September 30, 2005
Passing of Galway footballing legend leaves huge void.
Purcell's full back display against Mayo in the Connacht championship of 1954 was the greatest ever seen.
The passing of Sean Purcell on the evening of August 27, 2005, at Dublin's Blackrock Clinic after a short illness as he approached his 77the year, has removed from our midst one of the sporting legends of our times - a Gaelic footballer whose name was renowned the length and breadth of the country from the highest office of Croke Park to the little streets that wind their way into the mouth of Tuam Stadium.
'The master,' as he was known far and wide from his days as a teacher at Strawberry Hill National School in the parish of Dunmore, had earlier been labelled 'The Boy Wonder' when he gave a stirring midfield performance to inspire St. Jarlath's College to their first Hogan Stand success in 1947 beating St. Patrick's, Armagh, in the All-Ireland at Croke Park.
Later in the 1950s, the late Mick Dunne, then of the Irish Press, came up with 'The Terrible Twins' title for his famous partnership with clubmate and lifelong friend, Frank Stockwell.
His footballing career spanned three decades - the '40s, '50s and '60s - but he was surely in his peak in the summer of 1956 when he inspired Galway to their fourth ever All-Ireland success with a powerful display of footballing power in the final remembered for scoring exploits of Frank Stockwell.
Friends and team metes of that famous duo recall that their relationship on the pitch was telepathic - the physically more robust Purcell was normally the ball winner but with scarcely more than a side ways glance he could place the 'leather' into the path of Stockwell, and there was no better finisher than 'Stocky' to find the posts when the pressure came on.
Like a lot of Galway teams they probably should have won more and the final defeat of 1959, when Kerry won well in the end, was a desperate disappointment but yet the absence of more All-Ireland titles never dulled the gloss of Purcell to an adoring public in his native town of Tuam, his county, his province and indeed across the country.
As well as the All-Ireland '56, there was a league title in 1957, three Railway Cups, one of which he captained , the Hogan Cup success of '47, a Sigerson Cup success in 1950, a string of appearances with the Combined Universities side and a quite incredible ten county titles with his native Tuam Stars, including a seven-in-a-row from 1954 to 1960. There are 'oldtimers' to this day in Tuam who bemoan the fact that there wasn't an All-Ireland club championship at the time, for the Stars had a side of truly exceptional ability, hubbed around the talent and versatility of Purcell.
In later years, many awards followed. He was an automatic selection on the National Team of the Century ('84) and the Team of the Millennium ('99) as well as the Connacht Tribune Galway Team of the Century and also had the distinction of managing one of the early All-Stars football teams of the 1970s, which heralded the start of a period of greater recognition for GAA players. In 1991 he was inducted into the All-Stars All-Time Hall of Fame.
But in what could be described as almost the pre-publicity era of the 1950s, Sean Purcell was a national figure whose name and presence touched a chord where ever a ball was kicked or where ever great players were talked about over a pint.
Apart from Gaelic football, he loved sport in general but especially horse racing, the dogs and hurling. He was a regular at Cheltenham but typical of the man he loved the racing down the road at Ballinrobe just as much, where he always had a favourite seat although one of his great friends throughout the decades, Jack Mahon, grew increasingly wary of expending too much 'capital' on his tips after a number of 'hot ones' failed to make it first past the post.
One of his famous greyhounds in the late 1950s was called 'Star Bright' - an appropriate title - who pulled off a Shelbourne Park victory on the night before the All-Ireland final 1959.
Despite all his fame and acclaim though, he was a modest and unassuming man who could be embarrassed by too much praise being lavished upon him as often happened at functions to which he was invited.
One of the tales that Jack Mahon tells of 'Purcell' is of him taking the 'mike' from the hands of a former Tyrone footballer at a function in Dungannon when the hyperbole got too much for 'The Master'. He then went on to recount the words of a woman, very much in the Donellan 'football and election camp' but not too erudite as regards the history of the game in Galway, when Purcell had come in well behind the party college John Donnellan in the General Election of 1966.
"Sean, it's an awful pity that you didn't play a bit of football," she said to him in a moment when he humourously noted the fleeting nature of fame.
In reality though it was far from fleeting for Sean Purcell, and if anything, with the passing of the years and decades his glow and aura grew. There was scarcely ever an argument about his right to be called the greatest footballer of all-time, although many's the debate raged about his greatest ever display with the Hogan Cup success of 1947, the Connacht semi-final victory over Mayo in 1954 and the All-Ireland final summit of 1956, normally in the top three.
Many Galway fans who were in Tuam Stadium on the first Sunday in July in 1954 for that win over freshly crowned league champions Mayo, on what was by all accounts an awful day of wind and rain, will to this day, say that his full back display against his great rivals was the best that they had ever seen.
There was many anecdotes too of his clashes with the legendary Gerry O'Malley of Roscommon, a fiercesome and fearless opponent at the time, but also a great friend of 'The Master' with the passing of years.
This week GAA colleagues and officials at local and national level have mourned his final journey with GAA President Sean Kelly saying that his passing would be sadly felt both in Galway and all across the country.
Galway County Board Chairman Frank Burke described Sean Purcell as 'the greatest exponent' ever of the skills of Gaelic football while Football Board Chairman Pat Egan said that the was an icon of the game.
Colleague and great friend Jack Mahon described him as 'the greatest ever' whose knock he always knew at his door and whose words were always easy to listen to. "It was a privilege to play with him as a player and to know him as a player and to know him as a man. I've lost someone very close to me" said Mahon.
Sean Purcell had his heroes too, and on the occasions he took a pint and had his little flings, he would often go into racountering mode with the he likes of Cortoon's Michael Rooney when Galway knocked on the door of All-Ireland success in the 1970s. He went on to become the chariman of the Galway Football Board in the 1970s before unanimously being elected as President of the Board.
In more recent times he took immense pleasure in Galway's All-Ireland successes of '98 and '01 and again characteristic of an man who never strayed far from his roots, he greatly admired the skills of another of Tuam's later day heroes, Jarlath Fallon.
Ja's unpredictable moments of inspiration struck a real emotional chord with 'The Master' as he would often recall with probably his closest friend and soul mate, Tommy Varden, whose life and times have also been immersed in the world of Galway football.
After his retirement from Strawberry Hill, he took over the running of the family's newsagency which provided him with regular and easy contact with his townspeople. With Frank Stockwell he was honoured by having one of the town's new roads named after them in 1999 while earlier this year he was conferred with an honourary doctorate by NUIG.
He had a presence which could 'bring the house down' without him having to utter a word and people who attended the Galway mens' Association special function in London last December recalled when he was introduced to the guests, that the place erupted into spontaneous and sustained applause. "When his name was mentioned, he just brought the house down," recalled Deputy Paul Connaughton who was there on the night.
On a personal level Sean Purcell took great pride in his family and in their own significant sporting achievements most notably in the fields of Gaelic football, swimming and basketball.
He was a loving and caring father to Mary, John, Ruth, Frances, Louise and Robert, all of whom shared a thousand and one anecdotes with the the famous and not so famous who came in their droves from all corners of the island to pay their final respects to 'The Master' in the chapel of his Alma Mater, St. Jarlath's College, and at Tuam Cathedral for the Requiem Mass.
Sean Purcell, Tuam's most famous son, was laid to rest on Wednesday afternoon in the soil of the Athenry Road graveyard and in the shadow of the famous Stadium where so many times in the past he had thousands cheering on their feet, in what was, his own Colosseum.
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