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‘My heart was broken by the All-Irelands we lost’ - Jim Carney’s long life in GAA

Jim Carney chats about presenting The Sunday Game, Galway vs Kerry and caring for the GAA.

Image: Tom Honan/INPHO

AFTER THE LORRY veered and ploughed directly into Jim Carney’s car, he lost swathes of his memory. There was extensive physical damage, obviously. Fractures to his right knee, thigh bone and elbow. His chin was scarred, and arthritis haunts him to this day.

Mentally, it was devastating. Disturbing. He was in and out of hospital for the guts of a year. It is also the reason why Kerry football holds a special place in his heart.

Carney was the first presenter of The Sunday Game. He is Milltown bred and stone mad for GAA. He stands in the foyer of the Claregalway hotel not far from where that life-altering crash occurred, with a sleek cane and wide smile. Make ready for endless tea and chat.

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Ask the association’s manufacturing plant for a well-informed and sociable character capable of discussing every degree of the game and they’d churn out Jim Carney. A treasure who fills the tap talking life and death and the GAA. He is intimate with it all.

In over four hours of more or less uninterrupted prose, he will break all three down to their basic elements and construct a monument to rich memories that could fill a book.

But first, his grá for Kerry.

“I liked that team anyway,” he explains of the 1970s outfit. “I drank with Ger Power occasionally and we’d great fun, but only in the off-season. When it got serious, they were head down. We had some great nights at the All-Stars. It would start in the middle of the day and go into the next. It was a wonderful time.

“I remember Fan Larkin from Kilkenny was with us once. We were there until the next morning. I didn’t even use the hotel room upstairs. Walked straight out at 7 in the morning. I remember Fan sang a song called the Northumberland navvy. Someone said to him, ‘here is there much more to go? ‘

“’Yep. Another 27 verses.’ What a character. He was just enjoying life.

“I got to know them well. I got to know Ger O’Keeffe and stayed in his mother’s B&B. Then I had my accident and it nearly killed me.”

After a few days, he was moved from Galway’s Regional Hospital to Merlin Park. Carney commentated live on the 1978 All-Ireland hurling final a few weeks previously. He watched the football on an undersized TV, propped on a stand in the corner while he drifted in and out of consciousness.

Big Tom Byrne of Kiltimagh scored two goals to down the Dubs in the minor final. Famously, Mikey Sheehy chipped Paddy Cullen in the senior. He has fleeting recollections of both.

“Around that time, Con Murphy the former president of the GAA wrote me a beautiful letter. What a gentleman. I was very down after the accident. A week later I got a get-well card in the post with a pile of names on it.

“Loads on the front and the back. I counted them up, 40 signatures. All different scrawls and biros. It wasn’t one man writing them all. It was the Kerry panel.

“When I did the Sunday Game as a presenter in ‘79, I had to get a different desk because I had a full-length steel calliper in my leg. I commuted to do that programme by train because I couldn’t drive. Later when I got back up and running, I realised there were 39 Kerry player signatures. Not 40.

“The other was Tom O’Riordan, the great journalist who died recently.

“He did it with the intention. He bought a card and brought it with him. He went around the dressing room afterwards. Tom told them what happened and they all signed it.”

mick-kennedy-and-ger-power-1984 Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

In a conversation with Carney, each topic is just one twist in a labyrinth. He moves from this point through ten others, before seamlessly returning to the start. That post-final dressing room, where they celebrated, a column idea on where the various victorious counties partied, Seamus Heaney’s thoughts on the matter, why Paudie Lynch was an unheralded player on that great team, his one interaction with Lynch, and back to the letter.

“I moved house a few times and was worried I had mislaid it. Thankfully, eventually I found it. I cherish it so much now. They are legends.”

Carney was made for the big stage. In the 1970s, he made his way from The Tuam Herald to the Irish Independent and on to RTÉ. He worked too hard. He never worked a day of his life. It was his passion and his profession.

During the dawn of The Sunday Game, a crew would reconvene in Maxwell Plum’s nightclub post-programme. Mike Horgan, the brains behind the show, would inevitably be driven away by incessant arguments over who was the better midfielder, Jack O’Shea or Brian Mullins.

“Great music, loads of craic, and we were stuck in the corner arguing about Kerry and the Dubs until 3 in the morning. A grand party all around while we were stuck in our little corner drinking wine and eating steak sandwiches.”

He is simultaneously nostalgic and anti-sentimental. Make no mistake, when what is now the GAA’s flagship programme first started broadcasting, they were not welcomed. Television was viewed as a dark incursion. For decades there had been one controlled message with limited scope. Now there was a conversation involving the nation.  

Some of the GAA’s administrators were sceptical. There was no appreciation of where the game could go.

