Westmeath’s 2022 Tailteann Cup winning side at last Friday night's banquet. Photo: John McCauley

Unique Westmeath GAA occasion a major success

The lobby of the Mullingar Park Hotel was an extraordinary place last Friday night as the Westmeath GAA community and its associates gathered for Westmeath GAA’s Gala Banquet.

The hotel throbbed with atmosphere and the mood was decidedly positive for the unique occasion when ten sets of hurling medals were presented and seven sets of hurling medals.

County Committee Chairman, Frank Mescal welcomed the invited guests, sponsors, past and present team managers and backroom team members, club members and supporters. The invited guests included the Bishop of Meath, Thomas Deenihan, the Rose of Tralee Rachel Duffy and the Minister of State with responsibility for Local Government and Planning, Peter Burke.

In his bilingual address, Frank Mescall had a special welcome for the successful players, their wives and partners, saying “this night belongs to you.” He referenced the 2008 Division 2 Allianz National Football League champions: “It is brilliant to have you here but there is a negativity associated with this. You should have got your medals years ago. I apologise for that but perhaps the passage of time will make it a more special occasion as it provides you with an opportunity to renew friendships and share tales of your times in the trenches now that life has separated you.”

Two previous managers, Tomás Ó Flatharta and Michael Ryan, received special mention: “Tomás you raised the bar for Westmeath football and I thank you.” Michael Ryan too raised the bar and gave “the players the confidence that they could go on and win through”. “Michael, “you will be forever remembered in Westmeath,” Mescall stated.

The McDonagh Cup victory of 2021 was a disappointing occasion in some ways as the players were denied a homecoming and had to wait for their medal presentation for reasons that are familiar but since then the players have gone on to achieve greater things. “Well done to each and every one of you.”

Dealing with the Tailteann Cup, Frank Mescall praised the manner in which the competition was embraced. “I was dumfounded in Portlaoise when I saw how devastated the Laois players were after losing.” Winning the Tailteann Cup had presented a new challenge to the footballers: “The hurlers have shown the way. We expect more.”

Mr Mescall thanked the clubs for their contribution: “Our future lies with our clubs and I thank you for what you have done for Gaelic games in Westmeath.” The promotional value of schools was also acknowledged and the importance of the contribution of individual teachers was recognized: “Individuals can make a huge difference and please keep up the good work.”

Frank Mescall concluded his address with a presentation that held special significance for him. He explained that when he succeeded Billy Foley as chairman, he planned to honour at his first County Conventions three individuals, namely Paddy Flanagan, Séamus Ó Faoláin and Paddy Collins for their immense contribution to Westmeath GAA.

Paddy Flanagan and Séamus Ó Faoláin had passed to their eternal reward and he succeeded in persuading a “reluctant” Paddy Collins to attend the banquet. As Collins was presented with his award, he received a standing ovation from the 550 or so guests present, an appropriate acknowledgement for his contribution as an administrator and referee to the GAA at county and national level.

Leinster Council Chairperson, Pat Teehan, a candidate to succeed Larry McCarthy as President of the GAA, took time out from a crucial meeting of the GAA’s Management Committee to attend and address those present at the banquet.

The achievements that were being celebrated “did not happen by chance”, Mr Teehan stated, “they happen, because of the dedication and commitment of, not just the panel of players and team management, but so many other people. People who have dedicated themselves to the promotion and progression of Cumann Luthchleas Gael in Westmeath over many years.” The titles collected over the past number of years formed “a list that would be the envy of many other counties and were “a very impressive array of titles”.

The Tailteann Cup winning team of 2022 were praised for the manner in which the players “embraced this new challenge” and applied themselves to the task was a credit to all. The performance of the hurlers during the summer of 2022 gave “hurlers all around the country great confidence, that with the right set up and determination everybody can compete on their day.”

Mr Teehan also appropriately mentioned individual excellence and paid tribute to those who won Joe McDonagh Awards in 2021, Darragh Egerton, Aonghus Clarke, Robbie Greville, Davy Glennon, Killian Doyle, Niall Mitchell, and Tommy Doyle, who was also chosen as the Joe McDonagh Hurler of the Year.

