GAA Museum Legends Virtual Tour - Joe Connolly
Former Galway hurling captain Joe Connolly discusses:
- How Galway ended 57 years of hurt
- His deep respect for the 1980 Limerick team
- Castlegar verus Ballycastle and Blackrock's club contests
- The brilliance of former Waterford player Pat McGrath
- Why sport is so important
By Cian O’Connell
Few have a better sense of Galway than Joe Connolly.
The 1980 All Ireland winning captain frequently is able to find the lyrical words needed to convey a message about what sport and hurling can mean.
That was most certainly the case on that famous September Sunday, but even now a couple of decades later Connolly continues to stress the value of pride.
“I was always a fierce proud Galwayman, I always felt that as the only hurling team in the west of Ireland we represented something,” Connolly says in a Bord Gais Energy GAA Museum interview.
“You would feel that you are representing something and for the first time in 57 years it was successful. We were able to say to Galway and the west of Ireland, 'yeah, it has come', and it was the start of a decade which made it even more special.
“It became a great decade for Galway, we became the leading county in that decade with the two more that we won. I always felt that we could walk again among the big three. I always felt it was Cork, Kilkenny, and Tipp, and the rest of us. On that day one of the rest of us had our dream day.”
Connolly, though, stresses the respect that still exists for Limerick and how they dealt with that particular loss.
“There has been a lot made of it since because of the occasion and aftermath,” Connolly adds. “If we won on the day, a team lost. I lost the All Ireland finals of '79 and '81, the last thing I ever wanted to be done was to be reminded of it.
“You carry it all your life when you lose an All Ireland. I often felt it was unfair on the Limerick team how much was made of our win because they didn't win on the day.
“I'd have a great respect, I always would have for opponents. With the greatest of respect to a great Limerick team, we never wanted all that was made of it that there was because it keeps reminding you of the loss.”
Following Galway’s dramatic and wildly celebrated triumph Connolly delivered an iconic speech in his native tongue.
With his parents both from Connemara the Connollys conversed as Gaeilge so it was a fitting, gorgeous, and fondly remembered óráid.
“I knew I would say something about emigrants, when I talk about the decimation of Galway and Mayo, the whole communities were decimated in the tough days,” Connolly remarks.
“Often for All Ireland semi-finals and finals before they'd come in great numbers from England and America to watch us and they'd have to head back to their adopted homes with another defeat.
“After that I said Joe you have got to wing it, you have got to make up something and don't let the occasion down if you can. Saying it in Irish made a west of Ireland occasion of it.
“We had prepared extremely well for that game. We had lost probably our star player in the semi-final, Iggy Clarke, he broke his collarbone.
“I remember my words to the team were awful short, two or three sentences because it was all done. If you let it fall on your shoulders, the responsibility, people in Galway had gone through 57 years unsuccessfully.
“We had gone through the decades, gone through the heartbreak, especially the 40s and 50s when great teams were just pipped and pipped. Desperate bad luck, injuries, and whatever.”
The famous green and white jersey of Castlegar will always be afforded respect in Galway. Those fortunate enough to have witnessed Saturday’s County Championship clash against St Thomas’ saw clear signs that Cashel have the potential to deliver on a good stage again.
Despite producing a brilliant display, Cashel were still beaten by the standard bearers Thomas’. Connolly’s grand nephew Oisín struck 2-3 from play, though, with the family still providing hurlers for the progressive club.
“I was born and reared in Ballybrit, Castlegar, that is traditionally the heartland of Galway hurling,” Connolly explains.
“We are the club with the most Galway County Championships. Straight across from our house in Ballybrit was the racecourse where Castlegar trained. So the natural thing was to go straight across the road to watch Castlegar training.
“They were my early heroes, I thought they were giants. It was so easy and so humble at the time as it was literally tog under the stonewall. There was one tiny shed where three or four of them would fit into, but mostly there would be cattle in there during the day.
“In the cottages where we lived our next door neighbours were the Egans, there were Corcorans, and Abertons, they all played for Castlegar. In fact they all played for the county as well. So it was an awful easy affiliation to start hurling with Castlegar and those men.
“Very sadly four or five of them have died in the last year or two. They are all in their 80s now, names I will carry all the way in my life. Unfortunately three or four of them have passed in the last year or two. That is inevitable as time goes on, but they will always be my first heroes.”
His siblings provided Cashel with distinguished service throughout the decades. “John was the eldest of the brothers in our own house,” Connolly says.
“He started behind the goals pucking out to the lads playing out in the field. Bit by bit he got playing with them. I will probably say he was my biggest influence to shape a career or shape an interest.
“He started playing for Galway in 1967, he was 19 or 20 and he became a good hurler from the beginning. He was one of these people, John, he was good at everything. Not that we would be jealous or anything, but he was a boxer, a footballer.”
Galway’s three in a row All Ireland winning football outfit continue to be held in the highest esteem by Connolly, who relished his days in the Eire Og jersey.
“The Galway three in a row team that won the football All Irelands in the 60s, they are my heroes forever,” Connolly admits.
“Nobody will ever touch them in my life. I was seven, eight, and nine when they won the three in a row football in the 60s, and to this day I'm in awe of them, even in their company. John played football with them in the years after.”
Earning an All Ireland Club title with Castlegar, who overcame Blackrock and Ballycastle in the sem-final and final provides further tales of excitement.
Matches were won and lost, but the stories and tales count for so much. “I'm in my 60s now and I have a bonding and loyalty with Castlegar that is as strong as ever,” Connolly acknowledges.
“At the time no Galway club had won an All Ireland since the official competition started in hurling and football.
“I have five sons myself, and my wife Cathy; we went up in the late 80s or early 90s for a week's holidays, and met them all again. Eddie Donnelly, especially, is a great personal friend so we have great contact with them.”
The hurling talk will always be high on the agenda in Castlegar. Connolly will always be a cherished figure Corribside: a Galwegian to the core.