Donegal was always my county - Mickey Griffin

Former great recalls his Donegal days

Tom Comack

Reporter:

Tom Comack

Donegal was always my county - Mickey Griffin

Tom Comack sport@donegaldemocrat.com @dgldemocrat

On the week that Dublin come to play Donegal, one former Donegal player made an early choice between the counties of who he wanted to play Gaelic football for.

Mickey Griffin played senior football for Donegal for well over a decade without ever kicking a ball in club football in the county.

He was a central player on a great Donegal team of the 1960s that came agonisingly close to making the big breakthrough on the championship stage - a team that many, until this day, consider equal to the giant killing first All-Ireland winning team of 1992. There are even those who would argue they were a better side.

For a good barometer of Donegal in the ‘60s take a look at Ulster Railway Cup winning teams. It was a regular occurrence in those years to have two, three and even at times four Donegal men on the team and another two or three in the panel at a time when Down and Cavan were dominant.

Mickey Griffin played for Ulster but never won a Railway Cup medal. However, he was an automatic choice for Donegal from when he made his championship debut against Derry in 1961 until injury ruled him out of the 1969 championship team that lost to Antrim in the first round. He was back the following year and remained on in the squad for the next two years and was a member of the first Ulster Championship winning squad of 1972.

Recognised as a quality forward in his time, he featured in every position in the attack as well as in the middle of the field and in the half and full-back lines.

“I played in 11 different positions during my days with Donegal. They only position I did not play in were in goals, full-back and left full-back,” said Mickey, who is still hale and hearty and living in Dublin, his home for well over 60 years.

Mickey Griffin was born in Rathmullan. His father was a Kerry man, Denis Griffin, from Annascaul, and his mother was from Ranafast, Roisin O’Boyle.

Denis Griffin was a civil servant and worked in the Labour Exchange (now known as Social Welfare Offices) in Letterkenny

For the first four years of his life he was raised by his grandmother (O’Boyle), before moving to live in Letterkenny, in St Eunan’s Tce with the rest of his family.

When Mickey was seven his father was transferred to Dungloe and the family moved lock, stock and barrel to Fairhill in Dungloe.

And then when he was 11, his father was transferred once again, this time to Dublin and the family moved to live in Ballymun.

It was after this move that Mickey insists he got the grounding and coaching that made him the footballer he turned out to be.

He attended St Vincent’s CBS in Glasnevin, first the national school where he completed his primary education and then the secondary school,

“The coaching I received from the Christian Brothers was brilliant and away ahead of its time. It was brilliant and really stood to me in my later career,” explained Mickey, who captained the school primary team to the Fianna Fail Cup final in Croke Park shortly after joining the school.

To give you an example he said: “School used to start at 9.30 am and during the football season we would train at 8.30 and we got a 15 minutes grace and didn’t have to start class until 9.45.

“Then again, after school, we would have a classroom coaching session with two blackboards, one for the backs and another one for the forwards.

“The brothers would illustrate different plays and working off the ball and positioning and all the basics of the game.

“Those sessions would last about an hour and then you went home. But that was not the end of it; you came back in at 7 pm for another training session.

“In this session you would practice what you had done on the blackboard earlier in the day. It was all pretty scientific and remember this was the 1950s.”

St Vincent’s, in those years, was a nursery for the O’Toole’s Club, which the young Mickey Griffin joined and remained for his entire playing career.

At O’Tooles, former Dublin goalkeeper Johnny McDonald took a young Mickey Griffin under his wing from an early age and coached him and advised him right throughout his career.

Johnny McDonald was the Dublin goalkeeper on Bloody Sunday in Croke Park.

By the time he reached minor age, Mickey Griffin was a quality player and county standard.

He was selected on the 1956 Dublin minor panel. But the young Griffin, with the Donegal blood in veins, turned down the offer and instead declared for the county of his birth, Donegal.

The problem was no one in Donegal knew about the young Mickey Griffin in Dublin.

As it happened Dublin and Donegal won their respective provincial finals in that year, 1956. And Dublin went all the way to win the All-Ireland with a landslide victory over Leitrim in the final. Leitrim had defeated Donegal in the semi-final.

A few years passed before Mickey Griffin got the chance to wear a Donegal jersey.

It came about after a chance meeting with Donegal midfielder Sean Ferriter on a night out in the capital.

“I met Sean at a dance in the Crystal Ballroom. I knew him from playing club football in Dublin.