In 2022, six Westmeath players were chosen for the Champion 15 Awards as a result of their performances during the Tailteann Cup campaign and Mr Teehan offered congratulations to John Heslin, Jack Smith, Kevin Maguire, Ronan Wallace, Sam McCartan and in particular Ronan O’Toole, who had the added historic honour of being named inaugural Tailteann Player of the Year.

At the completion of the formalities the most important business of the evening was conducted with remarkable efficiency. The presentation of 280 medals had the potential to be a logistical shambles but with detailed pre-planning the presentation was completed in less than 40 dignified minutes with all players receiving due recognition for their efforts with the Rose of Tralee, Rachel supporting Frank Mescall in the task of presenting the Tailteann Cup medals.

The relaxed professionalism of Newstalk Radio, and Midlands 103 presenter, Will O’Callaghan ensured all went to plan. O’Callaghan conducted brief but incisive interviews with the team managers associated with the various medal winning teams. Tomás Ó Flatharta admitted that his years in Westmeath “were probably the best time I have had in Gaelic football especially my two years with Páidí, they were very special years”.

Ó Flatharta praised Gary Connaughton and John Keane for winning All-Star awards during this time and noted that Dessie Dolan’s leadership qualities were evident from the beginning and, in relation to John Keane, he commented that: “I don’t think I ever saw anyone as committed to getting things right for a game.”

Michael Ryan, with his characteristic good humour, brought a sense of levity to the occasion with his advice to Dessie Dolan “to keep an eye on the hairline now that you have opted for a managerial role.” Guided by O’Callaghan, Ryan stated that the “Westmeath passion for hurling is incredible” but that it was essential that the county maximised its resources.

Stating that he “never enjoyed anything like my time in Westmeath” he also set out a challenge for the future: “Are we going to be talking about this for the next 20 years, or are we going to be talking about the next big win and the next big win.”

Jack Cooney was more philosophical in his responses to O’Callaghan, stating that he “loves Westmeath and always wants Westmeath to do well and wanted to inspire a generation of Westmeath players.” It was heartbreaking to leave but he “was glad to leave the panel in the best of hands”.

Referring to the Tailteann Cup, he explained that the first game was the most difficult after leaving a “losers’ enclosure” in Croke Park, having lost the Leinster semi-final to Kildare.

“Winning championship matches in Croke Park is extra, extra special and in the final, we wished to give the people of Westmeath a good experience on leaving for home.” The “after glow from the win gave Westmeath people a lift and a boost and nothing makes me happier”.

Cooney urged those involved to use the McDonagh and Tailteann Cup wins as “a massive catalyst to bring Westmeath forward.” Similar sentiments were echoed by hurling manager Joe Fortune. The aspiration was to build on what was achieved in 2022 in what will be a challenging year that begins with Walsh Cup matches in January against Dublin, Antrim and Galway. Fortune acknowledged the achievements of Killian Doyle and also pointed out that Tommy Doyle deserves more “recognition for the type of player that he is”.

A special presentation was also made to Jack Cooney by Frank Mescall to acknowledge his achievement in guiding the county to the Tailteann Cup title. Frank Mescall also acknowledged the massive contribution made by Dr Liam Dalton, Dr Jerry O’Flynn and former hurling manager Shane O’Brien who was unable to be present on the night: “You, like Michael Ryan, will be fondly remembered in Westmeath,” he said.

The committee responsible for organising the banquet were also thanked before the night was handed over to Ruaile Buaile who provided the music. The organising committee produced a special souvenir booklet which provided details of each competition and helped to jog memories.

There is no doubt that when the history of Westmeath GAA is recorded, the night of December 2, 2022 will be unchallenged as the greatest social occasion in the association’s history, a unique gathering of the finest hurlers and footballers of the county over a near 20-year span. It was an event that also projected a positive image of the association in the county and an outside observer could have only been impressed by the magnificence of the occasion.