“I’ve dealt with a desperate bunch at times. There was a huge anti-RTE thing. I was there at the start of the highlights programme. They had no vision. It is hard to explain, they never trusted RTE. They should have used them from the start. They gave away their product, to use that awful word, for nothing.”

Let’s take another detour. This is a conversation with Jim Carney after all. Milltown is a border town in north Galway and he has always maintained a soft spot for their near neighbours.

“I hate the way that has gone, the ongoing mockery of Mayo. It turned vicious a few years ago. It was a friendly healthy rivalry down the years. Great Galway footballers combined with great Mayo footballers to win Railway Cups in the competition’s heyday.

“I didn’t go to Jarlath’s, I went to the CBS over the wall. We won a B which was amazing, but we couldn’t beat Jarlath’s. They were all Mayo and Galway lads. There is a Milltown in every county in Ireland.

“Even though I cycled to Tuam, a lot of players including Gay McManus, who was a great player in the 1980s and nearly denied Offaly in the All-Ireland semi-final. If he did 1982 Seamus Darby wouldn’t have been heard of! Anyway, He went to school in Claremorris.

“Jarlath’s played Colmans in Claremorris, deadly rivals. In Milltown, we had three players on Jarlath’s and two on Colman’s. In 1978, those three won Hogan Cup medals. In ‘77, the other two won. Five Milltown players won Hogan Cup medals back-to-back.”

Milltown people shopped in Claremorris. They drank in Ballindine. They read the Tuam Herald or the Western People. They had more similarities than differences. Then it started to change. Off the field, that area of Galway was decimated by urbanisation. On it, there was Andy Moran’s infamous fist-pumping celebration into the Pearse Stadium stand which Carney suggests was to do with his return from injury rather than gloating.

“It was a cultural thing there. When I was young and mad, I seldom went to a dance in Tuam. One of the few times I did, I stole a bicycle because I had a date. Sin scéal eile.

“We were small farmers. I would walk with my father to fairs through the night. We went to fairs in Dunmore, nine miles from Milltown. We went to Tuam and all the fairs in Ballindine. Walking cattle to the fair, I got to know Ballindine. Moran’s was an eating house there, pronounced as an ‘ateing house.’

I was appalled when that friendly rivalry died. It turned sour really some years ago. I’ve friends who mock them mercilessly now.”

Carney continued to work for RTE throughout the 1980s, reporting from the sideline and conducting post-match interviews. He was labelled the kiss of death. If he turned up in your hotel post-All-Ireland final, it meant you’d lost.

Throw a ring around his small town in North Galway and it’d capture a seismic chunk of football royalty. Not just a haul of All-Ireland medals, the men who discuss the men were raised there too.  Michael Lyster hails from 14 miles up the road. He took charge of The Sunday Game in 1984 and stayed for the next 35 seasons.

JCARNEY

Even after he finished presenting, Carney was still there, on the road grafting as hard as ever. The GAA’s long river brought him around the country but Galway was at the source. His heart eventually pulled him back and he finished his career as sport and agricultural editor of the Tuam Herald. An unashamed obsessive, who knows the myths and reality of the county.  

Sunday’s clash sees two sides whose constant ambition and self-invention seemingly mirror each other. Two of the top three most successful ever. In the build-up he has heard the talk about the canonised Galway football culture. Carney challenges it.

“I am hugely interested in Galway football heritage. I know how good the teams of ‘34 and ‘38 were. The 1938 team beat Kerry after a classic draw, won the replay.

“They are among the greatest teams who played football. I don’t like when people say it was terrible, kick and rush. Looks bad on grainy black and white footage. I don’t accept that at all actually.

“The three-in-a-row was a huge time in my life. I was 14 playing juvenile and minor because we didn’t have enough subs. I got to know them all. I was at funerals of too many of them. They lived different lifestyles and loved each other.

“But I do not believe in this thing about the Galway style. I just don’t. Attacking play? It doesn’t stand up. No one can verify it. The great Kevin Heffernan said it years ago in the Tommy Varden documentary.

“Go back through all the All-Irelands won. I dismiss 1925, I think it was bogus. There was skulduggery there and it should be dropped from the GAA records. Galway always had several great defenders. Great unheralded defenders. In 1998, people talk about Ja in the second half. Donnellan. PJ’s goal.

“What about Tomás Mannion? We’d never have won it without Mannion. Held Martin Lynch scoreless. Held Joe Brolly scoreless. Brolly said one time that he was very proud of holding Mannion scoreless!

“Of the three in a row team, one of the most worshipped was full-back Noel Tierney from Milltown. We had Martin Newell, the flying doctor. Mayo had their famous flying doctor and we had ours. Martin came from Germany. A superb defender. We scored one goal across the three-in-a-row finals. This idea does not stand up. It is a label but not reality.”

