Legends: Seán Boylan
Legends: Seán Boylan
By Arthur Sullivan
Some long summer evening when the weather is good, make the time to go to the Hill of Tara to watch the sun set.
When you stand on that ground and look out west to the vast expanse of country under the dipping sun, it's easy to see why this place was chosen as a sacred site by the ancient peoples of the island. It was here that the High Kings of Ireland were once crowned.
"The energy in the place!" exclaims Seán Boylan, as he reflects on one of the most affecting places in his native county. Boylan regularly took his Meath teams to train on the Hill of Tara, as he did to the sea and to Dalgan Park, to give them a sense of sacred ground and the history, heritage and meaning that surrounded them.
"He wanted us to be at that height, training at that height, training in a sacred place," remembers Liam Hayes , a midfielder on Boylan's All-Ireland winning Meath teams of 1987 and 1988. "When you've got someone challenging you to breathe in special air, and to spend time in the sea and the water, then you're doing things that a lot of sportsmen aren't afforded. You're challenged to be aware of other things."
It is to Tara that Seán Boylan traces his roots as a herbalist, all the way back to the tumultuous year of 1798. His great-great grandfather came from Tara to Dunboyne at that time with four of the "original remedies of Tara", and 217 years later, Boylan carries on his ancestors' work at the impressive 'Dunboyne Herbs' farm and clinic, just outside the small town close to the border with Co. Dublin.
When most people think of Seán Boylan, they surely think of him in terms of his management of the Meath senior football team. Managing a county for 23 years, and guiding them to four All-Ireland senior titles in two distinct periods comes to define you, regardless of the other facets of your life.
When you drive down the secluded avenue that leads to the Dunboyne Herbs clinic, the only indication that sport is of significance here is the pristine little pitch on your left, complete with two small sets of GAA posts, and surrounded by trees.
Inside the clinic, Seán Boylan is busy seeing patients and getting herbal prescriptions for people. He has a committed group of staff working with him, and there is a somewhat idyllic feel to the place. Just beyond the clinic is the Boylan family home, and behind that is the farm, where his family have been cultivating herbs, fruits and vegetables for over two centuries.
"Seán knows everything," says Paddy Cullen, the former Dublin goalkeeper and the man who managed against Boylan during the epic four game saga between Meath and Dublin in 1991. "He's a herbalist - he sees it in the grass!
"Seán has a huge background. He's a wonderful man and an extraordinary character. He is an extraordinary character! Unbelievable. If you sat with him for an evening, that man has so many stories to tell. But he produced teams that would kill you!"
From the age of 10, Seán Boylan believed his calling in life was to be a Cistercian monk. As a young boy, he was inspired by the writings of the Cistercian Trappist Thomas Merton, and even though he never formally pursued the monastic life, he admits that his firmly held belief that he would one day become a monk meant "the barriers would always go up" when the possibility for a different life - a married life - presented itself.
It was like that until one day, he experienced something of an epiphany. After the successful recovery of a sick woman whom Boylan had been treating, he called to a monastery to say a prayer of thanks during matins, a form of monastic prayer that takes place before the dawn.
"I went in and the monks were there, at prayer," he remembers. "Suddenly, something just hit me. I need God I thought, but I need God and the world. That settled me. It's funny. I would have had lots of friends and so on but it was just...the barriers would always go up because I was going a different road. I wasn't going to get married. It was 10 years later before I got married to Tina."
Today, Seán has six children with Tina, née Yeats, a native of Dunboyne whose family have known Seán's family for generations. Their youngest child, Orán, turns 12 later this year while the eldest, Seán Óg, is 23.
There is a simple beauty to the story of their eventual coupling. Tina had worked at the Boylan farm for years when she was young, and during that time she became very close to Seán's late mother Gertie, and to Seán himself. They were "just great pals" until one day in the summer of 1990, when Tina expressed reservations about moving to Australia to work as a nurse, Seán offered her an alternative.
