How Down raised the bar

09 May 2005
Eugene Grant, who was a mainstay of the Bryansford and Down attacks in the ’seventies, has lost none of his enthusiasm for the national game. To the contrary, the Belfast-based barrister’s deep love of all things GAA continues to grow.

Eugene Grant caught the bug early. Weaned on the exploits of the maverick, trailblazing Down team of the early nineteen-sixties, the boy from Glengormley in North Belfast developed an innate passion for Mourne County GAA. He went on to fulfil his dream of wearing the Down jersey (he played for the county for almost a decade) and was also part of an impressive Bryansford club side that rose to national prominence in the ’seventies.

Today, Eugene’s son Jamie plays minor football with the Carryduff club on the outskirts of Belfast. He recently garnered a Brother Nolan Cup medal with Our Lady’s & St Patrick’s and the former Down player is following his career with great interest. Gaelic games is in his blood - and he wouldn’t have it any other way!

Rarely before has Hogan Stand profiled a man with a depth of passion for football matching that of Eugene Grant. He talks about the game with a unique ardour, with emotion in his voice, adopting a tone that causes hairs to stand on the back of one’s neck. Refreshingly, Eugene doesn’t much mention of his own playing career. Instead, his favourite topic is the deadly Down team that lifted an entire province with its groundbreaking exploits in Croke Park in the early 1960s.

That Down outfit brought something special to the GAA. It was a wondrous, magical time for the young boy called Eugene Grant. He idolised the players back then. Today, he still does. McKay, Lavery, Murphy, Rice, Mussen, McCartan, O’Neill, Lennon, Carey, O’Neill, McCartan, Doherty, Hadden, O’Hagan, Morgan. Names that made a lifelong impression on a grateful generation.

It was a difficult time for nationalists living in the North. They needed heroes, something to look up to. Down’s senior footballers fitted the bill and answered the call.

"Down got into the blood of people, and they still capture the imagination today," enthuses Eugene. "In August ’59, aged 8, you went into Croke Park to see Down play Galway, who were the team of the time, and the terrible twins, Sean Purcell and Frankie Stockwell, ate Down alive. But there was something about the swagger and the flair and the colour of Down. I can imagine Maurice Hayes bringing the team together and they swore that this would never happen to them again. It didn’t.

"Since then, Down football reached new heights and reflected a new level of enthusiasm and flair. They won the next two All-Irelands and they gave Ulster football a new dimension. When will we ever see a half forward line like O’Neill, Doherty and McCartan again? They brought the game to a new level and transformed gaelic football for ever."

It was a glorious era. The visionary Hayes was working to a five-year plan, a completely novel approach and one that bore fruit. All-Ireland wins at the expense of Kerry and Offaly in 1960 and ’61 sent the county into euphoria. Down had a belief now. The won Sam again in 1968 and also collected three national league titles in the ’sixties.

The confidence has never died. Pete McGrath oversaw two more All-Ireland victories in 1991 and ’94 and, even today, the belief born in the ’sixties remains intact.

"It was bleak for northern nationalists in the ’60s and people travelled from all over the North to support Down," Eugene continues. "All the nationalist people of Northern Ireland identified with that team. It took about 30 years, but the confidence eventually spread to the youth in our community. That’s what that team did. They had an enormous impact and it spread into our blood.

"A lot of people from my generation from any every county in Northern Ireland will tell you that those players were their first icons. They had the swagger and the arrogance and they went into the unknown and took on the established teams from the south - and beat them. It was a five-hour journey into the unknown and then you pinned all your hopes on 15 players, who delivered the goods and inspired an entire generation."

Though both his parents were from County Down, Eugene himself was raised in Glengormley. From Sunday to Sunday, he dreamed about the Down football team. He wrote a letter to then General Secretary of the GAA Paddy O’Keeffe looking for an All-Ireland final ticket in 1960. It arrived in the post.

After playing minor football for Antrim, Eugene went on to represent his beloved Down at under 21 and senior levels. Pulling on the famous red and black shirt for the first time was an emotional moment. "It was the county U21 jersey and it was the first and only time I ever saw tears in my father’s eyes," he recalls.

Eugene’s heart always belonged to the Mourne County: "My cousins played for Bryansford and I used to go ’home’ and play seven-a-side football there in the summer months and I got an association with Down. I hugely enjoyed playing with Down from 1969 until 1978 [winning a McKenna Cup] as well as an Ulster junior championship in the company of Colm McAlarney in 1971 and Bryansford were also going strong at the time."

Eugene also played for Queens (winning a Ryan Cup) and won a MacRory Cup with St Malachy’s, Belfast in the company of one Martin O’Neill. On April 19 1970, the Belfast school suffered Hogan Cup agony when Cork Outfit Colaiste Chriost Ri stole the title from them with a fortuitous last-minute goal to win the final on a scoreline of 4-5 to 1-13. It’s a defeat that still haunts Eugene today, though both himself and Mr O’Neill have enjoyed many consolation victories since!

"Because it’s underage and you know you’ll never get another chance, it was a big disappointment," he reflects. "But that was a great team to play on and it helped me graduate into club and county football. I didn’t have time to play as much with Queens as I’d have liked because Bryansford were working off a panel of just 17 players and we had to play 44 league games a season as well as Down championship and Ulster club championship games on top of that."

Bryansford scooped six Down SFCs between 1969 and ’77, as well as Ulster club titles in ’69 and ’70. A truly exceptional club combo, they also reigned supreme in the All-Ireland ’Sevens’ competition at Belfield in 1972 and ’78. "The ’72 final was against Waterville and Mick O’Dwyer was a remarkable player. He had a very special left foot and he was poetry in motion. But we beat them by a point.

"In 1978, we came up against Thomond College, who had none other than Pat Spillane in their ranks. Aidan Hanna, who’s a solicitor here in Belfast, held Spillane scoreless and that was definitely the key to our success."

Like the Down team of the 1960s, the Bryansford side of the ’seventies boasted an inspirational leader: "Sean Smith was a remarkable trainer, who gelled the team together and brought us from complete obscurity to the very top of club football for a number of years. He took us training together twice a week, which was completely unheard of at the time. The way he blended that team together from nothing was a remarkable achievement."

Eugene Grant practises defence criminal law from the Bar Library in Belfast. He qualified as a barrister in 1975 and has been a QC since 1996. He has been extensively involved in a criminal justice review in the North since 1998, which involves a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system to ensure transparency and accountability. This requires the establishment of a new prosecution service and a judicial appointment commission. "These are fascinating times to be practising in the criminal justice system," the former Down footballer notes.

As well as his son Jamie, Eugene and his wife Una (a staunch O’Neill County supporter from Eglish in County Tyrone) also have three daughters. Maddie is at the bar in Dublin; Eimear is a psychologist in England; and Eugenie is a third-year law student in Queens University, Belfast.