Mega Drop Down Menu

The Past Master

GAA Feature/Mick Heaney of Garrymore
Interview by Mike Finnerty
The Past Master

LONG before ‘The Sunday Game’, commentaries, interviews and sports supplements there were men like Mick Heaney from Garrymore. Strong, hard, tough men who played football like a whirlwind every Sunday and went back to the farm until the next match rolled around. Pioneers of the GAA. Soldiers of the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s. Men who remember patching punctures on footballs so that the game could go on; sharing a bicycle with a team-mate so that a team could be fashioned for an away match in Brickens and welcoming strangers into a dressing-room in order to win a County Final. Innocent days when rules were not so much bent as broken. At least some of the time.

Last Friday night Mick Heaney returned to Garrymore and was given a warm reception. He was one of thirty members honoured for their contribution to the South Mayo club during the past fifty years. He was also one of the most popular. In Garrymore, Mick Heaney is more than just a face on a photograph and a name on a piece of paper. And rightly so. He is a legend of his era.

Mick was 81 two weeks ago. He played with his native club in four decades and managed them as well for good measure. During a successful career he also played minor with Kilmaine and won a Connacht Colleges Senior ‘A’ medal in 1939 with St. Jarlath’s, Tuam. Sean Flanagan and Johnny Mulvey were among his team-mates at his alma mater. He has stories, which you wouldn’t believe.

It is a windy day in Turloughmore, Galway when we sit to talk. Mick moved here 38 years ago but hasn’t missed a Garrymore championship game in all that time. His heart and mind have never left home.

We begin by reflecting on the early days; so early that Garrymore and Hollymount men all togged out in the one jersey. Playing football was all that mattered. And these fellas could play.

“We used to win the South Mayo Junior Championship nearly every year in the 40s,” recalls Mick. “The Hollymount lads were all playing with us that time — Jack and Val Heaney, the late Paddy Joyce, who was a hackney man and Paddy Quinn from the Post Office in Lissatava, he was a smashing footballer. Pat and Willie Varley were on that team too and myself and my brother, Paddy Joe. I played mostly in the half-back line, right or left half-back. My job was to just keep going. That time it was strong, tough football. Today the teams would walk rings around the lads but it was tough going that time. We got on very well ourselves and Hollymount. They played with us and we’d play with them.”

In those days most battles were raged in the South against Mayo Abbey, Kilmaine and Ballinrobe. Off the field, Tom Murphy, Gerald Heaney and Petie O’Toole picked the team and gave the instructions. On the field, Mick Heaney was the man who offered the inspiration. Everyone did their bit. “Garrymore were always a good club,” says Heaney. “I remember they used to buy beer for the lads after a match and we’d have it in the pub afterwards. We had no home pitch but we played everywhere. We wouldn’t train much but whatever we would do was in a field we had ourselves. We’d just kick football and keep at it for a couple of hours. That time Fr. McEvilly was the Chairman of the Club and Tom Murphy was his right hand man. We were all good friends.”

Mick Heaney talks about the past like he played his football; straight, honest and no holding back. We stumble across a story of an O’Mara Cup Final that was contested way back in the midst of the 40s. It is one worth recounting but Mick tells it best.

“Seamus O’Malley was refereeing an O’Mara Cup Final between ourselves and a Factory team from Claremorris in Malachy Forde’s,” he begins. “He sent off Petie O’Toole. Henry Dixon and myself. But when I was put off I said: ‘Give me that ball. I bought it yesterday evening in Claremorris so go now and ref the game’. I took it, and went out and sat down on the sideline watching them. They had no football and I wouldn’t give it to them. I got plenty of encouragement not to give it to them. The match was abandoned. I’d paid 4 10 for it the evening before.”

Those who know Mick Heaney believe this story best captures his legacy. He wore his heart on his sleeve and it was never any other way. In ‘The Garrymore Story’, a booklet which chronicles the history of the club, Declan Heaney gives us another glimpse of this character. Mick’s old friend, Jim Mannion was the man entrusted with saying the prayer in Garrymore’s dressing-room before every game. This consisted of the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory, followed always by the final blessing. Declan writes: “After the pre-match speeches a young eager Garrymore player, in his enthusiasm, made a dart for the door. He was suddenly halted in his tracks by the legendary Mick Heaney — “Get back. Better Garrymore players than you have said the prayer.” Enough said.

As the rain hammers off the window, Mick Heaney leans forward, scratches his head and tries to recall how the prayer started. “I’m not sure exactly,” he says after a pause. “A lot of players were getting hurt I think and Sean Prendergast mentioned it first. He used to work up in Ballinasloe for a farmer and the team he played with up there used to say a prayer too. Jim Mannion would say it for us and every one of the lads would go down on one knee. I don’t know if they do it anymore. But I remember playing a match up in Kilmaine one day and one of the lads was late and missed the prayer. God, didn’t he break his collar-bone after tripping himself.”

During our conversation, Mick lists the players that he admired — both then and now. Declan Meehan caught his eye this summer but the heroes of yesterday are fondly recalled. “Paddy Prendergast was a smashing footballer and Sean Flanagan was very good too,” he says. “I remember in 1955, Mayo against Dublin, Kevin Heffernan brought Paddy Prendergast out the field and thought he’d make a fool out of him. But sure Prendergast was a born centre-field man but the Dubs didn’t know that. I often saw him playing at midfield for Ballintubber. Tom, his brother, was a great footballer too. For Garrymore, Danny Dolan was outstanding but so was Billy Fitz, TJ Farragher, Mattie Walsh and Martin Fitzpatrick. Martin was brilliant.

Mick Heaney won his last medal with Garrymore in 1961 one year after his fortieth birthday. It was a South Junior Final. By that time Hollymount had gone their separate way and games with them brought out the best in everyone. Heaney was no exception.

“We played them in the week evenings up in Paddy Curran’s Field in Kilmaine. We had a few imported players too,” he chuckles. “It was hard football. There’d be no backing. Hollymount had a fine team that time: Tom Fahy, Robbie Fox, George Fair, Tom Morley, John Morley, Noel Mongan…The crowds were huge that time, men and women roaring and shouting. The history and the rivalry is there all the time. It’ll be there for the League Final too. Wait ’til you see.”

And what would a player who was marked by Mick Heaney say now, all these years later, about their tussles. “He’s say he was alright,” smiles Mick. Most would agree. A great man who had a great story.

Published October 2001 by Mike Finnerty