January 31, 2001
There are those who still regard Galway hurling as something of an enigma and the fact that the county has only four All-Ireland titles to it's credit certainly reflects a certain sense of under-achievement.
The hurling tradition goes back a long way...Meelick, representing the county, contested the first All-Ireland final in 1887 but they were beaten by Thurles and it wasn't until 1923 that the Tribesmen became champions for the first time...the final against Limerick wasn't actually played until 1924 and Mick Kenny became the first Galway captain to be presented with the relatively new McCarthy Cup. The team was certainly as good as what was around at the time but the remaining years of the decade brought huge disappointment with no fewer than four All-Ireland final defeats, 1924, '25, '28, and '29. And then began a sad sequence of semi-final defeats, 23 in a row. Despite producing some of the finest hurlers in the country, Galway simply could not win a championship match. The situation threatened to improve with the National League success of 1951 and championship respite came in 1953 with victory over Kilkenny but Cork proved too strong in the final. Another losing sequence got under way in the following year.
John Connolly was born in Leiter Moir, Connemara in 1948 and from his early years showed outstanding promise as a fine all-round sportsman. His family moved to the city while he was still a young boy and it was only natural that he became involved with the Castlegar club. They had emerged in the 1930's to become the dominant force on the Galway hurling scene...they won four titles in the 1950's and John would have been greatly influenced by the heros of that era.
He was also influenced by a neighbour Paddy Egan and by Stephen Francis, both former county stars.
By the mid 1960's young Connolly was coming to the notice of the public...as a hurler, footballer and boxer (he was Connacht Junior champion at light-welterweight in 1965) and he won the first of his county SHC medals as a teenager in 1967. He added another in 1969 and having made his debut for the county seniors against Clare in 1968, he soon established a reputation for himself as one of the top centre-field men in the game. Despite the county's lack of success, he was named on the inaugural All-Star team in 1971.
A third SHC medal with Castlegar followed in '72 but he was over-age for the county's historic first All-Ireland Under-21 success in the same year. Meanwhile, the seniors were not enjoying a great deal of success and a low point was reached when they were beaten by Kilkenny 5-28 to 3-7 in the 1972 All-Ireland semi-final.
Worse was to follow...in 1973 they were shocked by London in the quarter-final at Ballinasloe and there appeared to be no way forward for the Tribesmen.
There was some improvement in 1974 when they avenged the defeat by London but Kilkenny still proved much too strong in the semi-final.
In the meantime, Castlegar had added the 1973 county championship to their success of the previous year and the Connolly brothers were gradually gaining in experience while some members of the '72 Under-21 team were graduating to the senior ranks. The turn-around came in the 1974-'75 league.
The appointment of 'Inky' Flaherty as manager at the start of the campaign was a major factor. One of the county's legendary names, 'Inky' had starred in the then sensational Railway Cup final victory over Munster in 1949 and in the National League victory in 1951 and was deemed unlucky not to have come out on the winning side in at least one of the championship clashes with Cork in 1952 and '53. A member of the Liam Mellowes club, he inspired great respect among the players and was largely responsible for the noticeable increase in their self-belief.
Under Flaherty, Galway gradually started to improve...they were operating out of the League's Division 2...and they duly qualified for a quarter-final clash with Cork.
Cork were favourites despite the fact that they had a somewhat laid-back approach to the League but it was the Tribesmen who advanced to a semi-final meeting with All-Ireland champions Kilkenny. The Galway defence had out-hurled the highly rated Cork attack and they proved it was no fluke by shutting out the Cats in a 1-9 to 1-6 victory.
Tipperary provided the opposition in the final at Limerick but it was Galway, inspired by their captain John Connolly, who emerged victorious on a 2-7 to 2-4 scoreline. It was their first victory in the competition since 1951 and there were great celebrations throughout the length and breadth of the county.
Now for the Championship!
An easy quarter-final win over 'B' champions Westmeath saw them through to the semi-final where Cork provided the opposition.
This was a gigantic test for Galway and one that they simply had to win. John Connolly was at his prime and the momentum generated by the League success could not be allowed to disappear. Besides, the handful of players that had won All-Ireland Under-21 medals three years previous had also acquired the winning know-how.