"I just said to her: 'sure maybe you can hang around a bit, you might hang around with me?' With that the doorbell rang. It was one of the lads who works with me. A neighbour had died, it was 2 o'clock in the morning and he was really upset and he called up. Two weeks later, I got to meet Tina again and she said, 'Were you serious what you said to me?' I said I was. She said, 'Me marry you?' I said, 'Will you think about it?' So a few months later we got engaged, got married and that was it."
Seán's path to herbalism was also sealed in a similarly decisive instant of conviction. During the early 1960s, when studying Agriculture and Horticulture at Warrenstown College, Séan remembers being startled by the sound of the voice of "the boss" - his father - on the phone. His father, also Seán, was born in 1880 and was 63 when Seán was born in 1943.
"It was the voice of an old man. That shocked me. I thought about things in a way that I never did before. And I looked for permission to use the phone again and I was told I could. I just said, 'Look, I'm not bothered about the exams, I'll come home and give you a hand for a few weeks'. All he said to me was 'very good'.
Seán's father was Brigadier General Seán Boylan. He was a prominent member of the Irish republican movement in the early years of the 20th century, a comrade of Seán McDiarmada and Pádraig Pearse, and a member of the IRA Army Council. He was one of six members of that council who addressed the Dáil six weeks before the start of the Irish Civil War in an attempt to prevent the bloodshed - the only time such an address has happened in the history of the state.
Seán the younger says his father, who died in 1971, only spoke about his past "when the colleagues were around" but he has learned much about him over the years from stories told by old comrades. The glimpses into the world he inhabited have been rendered all the more intriguing by the gradual manner in which they have enlightened Seán.
There are the reminiscences from old comrades, which were still being made to Seán until the last of them died some time ago. There's the letter of recommendation for a pension, written by Seán Boylan senior on behalf of Dan Hannigan, in 1948 - something only discovered by Seán last year. "It started," he recalls, 'I first met Dan Hannigan in Pádraig Pearse's house on January 31, 1916 in Rathfarnham...'"
But there were the occasional revelations from the man himself.
"My sister Frances, God be good to her, when her first child Catherine was born, I remember being stopped at the lights in Rialto, where Dolphin's Barn church is over on the right," Seán said, recalling an incident a few years before his father died.
"Daddy started to smile and I said what are you smiling at He said, nodding towards Dolphin's Barn church, 'I had confession there on Easter Saturday, 1916.' I said 'Go on...'. During confession, the priest said, 'I hear there will be blood spilled on the streets of Dublin tomorrow.' He said, 'that's right, Father. And the priest just said, 'Good luck to you...'"
Seán Boylan with his son Seán Óg after the 1996 All-Ireland football final
Through Seán Boylan flows a dazzling array of stories and anecdotes which touch on a multitude of facets of Irish life. A story told about Gaelic football is very often a segue into a different story entirely, and Boylan's power of recall is quite exceptional.
One moment, he's doing a pitch perfect impression of Charlie Haughey chatting with his father, with whom Haughey's father was a good friend. The next, he's recalling his school days at Belvedere and the time he and Tony O'Reilly - the Irish rugby legend, inventor of Kerrygold, former President of Heinz, global media baron - combined to save the life of a student in serious difficulty at the school back in the 1950s.
But there's still no escaping the football. Back in 1982, Meath football was at a low ebb. Although there was no shortage of talented players in the county - Gerry McEntee, Colm O'Rourke, Joe Cassells and Mick Lyons were all entering their prime - it had been five years since Meath were in a Leinster final, and there was seemingly no-one in the county capable of taking them out of their malaise.
Seán Boylan was a hurling man. Although he had played plenty of football for his club, and a bit for Meath, hurling was, and to this day remains, his first love. He reckons that until Meath's breakthrough All-Ireland win of 1949, hurling had the potential to be as strong as football in the county. Either way, the only sport he was ever likely to be a saviour for Meath in, was hurling.
