They say that it’s an ill wind that blows nobody good but a bit of bad weather provided a short cut for Derry’s first National title which was the League in 1947, a victory that came via a memorable weekend with this weekend’s opponents, Clare.
On January 19th, 1947 Ireland was invaded by a freakish anti-cyclonic weather phenomenon that lasted for two months. The arctic siege brought freezing temperatures of minus 14° Centigrade, a piercing east wind reaching 60 -70 m.p.h., with five major blizzards, and snowdrifts of 12 to 20 feet, some even topping 50 feet. Cars, buses, houses and entire villages were buried, roads were blocked, telephone and electricity lines felled. Towns and farms were isolated as food and fuel dwindled.
Tragically this happened amidst the worst fuel crisis in Ireland’s history. People were forced to strip wood from their homes and nearly half of all Dubliners were burning furniture to survive. By 19th February 1947, Dublin’s death rate had more than doubled as the poor and elderly succumbed to hunger, cold and illness. On the home front, the Bann and the Foyle froze over and it was a common sight to see children and adults skating on them. In late February the snow fell non-stop for 50 hour!
It all started on January 19th and it was not until St. Patrick’s Day that life resumed to a near normal degree. Some of the huge drifts did not melt fully until mid-May. It will be forever known as the year of the ‘big snow’. Contrast that to one century earlier, to what was known as ‘Black ’47’ the mid year of the terrible 1845-49 famine when Ireland’s population dropped by a quarter with an estimated million dead and another million emigrating. Parents, male and female, were transported to the other side of the world for daring to pluck a cabbage from the rich man’s garden to feed their starving children.
The All Ireland football final between Cavan and Kerry was played in The Polo Grounds, New York to commemorate the centenary of the famine. Many thousands emigrated to America during that time and in many ways helped to shape the future of the country. Cavan travelled by air via the Azores but it still took 30 hours. Kerry travelled by liner and it took a lot longer. Thirty thousand people watched the game in searing hot temperatures with a pitcher’s mound in the middle of the field which was used for baseball. In general conditions were far from ideal for an All Ireland final. Cavan won by 2-11 to 2-7. In the Grand National the bookies cheered home 100/1 winner, ‘Caughoo’.
On the subject of titles and disasters, January 6th, 1839 was the night of the ‘Big Wind’ in Ireland. Hurricane strength winds reached over 100mph flattening all in its path and killing several hundred people. It virtually wiped out the fishing fleet and no doubt contributed to the famine for people along the costal areas who depended a lot on fish for food.
Things rarely happen in isolation and there was a gradual build up to the first of Derry’s six National Football League titles. They had won the Ulster Junior Championship in 1945, followed by Lagan and McKenna Cup success. On the club front Newbridge, Magherafelt, Lavey and Dungiven had very strong teams. Of the smaller clubs Greenlough and Castledawson had some very good individual players. At that time physical strength was a vital factor in the game of Gaelic football and this Derry team had it in abundance. Men like Thomas Edward ‘The Scutcher’ McCloskey from Greenlough, Matthew (Sonny) McCann from Castledawson and big Jack Convery from Lavey could take and give back with interest.
Some of the players in that breakthrough team left legacies for the future. Goalkeeper Charlie Moran’s son, Mickey, coached Derry to an All Ireland title and he is currently regarded as the top coach in the game. Midfielder Roddy Gribbin went on to manage and play with his county in the 1958 All Ireland final. The sons and grandsons of Gribbin’s midfield partner, big Mickey McNaught from the city are now the heart and soul of the Doire Trasna club in Derry’s Waterside area.
Full forward John Eddie Mullan from Gelvin, half way between Drumsurn and Dungiven, had an 18 year career starting with Drumsurn in 1939 and finishing with Dungiven in 1957. He played with Glenullin in 1943 and Magilligan the following year. He came out of semi retirement in 1957 for the last ever North Derry Senior Championship final when his team lost narrowly to Ballerin by 1-6 to 0-6. His county career spanned 10 years finishing in 1955 when Derry lost to Tyrone in the Ulster final. In between he won three Dr. Lagan and two Dr. McKenna Cups medals. At club level he won county senior club championship medals with Dungiven in 1947 and 1951. He was a gentleman both on and of the field and was well known in the hotel trade. His nephew Eunan Rafferty was a regular county player in the ‘80s.
Thomas Edward McCloskey achieved the ambition of playing long enough for Greenlough to line out with his three sons in the early 60s. Seamus Keenan’s son John is the present county chairman and a former member of the Ulster Council. He was on Central Council from 2013 to 2018. The star of a very talented half forward line was Laurence (Larry Higgins) who was ordained to the priesthood in 1952 despite being expelled from St. Columb’s College some years earlier for trying to organise a student strike about the poor quality food. He was then accepted by St. Patrick’s College, Armagh where he won the top honour in Colleges football, a Hogan Cup medal. On ordination he moved to Tampa Bay in Florida where he became chaplain to top US Football club, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He oversaw the building of three churches and in his first parish saw the numbers rise from a few hundred to over 2,000. He became a Monsignor and was part of a delegation sent to Cuba to meet Fidel Castro probably about the number of Cubans living in Florida. Remarkably the communist leader accepted a blessing from Monsignor Higgins.
