Hogan Cup winner and Westmeath dual stalwart
A Hogan Cup success just past his 16th birthday preceded a near 30-year adult career as an outstanding hurler and footballer for Ballymore man Brian McCabe, whose prime years as a Gaelic games dual star were spent in his native New York.
The son of a Monaghan father (Owen RIP) and a Donegal mother (Rosemary, sadly, she has been in declining health in recent years), Brian was born in the Bronx in 1965, where his parents had met and married. The McCabes moved back to Ireland in 1969 after they bought a grocery shop in Ballymore from a legendary figure in Westmeath GAA, the late Peter Geraghty.
Brian has “no memories, none at all” of his early years in the USA, but fondly recalls his time in Ballymore NS. He lauds the contribution of his headmaster, Sylvester Hyland from Laois, who started hurling in the school. He also praises the contribution of a garda in the village at the time, Michael Egan from Galway.
Two local men, Peter Young and Mickey Kincaid, also played huge parts in the early days of Fr Dalton’s. “A group of us moved up along together through the various age groups,” Brian states.
Despite living a mere eight miles from Moate, after finishing in primary school Brian started his five-year period as a boarder in the Carmelite College in September 1977. During his lengthy period on the staff, the late Fr Michael Cremin had transformed the now-defunct secondary school from ‘B’ competition also-rans into one of the top football nurseries in Ireland. Indeed, the three academic years prior to Brian’s arrival had yielded three Leinster titles and a hat-trick of appearances in the Hogan Cup final, with the blue riband of colleges football garnered in 1976.
Fr Cremin managed the senior football team and Brian didn’t come into his radar prior to the Inter Cert, but he recalls the great work done for juvenile players by a Tipperary man on the staff, Pat Sheedy. “Hurling played second fiddle”, but Brian still enjoyed the small ball coaching of two teachers, Mick Macken and Joe Creggy from Castlepollard.
A fourth successive Leinster senior title ensued in 1978, and two years later under the captaincy of Moate man, Jimmy Bradley, and powered by the highly vaunted duo of Val Daly (Galway) and John Maughan (Mayo), a second Hogan Cup win was achieved.
Carmelite College success
In the 1980/81 school year, Brian, despite being the tender age of 15, managed to make the prestigious senior panel and was “on and off the starting team” for a lengthy championship campaign. Three victories over Dublin schools and a replay win against the famed St Mel’s, Longford, qualified the Carmelite boys for the first-ever all-Westmeath final.
A huge crowd descended on Cusack Park on March 22, 1981 where debutant finalists, the local Coláiste Mhuire side, were defeated by 1-6 to 0-5. A two-point win against St Colman’s, Newry (the party-poopers back in the 1975 decider) in the All-Ireland semi-final in Cavan meant that all roads led to Roscommon for a Hogan Cup final showdown with another St Colman’s, this time the Claremorris school which had won a thrilling final in 1977 at the same venue.
Those present in Dr Hyde Park on May 3, 1981 will never forget the appalling weather that day.
“Conditions were terrible. In fact, the driving rain messed up the video that was being taken of that game, but the outcome all came down to Michael Lynam’s late penalty conversion. Michael (from Rosemount) would have spent hours practising frees and penalties, but I could barely look at it when he lined up the decisive kick,” Brian, the youngest starter on the Carmelite team that day, recalls of the 2-2 to 1-4 win.
Brian reflects on the enormous influence which Fr Cremin had on football, not just in the Carmelite College, but in the town of Moate as a whole.
“He was a great student of the game and big into tactics. He had clever theories about corner-forward play and you had to be fit to do what he asked. We trained relentlessly in Moate, every evening in fact, albeit the footballers were well looked after when it came to food and the like. But he was ruthless when it came to football.”