The GAA had been one of Seán's passions from the early days. "I just loved it!" he says many times throughout this interview. At 17, he was picked for the Meath minor, junior and senior hurling teams in the one year and around that time he played underage football in Dunboyne with many of the players who would go on to feature on the remarkable Kilbride side of the 1960s that went from winning a Junior Championship in 1960 to having won five Meath senior titles by 1971.
When the Meath football manager's job came up in 1982, it was not a coveted position. Seán Boylan, despite his complete lack of a background in football management, was nominated, and due to a lack of interest from the others nominated, he got the job.
"I was never told where it came from," he says, when asked who drove his appointment. He remembers years earlier, when he was a hurler, being asked to take a session by Fr Tully, the former Meath football trainer, on an evening in Navan when both sides were training, and although he had attended a few training sessions in the years previously, when Mick O'Brien and Des 'Snitchy' Ferguson were coaching the team, he admits that the only team he had ever properly managed before was a camogie team.
"As God is my judge, I never had any aspirations," he says. "I never had any. Some people want this job or that. But what got me was that these great men were there and there was nobody within our own county to look after them."
Boylan recalls an initial intransigence from some of the older players on the night of his first training session. But it didn't take long for players to buy into Boylan. Boylan says of his late father: "He had amazing faith in me." The Meath players he inherited quickly found that same faith. His charisma cancelled out his inexperience. On the day in 1983 when Meath beat Roscommon in Navan to win promotion to Division I of the league, Colm O'Rourke said afterwards: "If we have Seán around long enough, sure we'll make a manager out of him!"
There was obvious progress in those initial years. Meath ran Dublin, All-Ireland champions in 1983, close in the 1984 Leinster final and won the Centenary Cup the same year. But 1985 was a bad year. Meath were hammered by Laois by 10 points in Leinster, people passing the dressing room door in Tullamore afterwards called the players "old women" and Boylan was ready to step away from the job. He felt he had done all he could.
Six senior players, Mick Lyons, Pádraig Lyons, Liam Hayes, Gerry McEntee, Joe Cassells and Colm O'Rourke, came to Boylan's house, where he lived with his mother, to ask him to stay on. A revelatory moment came when Pádraig Lyons told Boylan to "put his shyness in his arse pocket."
Boylan says he is of a naturally shy disposition, and that this represented a turning point in his management of Meath. He began to foster a different culture at team meetings - a circle of discussion, of honesty- and he began to properly emphasise the importance of players taking individual responsibility for what they were part of, both for themselves and for the team.
Boylan after the 1986 Leinster final win over Dublin
Meath's Leinster final win over Dublin in 1986 was the big breakthrough of the Boylan era. A 0-9 to 0-7 win in the rain, Colm O'Rourke noted the significance of that day in Liam Hayes' book The Boylan Years: "The success of Meath since that can be put down to that day, as far as I am concerned, because a lot of what happened after that wouldn't have happened if we didn't win that game."
From 1987 to 1991, Meath reached four out of the five All-Ireland finals contested, winning titles in 1987 and 1988, and losing the finals of 1990 and 1991 narrowly. By the 1987 season, a Meath team that Boylan had carefully moulded for five years was finally ready to end a 20-year wait for the Sam Maguire.
"I always remember Pat Reynolds and Tony Brennan, who had won the All-Ireland with Meath in 1967, talking about the dressing room in 1987. They were never in a place as calm in their lives. People were ready, they knew their job, they were prepared for every eventuality, whatever it was."
That calm confidence reminds Boylan of a story he heard about Meath's first ever All-Ireland win, in 1949.
"At half-time in the final, Paddy Meegan, Mattie McDonnell and Kevin McConnell were sitting together at half-time and Frankie Byrne, who was involved with the team, heard the three lads talking," he said.
"Kevin had bought a wagon of cattle in Carnaross on the Tuesday and they were discussing this. Mattie said: "Oh, they were lovely cattle". The boys were talking about a wagon of cattle at half-time in the All-Ireland final! What sort of a confidence must you have in yourself to do something like that?"