Then there was Frankie Niblock from the all Magherafelt half forward line and this lineage produced players like Mickey and Hughie Niblock. Corner-back was Joe Hurley, now his son of the same name is Mayor of Edmonton in Alberta, Canada. Eight of that team had sons who represented their county at various levels.
The Ulster GAA Council deemed that the Lagan Cup would be their division of the National Football League. Due to the loss of so many playing dates because of the weather Central Council ruled that the team at the top of each group would play in the National League semi finals. Notably teams like Cavan, Kerry, Dublin, Mayo and Cork had not played enough games to qualify. The four semi-finalists were top of their respective groups when the big freeze hit and none of them were household names.
In those years the National League would have started the previous October and Derry were a growing force at that time. They had an astute manager in Tyrone native and Lavey based teacher John L Fay who was then teaching in Lavey. He had played for Derry in the late 30s and held a number of County Board positions. They were paired to play Longford in the semi-final at Magherafelt, the game attracted a huge attendance. It proved to be a comfortable 2-11 to 2-3 victory on March 30th.
Meanwhile Clare made it through from the other half of the draw to set up a novel pairing for the final. The Banner County beat Wicklow by 2-6 to 1-6 to ensure both Derry and Clare were making their own little bit of history as it was the first National League final to be played on a Monday. It was Easter Monday, April 7th in Croke Park. The attendance was sparse with most of the support from Derry. Those were the days when players provided their own protection and the referee just counted the score. Frankie Niblock, who scored one of the finest goals ever seen in Croke Park returned, to Magherafelt with three teeth less than he left with. Roddy Gribbin, who passed away on in March 2017 at the age of 92, was knocked out for a period by a big Clare fist.
John Murphy the right half-back tells the story that he met a Clare player some years later in New York. Apparently the Derry enforcer Thomas Edward McCloskey mistook the opponent’s backside for the ball and the poor man was unable to sit for six weeks! Contrast conditions that players were accustomed to in 1947 compared to today. There was little organised training and little or no expenses paid for getting there. The only shower you got was one that fell from above. If you were lucky a bucket or two of cold water was provided for the after match wash.
Some of the players made their own way to Croke Park and stayed overnight in a run down hotel where they were nearly frozen to death. Thankfully the weather earlier had got them acclimatised to the cold. Clare led at half time by 1-5 to 1-4. There was just a point between them when Francie Niblock hit that wonder goal. Larry Higgins, later to become Monsignor Larry Higgins, got the first half goal. The ferocity of the Clare tackling did them little good as Pat Keenan pointed six frees.
Derry came from behind on a number of occasions but finished the stronger team, winning by 2-9 to 2-5. The all Magherafelt half forward line excelled with Niblock getting 1-2 and Higgins 1-1. The cup was not there for presentation but was sent up a week later as Magherafelt became the centre of celebration. The team was met by bands and thousands of supporters. There was a ceili held in the town hall in their honour. The players were treated to supper by the Magherfelt Rossas club.
Prior to that game Derry played in red jerseys but for the final they played in white with a red band which is more or less the colour they still use today. Seventy three years on, we cannot forget that history making team which was: Charlie Moran (Glen), Seamus Keenan (Castledawson), Jack Convery (Lavey), Joe Hurley (Lavey), John Murphy (Newbridge), Sonny McCann (Castledawson, Thomas Edward McCloskey (Greenlough), Mickey McNaught (Sean Dolans), Roddy Gribbin (Newbridge), Pat Keenan, Francie Niblock and Larry Higgins (all Magherafelt), Paddy McErlean (Greenlough), John Eddie Mullan (Dungiven), Jimmy Cassidy (Greenlough).
Since that famous year Derry have played in another 11 Division One league finals. This as well as winning Division Two twice and Division Four once. In their 12 Division One finals they have won six and lost six. The winning years were 1947 (Derry 2-9, Clare 2-5), 1992 (Derry 1-10, Tyrone 1-8), 1995 (Derry 0-12, Donegal 0-8), 1996 (Derry 1-16, Donegal 1-9), 2000 (Derry 1-8, Meath 0-9) and 2008 (Derry 2-13, Kerry 2-9).
The losing years were 1959 (Kerry 2-8 Derry 1-8), 1961 (Kerry 4-16, Derry 1-5), 1976 (Dublin 2-10, Derry 0-15), 1998 (Offaly 0-9, Derry 0-7), 2009 (Kerry 1-15, Derry 0-15) and 2014 (Dublin 3-19, Derry 1-10). Derry won the Division Two title in 2013 beating Westmeath. In 2018 they won Division Four with victory over Leitrim.
None of that great 1947 team have survived today but they will always be remembered as the real pioneers of Derry football.