December 18, 1992
Mattie McDonagh with his hugh medal collection.
Back in full health
Mattie McDonagh was the Babe of Galway's '56 side and the father figure of the great '64-'66 All-Ireland winning crew
By Jack Mahon
his former team mate
Big Matt is what Mattie McDonagh of Ballygar is known to his closest friends. Less than a year ago this most prize-laden of all Connacht GAA stars scared the whole county of Galway when being struck low with a heart complaint. Was it possible that this big hearted man with the erect, almost arrogant stance was in danger? They came from the highways and the byways to visit their hero in Portiuncula Hospital in Ballinasloe and in his friendly way he saw them all when he needed rest. He got get well cards from around the world but pride of place in his bagful of memorabilia from that time is the poem he received from his great friend Bosco McDermott entitled 'Big Matt'. It helped him to recover. Heart surgery, now so commonplace, saw Mattie right. He is on a heavy exercise schedule and walks an average of 5 miles a day with ease. He competes as strongly as ever again at golf and the other day after a game with old friend John Donnellan in Ballyhaunis, the bould Johneen marvelling at Mattie's new loss of weight and his excellent physical well being asked "when are you making a comeback?" And Mattie, who has never lost the boyish approach said, "Don't rule me out. I might rise for the high ones yet."
A record breaker
Mattie was always a record breaker. As a juvenile with Ballygar. As a college star with Summerhill College, Sligo and Connacht Colleges. Mattie is Summerhill's greatest sporting old boy and in this, their centenary year, his name comes up time and time again. He played minor with 2 different counties in the same year, football with Galway and hurling in Roscommon. While in St. Patrick's Training College, Drumcondra, Mattie helped his club to win the Dublin SFC in 1957 in the company of men like Tom Long of Kerry, Finan Walsh of Laois and Fintan Conefrey of Leitrim. He won his first All-Ireland as a Babe of Galway's 1956 team as a midfield partner of the great Frank Evers. He went on to father the 3-in-a-row team and won 10 Connacht Senior Football Championship medals in all - a record for a Connacht man that, coupled with his record 4 All-Ireland Senior Football Championship medals, may never be surpassed.
Never lost interest
He has never lost interest in the game of gaelic football he loves. And he still carries the winning touch with him. After the great 3-in-a-row days he masterminded his county's next major National title as team manager of Galway's National Football League triumph in 1981. Five years later he was a selector on the Galway 1986 Minor football team which won for Galway it's last National title. And I wouldn't rule him out of being involved when the next title comes to Galway as it will.
Outside of Galway Mattie, whose flaming ginger wavy hair made him so easily recognisable everywhere, is a much loved figure. The high catch, the big hop, socks around the ankles, erect upright stance, Mattie needed plenty of training. He is remembered best for a tour de force National Football League game v Roscommon in Tuam in the between days between '56 and the 3-in-a-row, all of those goals including the one in the '66 final. Did he pick the ball up fairly before Seamus Leydon's late goal v Kerry in the National Football League Final of 1965? They still remind him of that pick up in Kerry even when he is playing golf in the Ballybunion he loves 20 years later.
The '66 goal
He never liked the way I described his 1966 goal v Mayo. We still laugh about that. So I'll let him describe it as he remembers it. "It was one of the best for so many reasons. It was a battle of wits for 25 years or more between Ray Prendergast, the Mayo full back and myself as I raced for goal just ahead of him with the ball at my feet. Who is going to blink first, I thought as I kept going on, Ray trying to get at me with everything he could use and then the ease with which it all happened was unbelievable. Eugene Rooney, the Mayo goalkeeper dived and hit Ray instead of me and there was the ball rolling over the line, bodies all over the place and me walking over the line with it." That's as Mattie remembers it. Eugene Rooney got an awful ribbing about it later. "I met Eugene in Monaghan and New York afterwards and we always talk of that goal and another one 2 year later at the same venue in McHale Park, Castlebar." That was the day John Keenan gave a super display at midfield, scoring from frees and from play as well. "In fact, I got my fingers to a dropping ball from a long range John Keenan free which everyone thought Eugene Rooney let in to the net for a relatively easy goal, but just at the last second as Eugene was about to grab the ball, I tipped it, edged it over his outstretched hand to the net. It doesn't bother me that I've never got the credit for that goal but after the game Eugene Rooney sought me out and once again blamed me for all the ribbing he got for letting in an apparently easy goal. Only you, I and God know who scored that goal." Poor Eugene, a former St. Jarlath's star, must have nightmares about Mattie.
I have been a friend of Matt since the early fifties. W ehave travelled miles together, played golf and cards together, swapped yarns, sang songs, argued betimes, played with and against each other. I was at his wedding and he at mine. A marvellous competitor always, he still hates to lose and when he grinds those teeth, be it at snooker or golf or indoor football he won't give in easily. A gentleman from head to toe, I've yet to hear Mattie speak ill of anybody or use a vulgar word. A tee-totaller and non-smoker, Matte and his wife Kathleen walk their 5 miles together daily.
He is still very keen on football and soon after hospitalisation was back watching Galway playing again. "I'm glad Galway are doing well in the National Football League and I hope that they will maintain their form for the '93 Connacht Senior Football Championship and not lose to Mayo as we did for the last 2 years." I met Mattie at the Galway Senior Football Championship Final in September and at the Under 21 Final v Tyrone in Longford earlier. In fact, Mattie is a regular at all Galway football occasions, one of the true blues like Bosco and Sean Purcell who never lose heart, despite the reverses of the last decade. All Galway is thrilled at his great recovery. Here's looking forward to meeting 'Big Matt' at joyful and winning maroon and white occasions - in the future. The father figure of the 3-in-a-row and the babe of '56 is still one of Galway's most revered sporting greats.
Taken from Hogan Stand magazine
18th December 1992
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