Despite their marked improvement, the Tribesmen were again cast in the role of rank outsiders.
It was a tumultuous occasion with Cork's lethal full-forward line of Charlie McCarthy, Ray Cummins and Sean O Leary expected to give the Rebels a winning advantage. At centre-field, the Galway captain John Connolly was partnered by Carnmore's Sean Murphy and they were in direct opposition to the Cork captain Gerald McCarthy and his partner Pat Hegarty.
There was a tremendous duel between the man from Castlegar and McCarthy throughout but it was Galway who were quickest out of the traps and with only eight minutes gone, they led by 2-2 to no score.
Cork got onto the scoreboard but PJ Qualter hit his team's third goal in the tenth minute and Cork now had a mountain to climb in the sweltering heat. At one stage, Galway led by 4-9 to 1-9 but the Munster champions gradually chipped away at the lead and with time ticking away, there was just one point between the teams. Galway forced a '70 in injury time and John Connolly, under extreme pressure, sent the sliotar between the posts for the 'insurance' point. It finished, Galway 4-15, Cork 2-19.
This was, without doubt, one of Galway's most memorable victories and arguably the first real stepping stone to the eventual All-Ireland success of 1980.
Unfortunately, they appeared over-awed by the big occasion when going under to Kilkenny in the final but they were much too talented to disappear from the scene. Connolly and his colleagues re-grouped in the wake of the disappointing display against Kilkenny but they were beaten by Wexford in a thrilling All-Ireland semi-final and replay in 1976. The great Cork three-in-a-row team gained revenge in the 1978 semi-final and Kilkenny came out on top at the penultimate stage in '78.
The following year saw Galway again get the better of Cork, thus ending their dreams of a fourth successive title but there was enormous disappointment when they failed to Kilkenny again in the final. Despite the losing margin of seven points, this was a game that Galway could have won and even their most ardent supporters were wondering if the breakthrough would ever come.
There was some consolation for Connolly when he collected his second All-Star award and there was also a fifth SHC medal with Castlegar.
The latter success was particularly significant...it paved the way for a glorious All-Ireland Club success in 1980. The Club championship had been inaugurated in 1971 and had been monopolised by Munster and Leinster clubs but Castlegar's semi-final win over Blackrock was the first occasion that a Cork team was beaten at the semi-final stage.
The final was played at Pairc Tailteann in June with Ballycastle of Antrim providing the opposition. With five Connolly brothers on the team, (Padraic at full-back, John at cenre-half, Joe at centre-half-forward, Michael at full-forward and Gerry in the corner) Castlegar swept to an historic 1-11 to 1-8 victory. Michael was captain. Earlier in the year an all-Galway team won the Railway Cup by beating Munster 1-5 to 0-7 on St. Patricks Day. Joe Connolly was captain.
The remarkable year continued when Galway qualified for an All-Ireland semi-final clash with Offaly, who had caused a sensation by beating All-Ireland champions Kilkenny in the Leinster final. The Tribesmen had beaten "B" champions Kildare in the quarter-final and they had a narrow 4-9 to 3-10 victory over the Faithfuls in the semi-final. Limerick provided the opposition in the final and with John Connolly lining out at full-forward from where he contributed two points, Galway ended a long barren spell by taking home the Liam McCarthy Cup.
There were emotional scenes as John's brother Joe was presented with the Cup and it was a tremendous occasion for the family with Michael also playing a key role at centre-field...and Padraic was among the substitutes.
John was the veteran of the team and he was 33 years of age when he played in the following year's final against Offaly, a game which Galway appeared to have sewn up at half-time. They went under to a late Offaly goal and it amounted to something of a swan-song for one of the county's finest hurlers.
He won the last of his six SHC medals with Castlegar in 1984 and his eventual departure along with that of his brothers saw the club go into decline...they have not won the county title since.
John Connolly was, without doubt, one of the outstanding hurlers of the 1970's and was one of the men who inspired the elevation of Galway hurling to the top rank. It is most encouraging to see him becoming involved on the county scene again as one of Noel Lane's selectors and if he can transfer some of his key attributes to the current players, there is every chance that the Tribesmen will bridge the gap that now stretches back to 1988.
Taken from Hogan Stand magazine
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