Journey from Donegal to Croke Park for the 1946 All Ireland

Published in Leisure/Sport, Personal History

AS Kerry prepared the 2006 All Ireland final against Mayo, a Donegal man recalled his first trip to a decider 60 years previously which attracted more than 90,000 fans.
John Carlin from The Cross left Donegal for the first time ever to make a daunting train journey from Strabane to Dublin to watch Kerry take on Roscommon.
“The year was 1946. It was an unusual year in many ways, not only did it mark the end of the second world war, it was also the worst Irish harvest in living memory. As a result, the All-Ireland final was postponed until October, the first time ever in the history of the game,” John explained.
John’s father attended every All-Ireland since 1929, however, he fell into poor health that year, so the responsibility of keeping up the Carlin tradition of attending a final was handed to himself and his sister Annie. Both were in their mid to late teens at the time.
“We rose at four o’clock on Sunday morning, had a bowl of porridge and a couple slices of home made bread. It was important that we had a bit of heat in the body because the first leg of the journey was a 17 mile cycle from the townland of Belalt near Castlefin to the railway station in Strabane”.
They landed in Strabane at about 5.30am with plenty of time to catch the Great Northern train bound for Dublin at 6.15am. The train pulled into Amiens Street Station, Dublin at 11.30am.
“Strict instructions were issued to us the night before that we had to attend mass when we landed in Dublin, with the vague directions memorised in my head we managed to make our way to the Pro Cathedral for 12 o’clock mass”.
Having eaten nothing since four we decided to treat ourselves to a cup of tea and a few slices of bread and jam in a little tea house just off the Pro Cathedral street. In case we didn’t get the chance again, we decided to stock up on a snack so we bought a bar of chocolate and an apple each”.
Not knowing where Croke Park was they followed the mass of people until they reached the Canal End entrance to Croke Park and made their way to the packed Cusack Stand. No comfortable seats back then.
“In fact the crowd was so big and as so tightly packed together that I wasn’t able to get my hand into my pocket to retrieve the chocolate or apple at any stage during the game.” John laughed.
Then the moment we were waiting for finally arrived. The players of Kerry and Roscommon made their way onto the field.
“Players who I had pictured in my imagination with the help of Michael O’Hehir as near giants, almost mythical figures of gaelic football, the likes of Dan O’Keefe, Joe Keohane, the great Paddy Ban Brosnan, Eddie Walsh, Frank O’Keefe, all playing for Kerry. And then for Roscommon there were Willie Dolan, Bill Jackson, Casserley, Hoare, Lynch, Big Bill Carlos, the Murrays, Phelam and Jimmy, Donal Keenan, John Joe Fallon and John Joe Nerney. And here I was watching them in the flesh and blood, and the colours, more vivid than we had ever imagined. The Green and Gold of Kerry and Yellow of Roscommon lit up the whole park,” he recalls.
He remembers that Roscommon got off to a good start and at the half time whistle they lead by a few points. This trend continued in the second half, and with only seven minutes left on the clock they lead by six points.
“I remember Kerry getting a free kick about centre field, a high ball into the square and players, keeper and ball all ending up in the back of the net. The come back was on. Gus Cremins and Paddy Kennedy were beginning to win the midfield battle putting huge pressure on the Roscommon defence with their high dropping balls into the Roscommon square. Then with just a minute or so left in the game Cremins gave a mighty leap in the middle of the field, and as they would say at home he “picked one out of the clouds” launched it in on top of the Roscommon goal and to everyone’s surprise it ended up in the back of the net. The Final whistle went and both sides were level, back to fight another day”.
In the stampede to exit the grounds Annie lost one of her shoes, but hadn’t a hope of retrieving it in the crush.
“Of course we were also running late at this stage, so there was no time for a bit to eat, into the pocket for the bar of chocolate and the apple. The chocolate had melted into the wrapper and into the pocket, while the apple had been pulped with the crush of the crowd. Chocolate and apple were both off the menu. The train was pulling out at 6.30pm so there was no time for delay”.
“We boarded the train for home. Unfortunately the train was only going as far as Portadown. There, we had to change from a passenger to a goods train bound for Strabane. The goods train stopped at every train station on its way, so we didn’t reach Strabane until 12.15 that night”.
Because of light restrictions imposed during the war, all gas lights at Strabane station were extinguished, so at 12.15 on a dark October night it was pitch black. Once the dismal light from the train had pulled away they were both left standing in total darkness on the platform.
“A station porter guided us to our bikes with the help of a dimly lit torch. It was so dark we didn’t know which direction to take to get home to Belalt. The porter was kind enough to lead us across “The Camels Hump” Lifford bridge, but after that we were on our own”.
John says that, at this stage, Annie was “far through” and cycling the bike in the pitch dark on her bare feet wasn’t helping matters.
“We headed on and eventually reached the village of Liscooley a couple of miles short of our destination. Unfortunately it was all up hill from here and I knew Annie was getting it tight. Out of total exhaustion she collapsed on the side of the road. She came around eventually but said she couldn’t continue without a drink of water. I remembered there was a field of turnips nearby so I made my way into the field, pulled one of the turnips and back to Annie. I cleaned the turnip on the grass split it on a stone, the two of us ate this good juicy turnip and Annie eventually came around a bit. We picked up our bikes and back on the road for the last leg of the journey home, all up hill for about four mile.
“We landed home about 3 0’clock in the morning, everyone in bed. My Father awoke with the noise of the dog barking and asked: “What happened Roscommon? Why did they let Kerry draw with them and them leading by six points with only six minutes left in the game”.
“Well, that was a story for another day,” John concluded.

Cronan Scanlon is a journalist with the Donegal News in Letterkenny, County Donegal.

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