“Surprisingly, despite having five or six players from the 1981 success, we never raised much of a gallop in my Leaving Cert year,” Brian recalls. However, 1982 did bring “the huge thrill" of playing in a Leinster minor football final for Westmeath against a very strong Dublin team which went on to win the All-Ireland. Indeed, Billy Flanagan’s charges had bridged a 19-year gap by making the provincial showdown where they lost by 0-10 to 0-4.
“I also played minor in 1983, but like the Carmelite the previous year we had high hopes with what looked like a strong team, but we lost out to Laois after beating Louth,” Brian adds.
Brian played football and hurling for Westmeath right through the grades and he was just 18 when he made his National Football League debut against Donegal on October 9, 1983 in Cusack Park.
“I was very young, but I could run then,” Brian jokes. His four-year Leinster SFC career saw consecutive first round defeats to Meath (1984), Carlow (1985), Wicklow (1986) and Dublin (1987). The 2-15 to 1-5 loss to the Royal County in Cusack Park was particularly disappointing as Westmeath had shocked reigning All-Ireland champions Dublin at the same venue in that year’s special Centenary Cup, albeit a second-round hammering, followed in Wexford.
On the inter-county hurling front for the Lake County, Brian debuted against Kilkenny in Tullamore in the 1985 Leinster SHC, when the Cats prevailed by a 20-point margin. “I came as a sub that day and got a goal, and I didn’t get too many of them! I played wherever I was picked, but I preferred defence or midfield. I wasn’t a spectacular scoring forward. When I was up front, I did a bit of work for the likes of David Kilcoyne and Michael Cosgrove who were more skilful hurlers than I was,” he modestly states.
After he left the Carmelite, Brian served his time with Bord na Móna, playing football with the Derrygreenagh section. A brief period in Tarkett in Mullingar ensued, but "irregular hours with shift work" made it difficult for him to play games.
New York return
Accordingly, his native New York beckoned in 1987 (“emigration was huge back then”). Remarkably, Brian commuted over and back to play with Westmeath in the National Hurling League up to March 1992. On the first of that month, he wore the maroon and white colours in Ireland for the last time against Roscommon in Castletown-Geoghegan. His trade in the Big Apple was scaffolding and he was 30 years in that line of work. For the past two years, he has been employed by Waterways Ireland.
Brian takes up his New York experience: “I went to the States in 1987 with ‘Jogger’ Doyle. There was already a large Westmeath contingent out there. I was born in the Bronx and went back to the Bronx. I went out for ‘a couple of years’, but ended up staying for over 15!
“Initially, because Westmeath had no football team over there, I played with Connemara Gaels because the Lowrys had strong Galway connections and Martin had been out there a good while. I lost two football finals with them. There were some great games in Gaelic Park, many of them of a high standard, even if the refereeing mightn’t have been just as strict as it was back here!”
Westmeath had formed a hurling team in 1985. “Eventually we had enough lads for two teams, the vast majority of them from Westmeath. The rules were different then and you could strengthen teams with guest players. We had the likes of the two Coughlans from Offaly and John Fleming from Wexford. But the whole concept of ‘weekend players’ came to a head in 1996,” Brian reflects.
Ironically, the latter was the year in which Westmeath bridged a 54-year gap by winning the New York hurling and football championship double, a feat last achieved by Galway in 1942. Brian also has three other hurling medals won in 1990, 1992 and 1993.
With New York as a ‘county’ in its own right, Brian proudly competed in both the All-Ireland ‘B’ and Ulster championships in venues such as Croke Park and Casement Park. When New York competed in National League finals in both codes against the ‘home’ champions from Ireland, he had been ineligible to play. He also played in the Connacht SFC against Mayo in Castlebar and Galway in Tuam in 1999 and 2000 respectively, albeit in his own words, “past my best as a footballer”.
Brian enjoyed the week-long break in Ireland when his adopted ‘county’ made the trip home - (nowadays, it is a Connacht team which travels to New York annually, though the Covid-19 pandemic prevented this last year). However, his return trips to play with Westmeath hurlers were “always a rushed job”.
