At first glance, it looked like an easy assignment. To look back on 125 years of the GAA in Westmeath and to recall and record the hurling and football high points.
It was not as easy as first thought and, while Westmeath may not have enjoyed success proportionate to the effort involved, there is a fair amount of achievement to be proud of.
The GAA, as we know it, emerged from a famous meeting in Hayes" Hotel in Thurles on November 1, 1884. It was a year later that the infant organisation took its first faltering steps in Westmeath when a club was formed in Killucan, in May 1885, and very soon clubs, or branches as they were called, were flourishing in Athlone, Mullingar, Delvin, Moate, Thomastown, Kilbeggan, The Downs, Rochfortbridge, Cullion and Derrymore.
Challenge and friendly matches were often arranged between the clubs and a desire to bring such games under control led to the establishment of the first Westmeath County Committee in 1891, with Martin McGreevy of Mullingar as Chairman. The new committee met with success, and failure, in its efforts to organise the games and it, finally, ceased to exist only to be re-constituted in 1900, with another Mullingar man Philip Mullally at the helm.
Inter-county championships were gradually taking shape with counties represented by clubs in the majority of cases. Westmeath"s first venture into that "field" was in 1890 when Athlone TP O"Connor"s played Dublin, represented by Isles of the Sea, in the first round of the Leinster Championship, at Clonturk, on August 17. Dublin won, 6-11 to 0-2, and for the next two years Westmeath did not compete.
As the number of clubs in the county grew, some clubs - like Cullion, Rickardstown, Athlone, Mullingar and so on - embraced both codes, hurling and football. It naturally followed that Westmeath would compete in the Leinster hurling competition and their first outing was in 1902. They got a walk-over from Louth in the first round and were beaten 6-9 to 1-5 by Dublin in what was their initial outing.
The early defeats in both codes impacted on the will to continue and what followed was a period of oscillation between the senior and junior grades, with no real success. But perseverance did, eventually, pay off. In 1905 Westmeath junior footballers, with wins over Longford (0-7 to 0-5) and Carlow (1-4 to 1-3), took Leinster honours but there was no All-Ireland series for further progress. Four years later they were back in the final again, beaten 1-10 to 1-3, by Wicklow.
Junior Hurling Success
The junior grade continued to offer Westmeath some semblance of hope with the hurlers qualifying for the All-Ireland final of 1912 only to be beaten 3-6 to 2-1 by Cork. Four years later, they were back in the Leinster Final, failing to Kilkenny 12-2 to 1-1. Not to be outdone, the junior footballers continued to inspire by beating Longford, Louth and Wexford in that order to take provincial honours in 1915. They beat Cavan 2-6 to 0-1 in the All-Ireland semi-final but found Kerry just too strong, 0-6 to 1-2, in the All-Ireland final.
Westmeath continued to ply their trade in the senior competition without making any real impact in either codes and it was left to the juniors to keep the flag flying. In 1929, with wins over Meath, Longford and Laois the footballers were crowned Leinster champions. They went on to beat London 0-9 to 1-2 in the All-Ireland Final proper, to claim Westmeath"s first All-Ireland title.
It was to be seven years (1936) before Westmeath tasted further success and, this time, it was the turn of the hurlers. They beat Longford, Dublin, Meath and Laois to take the provincial title, beat Antrim, 9-4 to 1-3, in the All-Ireland semi-final and then Waterford, 2-5 to 3-1, in the All-Ireland final.
The achievements of the juniors seemed to spur the seniors to greater effort and the following year they contested the Leinster senior hurling final for the first and, indeed, last time. Meath, Offaly and Laois fell to them before they met Kilkenny (who else?) in the final and the black and ambers proved too strong, winning 5-3 to 2-4.
Since 1937, Westmeath hurlers have continued to labour without any great success at senior level. Yes, they did win "B" Championships, Christy Ring Cups and various other secondary competitions but, so far, have been off the pace when it comes to the big one. Undaunted, they continue to pursue the dream, fulfilling their role of playing and promoting the game throughout the county and this will continue despite the setbacks and the disappointments.
The junior grade did compensate, to some extent, in 1963 when they, again, took provincial honours. They beat Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final but fell to Antrim, 8-8 to 6-3, at the final hurdle. They were in the Leinster final again in 1986 but Kilkenny took the laurels, 2-18 to 0-6. That was to be Westmeath"s last outing in the junior grade, a grade that was both rewarding and disappointing in equal measure ... or near enough.
If the junior hurlers signalled some success in 1963, then so did the footballers who also reached the Leinster final but failed to match Wexford, 0-14 to 1-6. Five years later they were back in the final again, drawing with Laois, before losing the replay 0-9 to 0-4. Participation in the grade was, to say the least, erratic after that and the year 2001 ended Westmeath"s contribution to a grade that, like the hurling, had been relatively productive.
In dealing with inter-county activity, it is easy to forget that club affiliation was increasing in the county, as clubs established themselves and provided facilities that are admirable and, all in all, making a valuable contribution to the day to day running of the Association in the county over the years. County teams may be the "shop window" so to speak, but it"s the clubs that keep the conveyor belt moving, providing the material to make the shop window viable and attractive.
One must also remember the tremendous voluntary effort of so many club members in the many facets of club activity. They are the unsung heroes of the now giant organisation that is the GAA of today, 125 years after that historic meeting in Thurles.