Boylan's sense of Meath's history and heritage continued to inform his management of the team over the next two decades.
He encouraged former Meath players, from the 1949, 1954 and 1967 All-Ireland teams, and from teams beyond, to attend training sessions, and he cultivated a wide circle of advisers to assist him with spotting players from all grades of football around the county. One former player, Moynalty's Matt Gilsenan, who played for Meath in the 1930s and 1940s and who died two years ago aged 97, was a particularly influential presence. "Matt hardly ever missed a night," Boylan recalls.
Like Alex Ferguson did with Manchester United and with Aberdeen before that, like Jose Mourinho does with his teams and like Brian Cody has done to an astonishing degree with Kilkenny, Boylan created a "spirit" with Meath, a bond of togetherness, from which the success flowed.
"That's the code," says Boylan. "That's the only way it can be. We trained together, we ate together. Yet so many were so diverse, their views were so different. But when they came together, they came as Meath men.
"But even in championship, nobody ever took things for granted, that they were there. You earned your crust by the sweat of your brow. It was like an unwritten rule that if you started making excuses not to do it, then it became easy, so you wouldn't do that.
"And yet, I remember when John McDermott's mum died, Meath were playing in a Leinster final the following week. I just said: 'Forget about it. Look after John, the rest will take its own place. Everything in proportion, everything in its right place.'"
The immense spirit of Meath under Boylan was obvious. But many felt the teams that he managed to success, both in the early years and the latter years, crossed the line in terms of what was acceptable on the field.
"We learned an awful lot, losing to Kerry in 1986," remembered Liam Hayes. "We learned not just how good they were, but also how hard they were and how tough they were. That year really taught us that we needed to be really brutal, and we needed to be physically dominant with teams, and not just think that we needed to outplay them.
Meath v Mayo, All-Ireland SFC Final, 1996
"Not just to dominate them on the field, with the ball, but also to dominate them in the physical sense. And we overdid that, we became probably a bit too physical. But that was based on the fact that we realised that we had to punish teams."
Hayes says Boylan never commented one way or the other - that he just felt it was part and parcel of the way the game was played at the time at the highest level.
"When you stop and think of some of the abuse that Rourkey and others took in their early years, fellas had to learn to defend themselves," says Boylan. "It was fine the first year you came up and won a Leinster. Then to have the cheek to win a second one and then to win an All-Ireland?
"Suddenly, these fellas had to be taken down a peg or two. You had to learn to survive and that's exactly what happened. Some of the things, sometimes things were very hard on us, but there weren't too many fellas weren't able to go to work the next day. I never got involved in any of that because I knew the calibre of what the boys were.
"Lots of people won't accept that accidents happen in matches and I have seen more lads the last while sent off...any decent referee will know if there is intent. Yes, there will always be people who go on the edge and that's the same in all sports. But they were incredibly competitive times.
"If you stop and think, when Colm won his first Leinster in 1986, he was 30 years of age. He was on the Meath team from the time he was 18. Joe Cassells was there since 1973, Gerry was there from 1975. That's an awful length of time to win nothing. To suddenly find that they could compete and hold their own, thousands could play it but you had learn how to actually compete. It was about survival."
Boylan speaks with immense affection for the players he worked with during his 23 years as Meath manager. He was regarded as extremely loyal by his players. There was never any public criticism, and it's even hard to imagine Boylan berating a player in private, given his kindly manner.
During his time in charge of Meath, Boylan worked with some of the greatest players in the county's history, and his eyes light up with joy when he recalls their talents and the strength of their characters:
Colm O'Rourke: "Big in every way. When the team reached the All-Ireland final in 1987, at that stage, 65,000 was all Croke Park had. There were 12 in Colm's family, most of them were married. His mother and father were alive, and he was married himself. You get four free tickets and you can buy six. Now, how did Rourkey handle that? 'The rest of them are big enough to look after themselves,' he said."