“He told me that night that they were talking about me in Donegal and they were wondering would I play with Donegal. I said I would and that was the start of my Donegal playing days.”

Mickey’s decision to declare for Donegal did not go down well with his Kerry father.

“He said you’re mad because you will never get 15 Donegal disciplined enough to win anything.

“But I was a Donegal man and I wanted to play for my county.”

Ironically, a few weeks before I met Sean Ferriter he was a member of the Dublin panel that had travelled to play Roscommon. He wasn’t part of the team, just a member of the squad.

That experience in Roscommon ended any slight chance there was of Mickey ever playing for Dublin.

“Even though I knew them all from playing club football against them, I found them very unfriendly.

“This was in stark contrast to the Donegal lads, who were very friendly from day one.

“My first game with Donegal was a challenge game some time in early 1960 against Leitrim in Ballinamore,

“I travelled on my own from Dublin and when I met the players in the hotel before the game they were all very friendly and all made me very welcome, especially, the Letterkenny men.

“John Hannigan, Fionn Gallagher, Seamus Hoare and Noel O’Donnell were the Letterkenny men in the squad at the time.

“At that first meeting, I remember they asked me if I had lived in St Eunan’s Tce at one stage and was I the fella that burned the Bishop’s cock of hay.

“I told them I was and once I told them that I was accepted and in with the Letterkenny men.”

They burning of Bishop McFeely’s cock of hay was a big story at the time as Mickey explained: “We lived in St Eunan’s Tce and the bishop had a field up behind our house.

“There was a big cock of hay in the corner of the field and one day I found a box of matches.

“The matches were my uncles and urged on by a number of bigger boys, I was about five or six at the time. I went out through a hole in the fence and pulled out some hay from the bottom of the big cock and set it alight and ran back to the house.

“When it burned out the lads said to me that they meant me to set the whole cock alight so I went back out and set fire to the whole cock and it took off and it was completely burned.

“All hell broke loose after that and there were fire engines and gardai and Mickey’s father was not happy.

“My father was very strict and he give a right good beating and he had to go to the garda station and pay compensation to the bishop.”

Mickey Griffin’s first championship game was against Derry in the first round of the 1961 championship.

He was named at centre half-forward.

Mickey recalls the manager’s very brief pep talk, the brevity of which took him somewhat by surprise.

“Drive the ball on and kick it long and remember there is only one ball, there aren’t two balls.”

Puzzled by the reference to two balls, Mickey asked Mickey Gallen, who was named at full-forward, as they made their way from the Butt Hall - where they had togged out - to the pitch.

Mickey Gallen’s response was priceless. “There are three Dungloe men to your left and three Gaoth Dobhair men to your right and the Dungloe men won’t pass to the Gaoth Dobhair men and the Gaoth Dobhair men won’t pass to the Dungloe men,” explained the MacCumhaill’s man, who went on to say if we are to have any chance today, you’re at centre half-forward and I’m at full-forward, you pass to me and I’ll pass to you.”

Donegal lost that game, 0-4 to Derry’s 2-10.

Mickey and Donegal enjoyed McKenna Cup success in 1963 and 1965 and Lagan Cup success in ‘65 and ‘66, before they made the breakthrough to a first Ulster championship final in 1966.

They faced Down in that final in Casement Park - the first provincial final to be televised live. But on very wet day in West Belfast and on a day Donegal luck ran out, Down won by two points, 1-7 to Donegal’s 0-8.

Mickey Griffin played left half-forward and while Donegal went home without the Anglo Celt Cup, the O’Toole’s man did not leave Belfast empty handed.

“I still have the match ball from that game. I just had won it when the final whistle blew. I raced off with it and when I met my friend Paddy Madden, who had travelled to the game with me, I handed to him and he put it under his coat.

“There was a big inquiry in the dressing room after and Ulster officials were looking for the ball and quizzed me about it.

“But I told them I had handed to a man with a steward’s badge and they made off in search of the steward and I headed back to Dublin with the ball.

“I may not have won the medal I went to Belfast to win, but I did go home with the match ball and I still have it.

After that ‘66 final, Donegal had a six year wait for a second Ulster final appearance.

That was the final of 1972 and finally the big breakthrough with that historic first Ulster Championship.

By this time Mickey Griffin had reached the twilight years of his career. He was still in the squad and was on the bench for Ulster final day, and is the proud holder of an Ulster Senior Championship winners’ medal.