestles on the border with Derry.
“It was the day Winston Churchill was buried,” Durcan recalls. “I wasn’t too used to television but I saw it that day. I had never been in Carrigans before and never expected to be. It hit me like a bolt from the blue.
“I arrived at 10 at night and looked out the door the following morning and the street was about the length of a bar counter. ‘Is this it?’ I asked the landlady. ‘That’ll be it,’ she replied. And right she was. That was it.”
A decade or so later, Durcan had moved to Donegal Town and built the house he still lives in today. By then, Murphy and O’Reilly had passed out of Templemore.
“I remember the first day I met you,” Murphy says to Durcan. “It was 1974. I had only arrived in Buncrana and you were sitting in the corner. I always said that you were a good man to sit!”
Mick Murphy, a native of a Corrimbla just outside of Ballina, was initially stationed in Burnfoot before being moved onto Buncrana and then Letterkenny.
“I loved Inishowen but there was one huge problem,” he says. “No Gaelic. The Troubles had a big effect on Gaelic in a place like Inishowen. We used to put teams together of guards and custom men to play in the Clonmany, Carndonagh and Buncrana festivals and made the final on a few occasions. We lost every last one. There were hometown referees and it was a case of anyone but the bloody guards!”
Murphy organised fundraising nights in the Metric Ballroom in Burnfoot, with county singer Hugo Duncan coming across the border from Strabane. “He could fill the place with women,” says Murphy. “The women used to be mad about Hugo Duncan.”
From the money raised, twice a year Murphy and a few guards would head to Glasgow, take in a Celtic game and enjoy a social night with in the Irish club, before a challenge game of Gaelic football on the Sunday at Cliftonhill in Coatbridge, the home of Albion Rovers FC.
Closer to home, they trained at Lisfannon beach, knocking lumps out of one another and then chasing back to the digs as only the first man in got the clean bathwater.
With the Troubles rife in Derry, just a stone’s throw away, a lot of young guards would’ve been happier placed anywhere than Donegal. O’Reilly, though, was delighted to move to Stranorlar.
“My brother Liam was living in Dungloe, when, in 1975, he lost a leg in a fishing accident in Killybegs,” O’Reilly says. “I was just glad to be near him.”
O’Reilly had won a junior championship at home in Belmullet – the nearest point to America as he calls it - as a 17-year-old in 1974 and then won the 1977 senior championship with Sean MacCumhaill’s of Ballybofey and an intermediate with Glenfin in 1983.
Murphy soon moved to Bomany, just outside of Letterkenny. He and his wife Mary had a baby boy in 1989.
“When Michael was born his hip was out of place and it meant, unless it was operated on before he turned three, he would have a permanent limp,” Murphy explains. “We took him to the Mater the day after the 1990 All-Ireland semi-final, which Donegal lost to Meath.”
Having seen his only son spend months in a plaster, Mick Murphy took Michael regularly to Dublin for check-ups after that plaster was removed. One day in particular, when Michael was maybe four orfive, sticks out in Mick’s memory.
“We were driving past the old Croke Park,” he says. “Michael asked could we not go in and I thought ‘why not?’. The ground was closed but I had a word with a security guard. He waved us in.
“Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh came out and went over to Michael and shook his hand, asking him, since he was from Donegal, did he ‘know the big man - Anthony Molloy?’ He couldn’t have asked a better question. Michael loved Anthony Molloy. ‘I do. He’s the captain of Donegal,” Michael replied. Mícheál took Michael out on the pitch, which was very nice of him. I’ve always meant to ask Mícheál does he remember that.”
O’Reilly recalls a similar story, while Martin was going through some schoolbooks lately, he found an old copybook. “I want to be a PE teacher and play for Donegal,” he had scribbled.
Growing up, Durcan used to watch his son Paul line out in the colours of Four Masters alongside Karl Lacey and Barry Dunnion, winning a sprinkling of underage titles whilst climbing the ladder.
