PJ DukeLaragh and Cavan April 2000

January 01, 2001
P.J. Duke was an outstanding talent but like so many of his ilk, the Stradone ace wasn't afforded the opportunity to display his ability to the greatest effect - due to his untimely death at the age of 25. When all the points are kicked down Laragh way; when all the match reviews are tidied up; when all the youngsters have come through to make United kingpins of Cavan again; they'll remember P.J. Duke. Almost a half-century after his death at the age of 25, the late, great defender from Stradone is remembered by gaels in his native area and in every corner of Breffni territory with all the fondness of a match-winning point. The forties and fifties may have represented halcyon periods for Cavan football but the untimely passing of the dynamic Duke and his friend and team-mate John Joe O'Reilly within the space of two years rocked football followers in Cavan back onto their heels. If the gallant John Joe's passing was the catalyst for the beginning of the end of Cavan's pre-eminence on the national stage, the death of the hero from Stradone certainly opened the wound which hastened the demise of Cavan's all-conquering days for, yes, P.J. Duke was, indeed, that important to the Breffni Blues. As such, it was entirely fitting that the golden jubilee of the legendary defender's death should be marked by the staging of an exhibition in his honour at the GAA Gallery in Cavan County Museum in January last. Officially opened by the Chairman of Cavan County Board, George Cartwright, the exhibition proved a masterful attempt at reflecting the talents and achievements of P.J. Duke with, interestingly, the player's own football boots, jerseys and togs on show to the delight of survivors of his family, admirers and public dignatories who were in attendance. P.J. Duke will always hold a special place in the hearts and minds of Cavan gaels at home and abroad for he was a natural, home-grown hero who helped bring great fame and renown to his native county. The fact that he achieved the ultimate goals afforded by Gaelic games in such a short life bore testimony to his ability as an athlete and a sportsman and the degree to which he was respected and admired as a defender of few peers. Indeed, when Cavan's football followers took the time to select the 'Cavan Team of the Millennium' in December last, the right half back position was one of the few positions on the team which failed to stir up any covert criticism or controversy. There was only P.J. Duke. As a youngster growing up in Stradone, P.J. Duke was fortunate to be born in a football-mad area of the country. The years which followed would show that his local club and Cavan were more than fortunate to have him on board. Along with his innate talent, P.J. Duke also boasted a level of dedication and commitment which made him stand out from his peers from an early age. Born in 1925, his footballing ability was first spotted when he was playing schoolboy football with Laragh National School and thereafter in St. Patrick's College, Cavan where he was an exemplary student. Even as an teenager, he had a wonderful temperament and he was one of the stars of the Ulster team which won the Colleges title in 1942. Significantly, the following year, he figured at wing half forward and was instrumental in guiding 'Pat's to McRory Cup success. In 1944, he showed himself to be an inspirational player at club level, steering Stradone to the Junior Championship title. Following his time in St. Pat's, the Stradone and Cavan legend proceeded to shine on both the academic and football fronts at University College Dublin. In studying for his BDS degree (dentistry) at UCD, he played in five Sigerson Cup deciders, and scooping a hat-trick of successes with the college in 1945, '47 and '49, he was a mainstay on the college teams which won the Sigerson Cup in great style; captaining the '47 team into the bargain. Meanwhile, by the time he had set the Sigerson Cup scene alight, he was already an established star with the Breffni Blues, having featured at left corner forward on the Cavan team which beat Wexford in the 1945 All-Ireland semi-final. P.J. went on to become a regular on the Cavan team of 1945-50 while at the same time starring for Ulster. Indeed, his last appearance in a major game was with his province in the 1950 Railway Cup decider. One has to wind the tape back to Cavan's historic win over Kerry in the 1947 All-Ireland final played at the Polo Grounds in New York to come to terms with what was arguably P.J. Duke's greatest ever hour. With ten minutes of the match just played, Cavan found themselves eight points down against a Kerry side playing out of their skins. Displaying typical tactical nous, team-manager Hughie O'Reilly from Cootehill switched the Stradone star to right half back to mark Bat Garvey who had threatened to win the game on his own. The move proved to be the turning point in the game and the rest, as they say, is history. Cavan's victory in '47 came as a tremendous psychological boost for the whole county in what were tough economic times, made worse by inclement weather. Thereafter, in the 1948 final, P.J. lined out at right half back, the position which, it was later acknowledged, was his best of all. A man who was also picked for the star-studded Combined Universities team of the time, P.J. was a revelation in jousts against Rest of Ireland selections alongside the likes of county team-mate Edwin Carolan. P.J. Duke's versatility was another outstanding trait of his game. He was equally at home at midfield, defence or attack and one can only wonder how many more matches he would have swung in Cavan's favour had he lived on to play out another expected six or seven years. Sadly, the great Duke died while in his prime on 1 May 1950 after a short illness at St. Vincent's Hospital in Dublin. Cavan Football Inc. may have produced as good a man as the Stradone star but hardly any better.


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