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"I was in the bar the day after the All-Ireland saying, 'Jesus this has just happened, hasn't it?'

30 years on, Kevin O’Brien recalls the All-Ireland final day when Baltinglass and Wicklow reigned supreme.

Baltinglass All-Ireland club winner and Wicklow's only All-Star Kevin O'Brien.
Baltinglass All-Ireland club winner and Wicklow's only All-Star Kevin O'Brien.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

FOR KEVIN O’BRIEN, it’s been easy to let his mind wander back a few decades over this past while.

Back in January himself and the Baltinglass class of 1990 were feted by the GAA in Croke Park on All-Ireland club final day.

St Patrick’s Day gave reason to pause and reminisce about what their corner of Wicklow had achieved on the 30th anniversary.

And over recent days and weeks, with the rhythms of everyday life so sharply disrupted, there’s been a comfort to be found in nostalgia for the close of the 80s and the start of the 90s when they stepped forward into the Gaelic football club spotlight.

“We’ve a lot of time to do things at the moment,” says O’Brien.

“And thank God for mothers that kept newspapers and stuff. We’re having little trips down memory lane.

“We got a box in Croke Park in January and had a great day. We had everyone there. The one good thing about it is that everyone’s alive. 

“Some of us call it St Con’s Day down here, he (Con Murphy) is the man that got 2-3 that day. It’s 30 years ago but we don’t forget. I know people that turn on the radio on Paddy’s Day to listen to Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh’s coverage of the match, it’s like a ritual.

“It’s small things but a serious GAA community down here, football is very important. We don’t go on about it but we never forget it.”

The context of their success is worth noting. On a county scale, Wicklow football shares that unwarranted distinction with Fermanagh of providing the only two names missing from the provincial rolls of honour.

At club level Baltinglass were the trail-blazers with their Leinster breakthrough in 1989, Rathnew subsequently replicated their feat in 2001.

Still there are only 13 counties where the local kingpins have gone on to lift the Andy Merrigan Cup.

When Baltinglass got their hands on the trophy in 1990, they ensured Wicklow were only the eighth county to supply an All-Ireland senior club football champion.

“I got the feel of the spirit of the place and why in 1990 this club from Wicklow, with no tradition of winning All-Irelands behind it, shone a beacon far and wide for all aspiring clubs,” wrote Jack Mahon in ‘For Love Of Town And Village’, his book that conducted an exploration into All-Ireland club winners.

If their county origins offered an absence of top-level success, the lack of tradition proved no barrier to Baltinglass. O’Brien won his first county senior medal in 1982. He had got called up to the club’s flagship side a week after winning an U16 final.

That teenager would go on to become Wicklow’s most celebrated footballer, their solitary All-Star winner after his exploits in 1990 and later a sideline adjutant to Mick O’Dwyer’s commander role in plotting a magical path for the county through the qualifiers in 2009.

kevin-obrien-and-mick-odwyer Kevin O'Brien and Mick O'Dwyer during the 2009 championship. Source: Garry O'Neill/INPHO

Baltinglass provided a treasure trove of medals. He finished with a set of ten from his forays in the Wicklow club football arena, including eight on the bounce between 1987 and 1994, before provincial and national landscapes were conquered.

Success on the pitch is not the only measurement. They took plenty from that era.

After their day out on Jones Road on the third Sunday of January, the Baltinglass crew stopped off on the Kiltipper Road in Tallaght. There they were hosted by the Thomas Davis club for the night. Between the clubhouses spans a distance of just under 50km along the N81. Over three decades ago they were locked together in a Dublin-Wicklow football narrative that has united them ever since.

They came together for the Leinster senior club final in November 1989. It finished all square, 1-6 apiece. Two weeks later Baltinglass were winners by a slender margin, 1-9 to 0-11, in the replay.

Untitled Source: Irish News Archives

Acquaintances were renewed in the 1990 Leinster decider, two days before Christmas. Another draw, 0-8 to 1-5. Weather scuppered the plans for a replay. Eventually on 27 January 1991, Thomas Davis prevailed by two points.

A quartet of riveting encounters in St Conleth’s Park over the course of 14 months.

“There’s a serious connection there,” says O’Brien.

“There’s people from (Thomas) Davis now living in the Baltinglass area and training teams, they’d have kids playing.

“There’s great memories. We left one Sunday morning to go over to Newbridge to play them and there was unbelievable fog there. We arrived there and it was just a non runner. Our manager Tommy Murphy said that we were going to go home and train for a couple of hours. Like any player you’re mad to get the match going, so heads were down a bit.