Leinster Football Finals
But back to the inter county scene. If winning a junior final propelled the senior hurlers to a first ever Leinster senior final, then it was something the same for the footballers. Junior All-Ireland honours in 1929 were followed, two years later, by Westmeath"s first appearance in a Leinster senior final. Wins over Kilkenny and Dublin put them into the last decider, but Kildare took the title, 2-9 to 1-6, and Westmeath went back to the drawing board - a board that did not offer any measure of achievement until 1949 when they contested their second senior final against the "old enemy", Meath who, on their way to their first All-Ireland success, took provincial honours, 4-5 to 0-6.
The famine continued, with many false dawns, until the year 2004 when Westmeath, finally, hit the jackpot, capturing a first ever Leinster senior title, hurling or football, with a two points win, 0-12 to 0-10, in a replayed Leinster football final. They had already beaten Offaly, Dublin and Wexford before drawing with the O"Moore men, 0-13 each, and under the guidance of Kerryman, Páidí Ó Sé, ended the long wait ... a glorious and unforgettable moment. Joy unconfined.
The history making team was Gary Connaughton (Tubberclair), James Davitt (St. Loman"s, Mullingar), Donal O"Donoghue (Mullingar Shamrocks), John Keane (Rosemount); Michael Ennis (Ballinagore), Damien Healy (St. Mary"s, Rochfortbridge), Derek Heavin (Castledaly); Rory O"Connell (Athlone), David O"Shaughnessy (Garrycastle, captain), Brian Morley (Mullingar Shamrocks), Paul Conway (Tang), Fergal Wilson (Tubberclair); Alan Mangan (St. Malachy"s), Denis Glennon (Tyrrellspass), Des Dolan (Garrycastle). Subs used: Joe Fallon (Athlone), Shane Colleary (Mullingar Shamrocks) and Gary Dolan (Garrycastle).
The Underage Scene
In dealing with the success, or lack of same, at senior and junior inter-county level, one must not, indeed one cannot, forget what Westmeath achieved in the under-21 and minor grades. Inter-county minor competitions began in 1928 and the "maroons" could be said to be loyal competitors in both codes without any signal success until 1939 when the minor footballers stormed past Offaly, Kilkenny and Longford before meeting Louth in a final that Westmeath won, 1-2 to 0-2. Monaghan proved too strong in the All-Ireland semi-final, 0-5 to 0-1.
Twelve years on (1951), Westmeath had another Leinster final appearance with Louth the masters, 3-9 to 2-5 - a disappointment that was forgotten a year later when Leinster honours were nailed down with a 3-14 to 3-3 win over Wicklow. The next step was one too far and Cavan (3-6 to 1-10 winners) went on to contest the 1952 All-Ireland final, unsuccessfully, against Galway.
Recovery from the Cavan defeat was slow and it was a full eleven years before Westmeath lorded Leinster again, beating Dublin, 2-14 to 3-7, in the final. The Lake County defeated Down (3-9 to 0-8) in the All-Ireland semi-final but fell 1-10 to 0-2 to Kerry in the All-Ireland final. Leinster final appearances in 1982 and 1984, both against Dublin, brought no joy, neither did 1992 when Meath were masters in Tullamore.
Minor & U21 All-Irelands
All was forgotten, and a lot forgiven, three years later when Luke Dempsey steered Westmeath through the minefield that was Leinster and a 1-10 to 0-9 victory over Laois in the final, which went to a second replay. A win over Tipperary (1-14 to 0-10) in the All-Ireland semi and it was Croke Park on All-Ireland final day and a 1-10 to 0-11 win over Ulster kingpins, Derry to claim a long awaited and thoroughly deserved All-Ireland title.
Five years later, Westmeath claimed another Leinster minor crown, 2-9 to 0-10 victors over Dublin, only to fail by a point, 0-7 to 0-6, in a replayed All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo, in Carrick-on-Shannon.
Overall, it could be said that the minor footballers paid their way and, with even half a smile from Lady Luck, now and again, might have reaped much richer rewards.
Minor hurling brought nothing in the main championships but there was a lot of rewards in "special" competitions, rewards that were satisfying on the day but did nothing to ease the ache for even a place in a Leinster final proper. There was a close call ten years ago when Kilkenny came to Cusack Park for a Leinster semi-final and considered themselves lucky to escape with a narrow 1-7 to 1-5 win.
The under-21 championships, in both codes, began in 1964. While the hurlers bagged their fair share of "special" awards, the footballers had to wait until 1995 to reach the last two in the province with Offaly carrying the day, 0-14 to 0-8. Two years on it was Meath, 1-11 to 0-7, at the same stage but, two more years, and with Luke Dempsey at the tiller, the good ship Westmeath took All-Ireland honours when they beat Kerry 0-12 to 0-9 in a memorable game in Limerick"s Gaelic Grounds. More joy unconfined.
Westmeath successfully defended their provincial title the following year with a narrow 0-7 to 0-6 win over Meath but surrendered their All-Ireland title when Limerick beat them, 1-8 to 1-6, in Portlaoise.
It is, I think, fair to say that Westmeath has enjoyed a reasonable amount of success in football at underage level, but the disappointment has to be in the area of minor hurling where odd flashes of hope brought no real rewards. The dedicated few will continue their efforts, because they love the game and hopefully the God that controls hurling will smile in their direction, some day. The sooner the better.