He knew those players. Some personally, others publicly. Tierney was a colossus in his life even though he hardly knew him. They were separated by eight years. They lived in the same town but on opposite sides of the parish.

The journalist remembers what it was like to walk around the town agog as giants of the game roamed the street. He admired them and felt for them. When the footballers lost three of four finals in the early 1970s, the disappointment was crushing.

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That sentiment mixed with a personal loathing for caring too much. Tuam’s Jarlath Canavan was a personal friend. He lost three finals in a row in the 1940s and Carney knew how that could hurt.

He watched the hurlers fall at the final hurdle in ‘81, ‘85, ‘86 and ’90. He was cut to the core. Lonely long September Sunday nights journeying home from Croke Park through Kinnegad, Kilbeggan and bumper-to-bumper traffic in Moate became all too familiar. 

jimmy-barry-murphysylvie-linnane Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

It couldn’t go on. It shouldn’t mean this much.

“I’m a softie at heart. A few things happened. My heart was broken by the three All-Irelands we lost in the ‘70s. 1973 no complaints. Jimmy Barry’s goal was a brilliant score. I really felt sorry for them.

“I then felt worse after the ‘86 and ‘90 hurling finals. That was heart-breaking. We are blessed in Galway with the three JCs. Joe Cooney was one of my idols. I think I took that 1986 game very bad.

“I loved those hurlers. Pete Finnerty, McInerney. I was too close but I loved them as people and watched them suffer shocking defeats. I was unofficial PRO in’ 83. It was getting too personal. I had to switch off emotionally.”

There was no balance. On January 2, 1990, he gave up drinking. It was time to dial back. He did, eventually. But there were tolls and levies to be paid along the way. Subsequent glory was like a pain killer. Brief relief on top of underlying suffering.

You never replace your first heroes. Carney was delighted for the 1998 and 2001 successes, but it is noticeable that he discusses them through the prism of what came before. They are his true glory days. Even nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

“Did you know Ja idolised Seán Purcell? Actually, there is a wonderful photo of three of them. Tommy Varden the sponsor is in it, he loved Ja. Purcell wearing a maroon tie, He was actually buried in his maroon tie. That wasn’t an actual photo at all. It was a screengrab from A Year ‘Til Sunday.

“I had an all-consuming worship and love for them really.”

AYEARTILSUNDAY Source: A Year 'Til Sunday

That is why he is writing a book. The history of Purcell and Frank Stockwell. If he doesn’t, no one will and it has to be done. Purcell was ‘the master.’ Picked at centre-forward on the GAA team of the century.

It is four years in the process. He started Pre-Covid. It has taken him up and down the country, down countless rabbit holes and through various family trees. Following Purcell’s mother’s bloodline led him to Ciarán Kilkenny, ‘a gentleman,’ and camogie great Niamh Kilkenny.

Proceeds will go to Tuam Cancer Care. “I’ve gotten enough out of life. I am comfortable,” he says with arms wide.

Carney’s nephew is Second Captains co-host Ciarán Murphy. In the aftermath of the 2022 league final, Murphy suggested that there is no real consensus on the greatest footballer of all time, before predicting David Clifford will be the one. This book is about reminding people about the god of yesteryear.

“Could Clifford become the greatest player? Consider Purcell just for a second. Heffernan said he was the greatest. He won national finals, Hogan Cups, All-Ireland finals, semi-finals in Croke Park. He played full-back, midfield, centre-half forward and full forward. The only one missing is centre back.

“His second county title victory for Tuam he won in 1952 at centre back. He won a Hogan Cup at midfield. In the 1960 semi-final against Kerry, he went out in full-back. He beat Cork at centre-half forward. Would David Clifford do all of these things? Now he doesn’t have to do it. I accept that. But Purcell did it, he performed in every role, and he did it because he had to.”

Carney turns 73 next February and has missed out on the last three All-Ireland finals. He will go on to the final on Sunday for several reasons. He is proud of these players and management. He saw them all develop from acorn to tree. Now it won’t ruin his year if they lose, although he knows what a win would mean to the county.

 Most importantly, they are the heroes to his hero.

“I am going even though I don’t like to drive. My arthritis, it is actually a big problem typing this book has been a challenge. I use medicine anti-inflammatories to get by. Really, I am going for my grandson. He will 16 in two weeks’ time. He lives with me and he is my entire life.

“My daughter sometimes jokingly says that I was a 5/10 father because I was always on the road but I’m a 10/10 granddad. I love his company.

“We’ll go together. Jamie is so excited for it and he loves the game.”

He sure didn’t lick it off a stone.  

About the author:

Maurice Brosnan

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