“He was always an outfield player, until Martin McHugh made a goalkeeper of him for the U-16 Ted Webb Cup in 1999,” John Durcan recalls. “Although he was nine years younger than his brother Adrian and six younger than Sean, they always had Paul in goals, smashing shots at him. They never let him out!”
Paul Durcan has been part of the Donegal panel since 2004, while protégée Michael Murphy first popped onto the scene as a 17-year-old in 2007. Martin O’Reilly made his championship debut this season in Cavan.
“It’s just brilliant for him to be involved,” Terry O’Reilly says of Martin. “From a family and club, it’s a father’s ambition to see his son come up through the club ranks and get involved with the county.
“His ambition this season was to make the U-21 panel and now he’s off to Croke Park for the All-Ireland final. I’ve told him to make the most of it because it mightn’t be like this all the time. Remember in 1992 Jim McGuinness was the 19-year-old?”
Indeed. Twenty years ago the scraggly-haired McGuinness had not even made his championship debut and by the time he did, in 1993, he already had an Ulster and All-Ireland winners’ medal. McGuinness then wandered the wilderness until 2004 and couldn’t win another provincial title, with those shortcomings acting as his driving force now as a manager.
McGuinness, as he promised on arrival, has restored peoples’ faith in this Donegal team. Their progress has been frantic and few counties have been afforded more airtime in the last 18 months, but there’s still another football match to be won and margins can be thin come All-Ireland final day.
Two years ago, in the U-21 final at Breffni Park, Michael Murphy’s stoppage time penalty could’ve won the title for Donegal, only for it to ram off Dublin’s crossbar.
“It’s wild hard to call as so many games go down to the wire,” Mick Murphy says. “It could be a fluke goal, a bad refereeing decision. I learned a lot since Michael missed that penalty in the U-21 final.
“The difference between winning and losing is so little on the pitch and so much afterwards. Donegal played terribly bad after a lot of players picked up a virus but they were still only a kick of the ball away from winning it.”
“Michael didn’t miss it, the bloody bar just came in the way,” reassures O’Reilly.
Looking ahead to Sunday, all three men are well educated on all things football in both Mayo and Donegal. All three sway towards their adopted county in their predictions.
“If Donegal go right at the Mayo defence they will cause them trouble,” Murphy says. “Believe it or believe it not, but I think Michael’s best position is centre-forward and he’s never really played there. But hey, football is all about opinions.”
“I’m impressed with the change in Mayo,” Durcan says. “One day they used to come out and they were good, then they weren’t the next. Now that’s gone. I was impressed with the way they didn’t fall apart against Dublin. But I don’t think they are strong enough for Donegal.”
“Both managers are really shrewd,” O’Reilly says. “I know there can be no guarantees in football but we could be seeing a bit more of these two teams in the coming years. They’re similar and maybe James Horan took a few leaves out of McGuinness’s book.”
Having spent their whole lives hoping Mayo would bury the curse and the legacy of the 1951 team, the trio will be content to wait another year. O’Reilly admitted the semi-final between Dublin and Mayo was difficult to watch, knowing Donegal were waiting in the final.
“Half of me thought it might be better if Dublin had won,” he says. “But at the same time it was brilliant for Mayo. I’m a cousin of Willie Joe Padden’s and have seen Mayo suffer down the years. The adrenaline really got going, especially when Dublin started coming back. It reminded me of Meath in 1996 all over again.”
“When the ball bounced over Madden’s crossbar,” Durcan pipes in, in reference to the late equalising point scored by Meath’s Colm Coyle in the All-Ireland final of 16 years ago. Mayo lost the replay.
“It’s not the ideal situation but thank God there’s nothing we can do about it,” O’Reilly says. “Donegal are on one side and Mayo are on the other and we’re on the fence. But all I want is Donegal to come out on top in a good game of football. Donegal has given me football and given me a family.”
If Sam Maguire does return to Donegal Town on Monday night, its ribbons will be green and gold. And no doubt John Durcan would have a few more yarns to share with Mick Murphy and Terry O’Reilly about the night he held it in Foxford all those years ago. This time it could be his son Paul telling him to grip it tight.