“In the car park Paul Curran says, ‘Kevin are ye coming for a pint?’. I said no, we went training. That was the year they came back and beat us. So there you go.

“Another time we went over and it was just an unbelievable wind. The goalkeeper had to get a guy to assist the kickouts. Sometimes the ball went out but lucky enough it went to a replay and another battle.

“You were nearly always marking the same fella. It was just outstanding stuff, you know. Pure football. There was an edge to it, of course there was. But you have to give huge credit to Thomas Davis, they won three-in-a-row back in those times in Dublin and that was some feat.”

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Baltinglass had come close in Leinster before, beaten in a final replay against Portlaoise back in 1985. The pounding at the door ultimately paid off and they emerged in the spring of 1990 facing different and tougher national assignments.

Castlehaven landed in February with Niall Cahalane, Larry Tompkins and John Cleary fresh from Sam Maguire success with Cork the previous September. Regular free-taker Robert McHugh missed out that All-Ireland semi-final for Baltinglass with pneumonia. O’Brien and Tommy Murphy met the day before to devise a strategy for placed balls.

The rain cascaded down the morning of that game but the community all put in shifts in to clear the pitch in Aughrim, the businesses in the town mindful of the bumper crowd that was descending that afternoon. The underdogs chiselled out a 1-5 to 0-6 victory and Croke Park beckoned.

Memories jump out for O’Brien in his recollections of the final. The low-key approach. Spying good luck banners on the road to Dublin from nearby clubs. The pre-match gathering in the Ashling Hotel. The Garda escort to the stadium organised by Seamus Kenny. It all set the stage for their six-point success.

There were two sides to the aftermath.

O’Brien’s reflex response was to sympathise with Clann na nGael. He is drawn to the tale of the Roscommon powerhouse that experienced an unenviable amount of All-Ireland final day suffering, five in total and that 1990 reversal their fourth defeat on the spin.

“I’d played against Tony McManus in (the) Railway Cup and would have to got to have known him and on an All-Star tour as well. Tommy Murphy, our manager and corner-forward, he was in UCD with Tony as well.

“When the final whistle went, it was just mayhem.  I just found myself going to Tony and Tony was on the ground.

“I just said, ‘Tony, what can I say here?’

“And he said, ‘There’s nothing to say’.

“I knew they’d be so upset. That was just a moment between me and him and that was it. 

“I always do think of Clann na nGael. We’ve met them over the years and there’s a good friendship. They’re a serious body of men. What they achieved nationally, okay they mightn’t have an All-Ireland medal to go with it, but to me that doesn’t take away from what they achieved.

“It’s the same with Éire Óg of Carlow. They won five Leinsters and they don’t have that All-Ireland medal but that does not take away from the respect. Players know, they know teams that should have got and could have got but didn’t for some particular reason.”

Source: William Windes/YouTube

It felt surreal to have entered such a privileged winners’ enclosure. The enormity of the feat didn’t dawn on O’Brien until later.

“It was a funny feeling, the minutes after the match the hurling had started (Ballyhale Shamrocks v Ballybrown). After the game we were sitting in the stand, wondering where do we go? What do we do? We watched some of the hurling, some guys went to a pub. We were all in a bit of shock. 

“It was a Bank Holiday. It hit home to us when went into Blessington and Hennessy’s Bar and then onto Baltinglass. It was just amazing to see the buses and the amount of people. They were from everywhere and the goodwill that was there from the families. Special moments, the memories will last forever.

“I was in the bar the day after the All-Ireland saying, ‘Jesus this has just happened, hasn’t it?’

“We didn’t go on about it because it was Wicklow or anything like that. We had won an All-Ireland title, some of our players went to play U21 the next day. You see at that time we were playing county football as well, six or seven of us playing.

“At times during the National League you’d be playing match this week and a club match the following week. That was heavy enough going at the time, we were probably all getting back into training.

“No one really got carried away but we really had a good party.”

Watching Corofin reach incomparable heights in January, the completion of three-in-a-row, reaffirmed to the Baltinglass group how precious their own day of success was.

At a time when GAA pitches are empty and the action has ground to an abrupt halt, the joyful reminiscing is welcome.

“Guys were very loyal to each other, you wouldn’t let them down. Our management as well were ahead of their time. A lot of us are walking injured at the moment, where knees or hips are getting replaced but there’s no one ever will regret what we went through playing football for Baltinglass back in those lovely days.

“You remember the days against Ferbane and Thomas Davis and Longford Slashers, winter days, where you found out the real character of the guy beside you. We wanted it more than anything else. It was nice to see that honoured.”

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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