Sporting heroes come in all sizes and shapes. From the short and portly to the tall muscular athletic figures so beloved of the small screen. True sporting legends are few and far between as distinct from sporting heroes, a more common breed, examples of which are to be found in every village and town in Ireland. Some sportsmen assume their heroic statue by virtue of a cherished victory, a medal won against the odds, but almost always the outcome of youthful admiration which at the best of times can be uncritical and undiscriminating. On the other hand the sporting legend earns and retains the critical admiration of a discerning public. He or she is the true master and one whose feats remain forever in popular folk memory.
Many sporting heroes can be found among the ranks of County Kildare footballers. What young man from Athy will ever forget the exploits of Danny Flood who over a ten year period played as full back on the County Senior team. Danny was a big man, tall, impressively big in bone and muscle, an ideal candidate to man the front of the square. Men like Danny Flood, Kieran O’Malley and Mick Carolan were sporting heroes for anyone who in the 1950’s and 1950’s followed the Lilywhites. They never quite made it to the highest level of public adulation with which would have come the status of sporting legends. That was confined to the likes of Mick O’Connell of Kerry, Sean Purcell of Galway, Eddie Kehir of Kilkenny and Christy Ring of Cork to mention but a few. The name of Kehir and company are known throughout the length and breadth of Ireland, wherever Gaelic games are played and more oft than not talked about. These are the men whose names, like those of their predecessors Mick Mackey and Kildare’s own Larry Stanley are destined to crop up whenever aficionados of Gaelic games gather to talk of their favourite sport.
I was reminded of this when I read of the death of a true legend of Irish Gaelic football, the late Sean Purcell. Strangely he never quite seemed to fit into the gladiatorial image one has of sporting legends. He was of average height, slightly on the heavy side, a most unlikely candidate for football greatness. But despite this Sean Purcell was one of the football greats, a man who graced the playing fields during the 1950’s. O’Hehir, the voice of Gaelic sport for so many years, described Sean Purcell as the best all around footballer he had ever seen.
1956 was the year that the footballing heroes who were the members of the Kildare County senior team brought a Leinster title to the county which had been starved of success for so long. Kildare’s previous Leinster title was won in 1935 and the men of 1956 did us proud when they defeated Wexford in what I remember was an exciting Leinster final. That same year Galway won the Connaught title with a team featuring Sean Purcell and his Tuam clubmates Frankie Stockwell and Jack Mangan. All Ireland semi-final day saw Galway through to the championship final while Kildare succumbed to the skills of the Rebel county. What I recall of the Cork Kildare match is not the disappointment of losing but the distasteful assault on a fallen Cork forward by Kildare defender which resulted in the Cork player being hospitalised with a broken cheekbone. A year or two later in the town of Dunmanway I recall John W. Kehoe calling on the parents of Denis Bernard, the Cork player involved, and acknowledging the disgraceful conduct of the Kildare player. I was with him that day as part of the fund-raising team which spent the summer months of 1957 through to 1960 selling tickets for the car and caravan draws organised so successfully by the Geraldine Park Grounds Committee here in Athy. That defeat by Cork prevented Kildare from facing Sean Purcell and the Galway team which went on to win that years All Ireland Final.
The ’56 final is remembered as the final in which Purcell and Stockwell, both from Bishop Street in Tuam, thrilled the footballing world with an attacking partnership which was hailed as the outstanding feature of football in the 1950’s. Club players for Tuam Stars they were to be forever known as “the Terrible Twins” following their extraordinary exploits in the final of 1956 against Cork. On that day Frankie Stockwell scored two goals and five points and Purcell, regarded as the most natural gifted player of all time, rallied his team-mates after Cork reduced the two goal half time lead to one point with five minutes to go. The Stockwell / Purcell combination spearheaded a talented Galway team which after winning the 1956 final went on to win four successive Connaught titles.
I was privileged to meet Sean Purcell on two occasions. The first time was at the funeral of the later Brother Joe Quinn, a Christian Brother who served in Tuam and for many years, towards the latter part of his life, in Athy. Brother Quinn died in St. Patrick’s, Baldoyle in 1999 and from Tuam for the funeral travelled the former National School teacher, Sean Purcell, who had once taught with Brother Joe. A modest man and a friendly man, Sean Purcell was gracious to those he met, bearing his sporting greatness with the ease of a man who had used his talents for the good of the sport he loved.
I met him for the last time just three years ago on the occasion of the launch of Jack Mahon’s book “Galway G.A.A. in Old Photographs”. Mahon, a member of the 1956 All Ireland winning team is a prolific writer on G.A.A. matters. That evening I met and enjoyed the company of many great Galway players. Men like Enda Colleran, Joe Young, Jimmy Duggan, Jack Kissane, Jack Mahon and the great Sean Purcell. Purcell was a prince amongst men, a football of genius whose legacy to Gaelic sport will live on wherever sportsmanship, footballing ability and commitment to the game is treasured. Ar dheis De go raibh a anam.
Last week I got a telephone call from a lady whose grandfather was a brother of Julia Mahon’s father. Julia, whom we all remember so fondly, lived with her mother after her father and her only sister Nora died within months of each other in 1919. Did they, I wonder, die during the terrible influenza which followed the Great War? Both Patrick Mahon and his daughter Nora, who was 6½ years old when she died are buried in Grangemellon, while Julia and her mother Elizabeth are buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery. My caller was anxious to find out if anybody had a photograph of Patrick and Elizabeth Mahon, Julia’s parents, or indeed of her own grandparents, Michael Mahon and Catherine Nolan. If you can help please contact me.