GAA Museum Hall of Fame - John Connolly
By Cian O’Connell
In the west John Connolly remains one of the most adored and cherished Galway hurlers.
Connolly’s career spanned from the grim days of the 60s when Galway endured heavy Munster Championship beatings, to the hope of the mid 70s, and the dashing 1980 breakthrough.
The proud Castlegar club, always affectionately known as Cashel, provided the totemic Connolly brothers, who delivered on so many thrilling maroon and white occasions.
Recently Connolly completed a gorgeous and insightful interview with Anthony Daly for Dalo's Hurling Show on the Irish Examiner Podcast series.
Reflecting on hurling, sport, and life Connolly discussed Galway’s transformation with the pain of 1979 replaced by pleasure in 1980.
“If you think about '79 for Galway players, supporters, and hurling people - we lost the Railway Cup, we lost the National League Final, the All Ireland Final, and lost the Oireachtas Final,” Connolly told Daly.
“For a county and players that were starving for success to lose them all. To lose so much, so often.
“The following year having gone through that desperate year in '79, we won the Railway Cup which we hadn't won since '47.
“Castlegar our club we won the All Ireland Club and we win went on to win the MacCarthy. From one extreme to be in a terrible place to reach the heights that we did in '80 was fantastic.”
In 1981 Connolly stepped away following 14 years on the inter-county beat with Galway. Medals were accumulated, but one memory sticks out from the homecoming in 1980.
“When I finished in '80 after winning, even though I came back the following year for the replay against Limerick, I had a lot of games played,” Connolly reflected. “We were a successful club too so there was a lot of involvement and mileage up.
“In '79 it looked like it was never going to happen to the turnaround in '80 and the relief, it was just fantastic for ourselves.
“To see the all of the joy in our supporters. We would go through the county from Ballinasloe across the county. It was fine when you hit the towns like Ballinasloe and Loughrea, crowds of people.
“Everybody fed off each other. What struck me and what would cut to your heart, there were no mobile phones or way of communicating the team were coming. So hours and hours and hours later they would be waiting for us.
“There was a family out in the middle of nowhere with the bonfire, the father, mother, grandmother, grandfather, and all of the kids on their own, nobody around them. Just on their own wanting to be here to show the team, the bonfire lit as we drove past.
“And we were gone, still they wanted to do it and it just meant that much to them. That would raise the hair on your head to see what it meant to those people. It was fantastic.”
Corribside people frequently wonder what sporting path the Connolly’s might have followed had they remained living in Leitir Mór. Ultimately Castlegar and the Galway hurlers did well out of the family move.
“It certainly would have been different, that is for sure,” Connolly admits. “My dad never saw a hurling match in his life until we left this lovely village in Tra Bhan, Leitir Mor. I was four when we left it, a beautiful village.
“We moved to Ballybrit. Dad had TB, he was in hospital for two or three years, totally isolated as it was at that time.
“We got a little cottage house in Ballybrit and as luck would happen it was right beside the racecourse where our club, Castlegar trained. That is how it started.”
Just over a decade later Connolly made his debut for Galway replacing one of his heroes Jimmy Duggan in 1967.
“I remember my first game in '67, the great Jimmy Duggan was my hero at the time, he was wing back,” Connolly recalls. “Just five minutes after half-time I was asked to go on instead of him.
“We weren't really that well organised and we had a lot of emigration too in Galway at the time. I suppose a lot of counties had it at the time, but some of our great, great hurlers were over in London or New York. We missed them. Training wasn't as organised as it became later so we never did well in it.”
Encouraging signs were available in the 70s, though, as Galway began to show signs of improvement. “The '75 League was huge, that was the start of the breakthrough,” Connolly states.
“We beat Cork in the semi-final and of course the county went wild. Galway people looking for All Ireland tickets was unheard of.”
With the Connollys involved it became something Galway grew accustomed to during the next decade and a half.
The All Ireland triumphs in 1980 were the highlights with John Connolly’s brilliance decorating a rewarding campaign for club and county.