Fr Seamus Hetherton recalls to Damian Dolan the last time Cavan were crowned All Ireland champions in 1952
Sixty-six years may have passed, but Fr Seamus Hetherton’s memories of Cavan’s 1952 All Ireland triumph are as vivid as if it was yesterday.
A fascinating video still exists of that’s year’s final with Meath, which needed a replay to separate the sides, before Cavan prevailed to claim their fifth All Ireland title.
But it’s Fr Seamus’ firsthand recollections which bring that triumph to life – a victory made all the more significant as Cavan have never graced an All Ireland final since.
To have suggested at the time such a prolonged absence of Cavan from football’s greatest stage, would have been inconceivable and would have no doubt been greeted with ridicule, such was Cavan’s dominance in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
All Ireland champions in 1947 and 1948, Meath stopped them from making it three-in-a-row in 1949. They were also runners up in 1945.
But when they faced Paul Coggins’ London in 2013 in the fourth round of the All Ireland qualifiers, it was the first time Cavan’s senior footballers had tasted victory at Croke Park since their 1952 winning appearance. An extraordinary fact.
1952 was Fr Seamus’ first year on the Cavan panel. Captain of St. Finians College in Mullingar, he led the Leinster colleges team to inter-provincial college success in 1949, even though he ‘was an Ulsterman’.
Fr Seamus, who is now 87, refers to them as his ‘good days of football, my young days’. Not surprisingly, Cavan was not an easy team break into. Fr Seamus puts his inclusion down to a game played between St. Finians College and Knockbeg College in Tullamore in 1951.
The game was refereed by Cavan footballer TP O’Reilly. St. Finians won the game with Fr Seamus playing centre field.
“You had great men like Mick Higgins (Cavan’s 1952 All Ireland winning captain), Tony Tighe, Peter Donohoe, Gunner Brady and John Joe Reilly,” recalled Fr Seamus.
“These are all great men, so it wasn’t easy getting on the team at that time.”
On their path to the All Ireland final, Cavan saw off Monaghan to win Ulster. But it’s their semi-final win over Antrim that stands out for Fr Seamus, as he netted one of Cavan’s three goals in their 3- 6 to 2-6 win, with his shot actually bursting through the net.
“People ask me how I did it, and all I can tell them is it had rained the night before and I’m sure the net wasn’t too strong!” he recalls.
Cavan overcame Cork in the All Ireland semi-finals, while Meath edged out Roscommon to set up the sides’ 28 September 1952 date at Croke Park.
But while the Cavan team undertook a two-week training camp at Ballyconnell in preparation for the final, Fr Seamus, who was training to be a priest at the time, was instead trained by Dan McCartan every day after dinner at All Hallows College in Drumcondra.
There was a further issue. Cavan’s meeting with Meath had created something of a dilemma in the Hetherton family.
“My mother was from Meath and her sisters always said to her ‘remember you are a Meath woman’ and my mother would say ‘yes I am, but if my son is playing for Cavan blood is thicker than water and I’ll be a Cavan woman for the day’,” said Fr Seamus.
She had to become a Cavan woman twice as a replay was needed, after the first game ended in a 2-4 to 1- 7 draw.
And while his mother didn’t attend either game, she would tell Fr Seamus afterwards that she heard his name ‘mentioned a lot on the radio’.
It was a “spilling wet day’ in Dublin for the first final, as just as it would be for the replay, and Fr Seamus recalls playing in a ‘downpour’.
Indeed, it was so wet that the Minor game due to precede the final was called off in order to save the pitch. Meath thought they were closing in on victory in the first game, leading by a point with just seconds to go.
But Fr Seamus, playing right half forward, would play a part in Cavan’s dramatic, and extraordinary, equalising point.
“Time was up and I happened to get the ball under Hill 16. I remember saying to myself ‘don’t kick it wide, time is up’. I sent the ball across the goal and there was spin on it when it left my foot,” he said.
“So when it hopped on the end line, instead of going over, it came back in and Paddy Carolan shouted at his brother Edwin to pick up the ball. Edwin kicked it in, meaning to drop it on the square, but it went out over the end line.
“But there was a gale force wind, and it brought the ball back at an angle of 75 degrees and it struck the top of the post on the inside and dropped down onto the net for the levelling point. Meath kicked out, and it was full time.”
Fr Seamus scored a point in both finals, but his telling contribution in the replay was winning the frees from which Cavan captain Mick Higgins kicked The Breffni men to a 0-9 to 0-5 victory.
“He was much older than me, but I was much faster. He fouled me a lot and in Meath today they would say that I was the cause of beating Meath, because when Christo fouled me Mick Higgins pointed the frees,” he said.
“It was a great honour [to win an All Ireland]; football had more or a grip in Ireland at that time than now. If you won an All Ireland final, everyone in Ireland knew you.”
Afterwards, Fr Seamus joined the team at a Dublin hotel, but he only had a couple of hours before having to be back at All Hallows College, from which he recalls being able to ‘hear the cheers from the people’ inside Croke Park on All Ireland final day.
“All Hallows College was very close to Croke Park, so you could listen to the match [on the radio] and at the same listen to the roar of the crowd,” he said.
“They said I had to be back in, so I only had a short time with the team celebrating. Those were strict days.
“To get me out of the college [to play in the final] the Bishop of Kilmore, Bishop Quinn, had to go up in person to the president of All Hallows College and beg him to let me out.
“I was the first-ever to get out. You could never get out of college at that time to play football and it was only through the intersession of Bishop Quinn that I was allowed out to play, and there were strict arrangements that I had to be back in after the match.”
Fr Seamus was ordained as a priest on 12 June 1955 and came to England to St George’s Cathedral, Southwark. As Fr Seamus recalls, just ‘ten minutes walk from Big Ben’.
“The parish priest was a Canon Bogan and he wanted me there because he wanted to boost the fact that I was an All Ireland winner. It would go down well with the big Irish congregation at St George’s – it was all Irish at that time,” he said.
His inter-county days with Cavan may have been over, but he hadn’t left the GAA completely behind him. He formed St George’s Harps in London, the headquarters of which was in Blackheath and he recalls having to put the goalposts up before every game, and take then down afterwards.
“I remember playing football one morning and then having to rush back to St George’s because there was Confirmation.The Bishop saw my red face and he said to me ‘why the red face?’. I told him I was playing football, and he said ‘good on ya, keep it up’,” he recalls with fondness.
He would carry out his ministry in various parishes across England, before being appointed parish priest at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Birmingham in 2005.
Over the next 12 years he would become a ‘highly respected, well liked priest’ for his tireless work within the community. On 12 June 2015, the parish marked the Diamond Jubilee of Fr Seamus’ ordination as a priest.
He retired last year, but Birmingham remains his home. And as for his 1952 All Ireland winner’s medal, well that’s safely tucked away at his home in Devlin, Westmeath.
The memories, though, he carries with him.