Martin O'Connell: "The man had every skill in the game. Immensely strong, kept himself in amazing physical condition. Ate, slept, drank everything to do with football. He was so cool, so gracious. Martin had everything. Not a blessed thing he didn't have."
Gerry McEntee: "In 1990, he was working as a surgeon at the Mayo Clinic in Rochdale. He came home to play in the All-Ireland final in 1990, he got injured and we lost the match. At five o'clock, where Jim Ronayne's garage was on Jones' Road and where the Croke Park Hotel is now, we had a helicopter there to bring him to the airport. We then had a private plane to fly him back to London. So there he was, at 7pm back working at the Mayo clinic, having lost and being injured in an All-Ireland final that day. That takes some amount of bottle."
That's just three examples. Boylan talks in detail about 35, 40, 45 of his players. He still keeps in contact with them, and they still rely on him for many things, decades after he managed them.
Martin O'Connell and Seán Boylan, 1990
"Seán was a great people person, and he also was an incredibly unselfish man, in terms of his own time and his life," said Liam Hayes.
"So Seán invested hours and hours, not just on the football field and in training, but he invested hours and hours and hours in our homes, visiting us and spending time with us. On family occasions, in good times, in bad times, Seán lived amongst us. He wasn't just a football manager, he was something far more important than that in our lives."
For Boylan, the All-Ireland final defeats of 1990, 1991 and 2001 still reside prominently in his thoughts. He thinks complacency cost Meath in 1990 against Cork, while he still curses the fact that a few weeks before the 1991 All-Ireland final against Down, Colm O'Rourke had pneumonia, and was not able to play a full part in the final, which they almost rescued after being 11 points down at one stage.
The 2001 All-Ireland final defeat to Galway also still stings. Meath never really hit top form on the day, and Boylan remembers what turned out to be prophetic words of his towards the end of their landmark 2-14 to 0-5 All-Ireland semi-final victory over Kerry.
"That was the only day I ever really lost the head," remembers Boylan. "They had lost their complete half-back line, they had lost so many players in the course of the match. And yes, we beat them by 15 points. But, I felt that, as a people, we weren't as gracious as we should have been. I felt there was a bit of sneering and jeering went on, and I hate that, I absolutely hate that. I remember saying to Frank Foley and Eamonn O'Brien, 'we'll pay the price for this.'"
It's 10 years since Seán Boylan retired as Meath football manager. Today, he is 71 but he still has the same energy - both physical and mental - that defined his long reign in charge of the county team. With three of his children still at school, and his herb farm and clinic thriving, he has plenty to keep him occupied.
He still follows the GAA as closely as ever, but the vernacular of Meath football has shifted considerably since he was in charge. There are some things that he would like to see done differently but public criticism is not Boylan's way. "I believe it can come right," he says. That day is still probably a long way off.
Meath football fans, perhaps despairing after their recent defeat to Westmeath, could do worse these days than take a trip up to the Hill of Tara, to the sea at Bettystown, or to Dalgan Park. There, they could remember a time when their footballer kings trained on that sacred ground. They could look into the long distance perhaps, remember the past and dream of the future.
And Seán Boylan would probably remind them gently, that it's about much more than just football anyway.
The Bord Gáis Energy Legends Tour with Seán Boylan and Paddy Cullen takes place this Saturday, July 11, at 12.30pm in Croke Park on the eve of the Leinster Football final. All Bord Gáis Energy Legends Tours include a trip to the GAA Museum, which is home to many exclusive exhibits, including the official GAA Hall of Fame.
Booking for the tour is essential. To book tickets and to find out more about this summer's GAA Legends tour series, visit www.crokepark.ie/gaa-museum
For further information and booking:
GAA Museum, Tel 01 819 2323E: email@example.com or check out www.crokepark.ie/gaa-museumPrices for the Legends Tours are as follows: Adult - EUR15.00, Child - EUR9.50, Student/Senior - EUR11.50, Family (2 adults + 2 children) - EUR40.00