Reflecting fondly on his long stay in New York, Brian says: “There were lots of fellas involved in progressing the Westmeath club over there - men such as John Moore, PJ Quinn and Philip Slevin in football, and Tom Nugent, Andy Carr, Dessie Costello and Noel Masterson in hurling.”
When he returned to Ireland, Brian was in his late 30s and “had retired – obviously”, as he jovially states. However, an astonishing 19 years after his first success in the grade in 1984, he came out of retirement in 2003 and helped Ballymore to a Westmeath IFC success - “as a sub who came on in the last four games, but I finished as a footballer then”.
His unplanned return to the green and gold jersey of Fr Dalton’s had a longer lifespan. Brian continues: “We won the junior in 1987, the year that I went to America. When I returned, I tried to play out the field but I wasn’t able. However, we were stuck for a goalie. It was meant to be a short-term thing, but I played till 2012. I was 47 then which was a bit ridiculous.”
Reflecting back on Westmeath colleagues from the early-1980s to the early 1990s, Brian picks out footballers such as Willie and Mick Lowry, Seamus Conroy, Michael ‘Spike’ Fagan, Tommy McCormack and Christy Flanagan for special mention.
In hurling at that time, Brian praises Michael and David Kilcoyne, ‘Jogger’ Doyle and Michael Cosgrove. The latter’s disallowed goal against Kilkenny in a National League quarter-final in 1986 still irks those of us present in O’Moore Park.
Guest players in New York who impressed Brian include star names such as Padraic Joyce (Galway), Kieran McGeeney (Armagh), ‘Bomber’ Liston and Ambrose O’Donovan (Kerry).
Dual days over
Brian concedes that the days of the dual inter-county player are all but over. “They are a thing of the past at inter-county level. Realistically, it can’t be done with the demands of the game now. In my time, we trained hard and played hard, but we had a bit of craic as well. The craic has gone out the window now, and huge sacrifices are required.
“Westmeath are putting in a huge effort, but we are a long way down the pecking order. It’s hard to see a breakthrough for us or any other county like Offaly managed in hurling over 40 years ago. You have to hand it to them. Certainly, we are fighting a losing battle. It comes down to playing numbers.
“As regards Dublin in football, smarter men than me can’t come up with a solution. I read John Connellan’s letter, but throwing money at a problem isn’t always the answer. It could be ten years down the road before things change. I can understand why careers are getting shorter. The game has changed - it’s all running now. But it’s still a huge honour to play for your county,” Brian adds.
Brian has served for the past ten years as chairman of his beloved Fr Dalton’s. “I could not manage without Denis O’Roarke and Sean Smyth, our secretary and treasurer. I have managed and coached at underage and adult level, but I am hoping to step back a bit. We are light on numbers in the club as regards people helping out.
“There are some kids whose parents don’t have a hurling background, but we are trying to involve more people. We lost last year’s senior ‘B’ final to Crookedwood, but we’d be hoping as a long-term goal to get promoted and consolidate as a senior club. We have some very promising underage teams. We’re in an U15 final against Na Piarsaigh, if it ever comes to pass because of Covid. It is in limbo. Sometimes we are not strong enough for Division 1, but too strong for Division 2,” he adds.
Brian and his wife Bernadette, from Killeigh, Co. Offaly, will celebrate their Silver Jubilee later this year. “Our first child was born in 1998 and we came home when he was ready to start in national school,” he states. All of his four children are actively involved in sport - Sean (22), Emily (20), Owen (19) and Brian Óg (15).
Indeed, he laughs when he thinks of his kids saying, “shut up Dad, you’re talking rubbish”, when he points out some Gaelic games’ greats on programmes such as ‘Reeling in the Years’ and he says that he played on the same pitches as them! But those of us of a certain age can confirm that Brian McCabe was well fit to compete with the very best.
- Gerry Buckley