Johnny McEvoy passed away just weeks after Kildare lost yet another Leinster Final to its near neighbour Laois. A native of Woodstock Street, Athy, Johnny played in goal for Kildare in the Leinster Final of 1938 when the Laois men were victorious. That game was played in Croke Park on Sunday, 7th August 1938 and Johnny died just two days after the 65th anniversary of that Laois victory.
I first met Johnny about 14 years ago after I had started to research the golden years of Gaelic football in Athy. Names of men I had never heard of before were encountered during that research and I was left wondering as to why they had been forgotten. The explanation was a simple one and bore no evidence of anything other than forgetfulness engendered by the passage of time. For as each generation remembers and can recall the personalities and events of its own time, so equally those of another era are laid aside and forgotten.
Johnny McEvoy was an Athy man born during the troubled years of World War I. His father was a local Postman and Johnny’s brother, the late Mick McEvoy who lived in St. Joseph’s Terrace, was also a Postman during his working life. His sister Mary Esther Brophy, better known to neighbours and friends as “Molly”, died in 1945. For young lads growing up in Athy in the 1920’s football and an occasional swim in the nearby river or canal were the only pastimes readily and freely available. Neither activity placed any reliance on class or creed and a willingness to participate was the only prerequisite to enjoyment and the prospect of sporting success.
Johnny McEvoy was obviously a good footballer. He had to be to hold his place amongst the men who made up the town’s Gaelic football team during the decade which brought Athy its greatest footballing success. Men such as Paddy (Cuddy) Chanders, Barney Dunne, Jim Fox, Tommy Mulhall, Mick Mannion, George Comerford and Paul Matthew’s were all county players and they were the backbone of the teams which represented Athy in the 1930’s. The previous decade had witnessed the resurgence of Gaelic football in Athy, due in large measure to Seamus Malone and Br. Egan who were both teachers in the local Christian Brothers School. Defeats in the County Senior Championship Finals of 1923, 1926 and 1927 had damaged the local club’s pride but the will to succeed was never lost. Athy Gaelic Football Club won the Kildare Senior Championship for the first time in 1933 and repeated that success the following year. Johnny McEvoy was only 18 years old when the first senior title came to the town but with the debacle of the “Cuddy” Chanders affairs centered around “Cuddy’s” demotion for the All Ireland Football Final of 1935, Johnny was soon to take over the role of goalkeeper on the Athy senior team. It was in that capacity that Johnny McEvoy lined out with Athy when it faced Sarsfield in the 1937 County Senior Final played in Naas on 17th July 1938. That day Athy won its third title in five years on the scoreline of 3-6 to 1-6. Even before the final had been played Johnny’s goal stopping abilities had come to the attention of the County selectors and he was selected for his native county. His first match was against Cavan played on 14th November 1937 in a repeat of the 1935 All Ireland Final which Kildare had lost. This time the Kildare men were victorious and Johnny McEvoy from Athy kept a clean sheet. Johnny went on to represent County Kildare during 1938 and into 1939 when he played his last inter county match against Meath on 9th July of that year. This was an extraordinary game which was played in Drogheda and the controversy to which it gave rise involved the Kildare goalkeeper, Johnny McEvoy. The game was the Leinster Semi-final and was of particular importance to the Kildare players who had been defeated in the previous years Leinster Final by Laois. In the final moments of the game with Kildare holding on to a one point lead a Meath forward was tripped by Athy man John Rochford inside the 14 yard line but to the left of the goal. The referee blew for a free and as he did the ball was passed to a nearby Meath player who threw it to the net. The Kildare players, including the goalkeeper Johnny McEvoy, protested that they had stopped playing on hearing the whistle. The referee allowed the goal claiming to have played the advantage and then blew the final whistle. Consternation reigned and the Kildare County Board lodged an appeal with the Leinster Council supported by Affidavits sworn by a number of players including Johnny McEvoy. It was all in vain and the appeal was disallowed. That was Johnny’s last game for Kildare as the County Board withdrew the Kildare team from the National Football League and only rejoined the following year’s championship after a narrow vote in favour of doing so.
In the meantime Johnny McEvoy who had been working as a despatch clerk in the local Asbestos Factory joined the Garda Siochana and thereafter his football was to be played in Dublin. Johnny was privileged to work with the great athlete and footballer Larry Stanley and he had the unique distinction of winning a Dublin Senior Championship medal with the Garda team in 1948 to add to the Kildare medal won with Athy in 1937. Johnny also lined out for the Dublin County team on a few occasions. Of all the medals won by Johnny over the years, he once told me that his most prized ones were the minor Street League medal won by him as a member of the Barrack Street team in 1930 and the Midland’s School medal won while playing for Athy Christian Brother’s School.
Last week I attended the removal of Johnny’s remains to Mount Argus and listened while Fr. Ralph who had just returned from Scotland and was about to go on mission work to Africa spoke of his association with the man from Athy. Fr. Ralph spoke of his own tenuous links with County Kildare having as he said a brother who was married to “Jodie Mulhall, whose father Tommy Mulhall like Johnny also played football for Kildare.” When I heard the name Tommy Mulhall my interest was immediately aroused. Was he by any chance the legendary Tommy Mulhall from Athy whose footballing prowess in the 1930’s and into the 1940’s marked him out as the greatest outfield player ever to come from Athy? I spoke to Fr. Ralph afterwards and was delighted to have my question answered in the affirmative. Fr. Ralph may not have known it but Johnny McEvoy and Tommy Mulhall played together on the Athy team which won the 1937 Kildare Championship and were teammates on the Kildare team which lost the 1938 Leinster Final to Laois, and again on that day in July 1939 when the referee’s whistle deprived the Kildare men of a place in the 1939 Final.
Johnny McEvoy was one of a number of past players who in 1990 were presented with honorary membership of Athy Gaelic Football Club and on that occasion Johnny spoke eloquently and with pride on behalf of all the guests. With his former Garda colleagues Joe Hughes and Gerry Stynes, Johnny received a civic reception from Athy Urban District Council in September 1996 on the occasion of the 57th anniversary of their enlistment in the Garda Siochana.
I cherish memories of the various times I met Johnny and the letters which he sent to me from time to time, all neatly written in the copper plated hand of somebody who took pride in everything he did. Johnny McEvoy was proud of his Athy roots and all of us in Athy can say that we were proud of the man, who in his youth helped bring honour to his Club and County.
To his wife Sheila and to his family John, Patrick, Michael, Brendan, Catherine and Marie we extend our sympathies.