Mayo: Celebrating Sport

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The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) – An Cumann Luthchleas Gael – was established in 1884 as part of a wider cultural nationalist movement prevalent in Ireland in the closing decades of the 19th century. At a time of general growth in spectator sports, the GAA organised amateur team games of Gaelic football, hurling, camogie and rounders, initially on a club basis and later at both county and provincial level.

Two Mayo men, P.W. Nally (1856-91), of Balla and Michael Davitt (1846-1906), of Straide, played major roles in the founding of the GAA. P.W. Nally was born in Rockstown House, Balla in 1856. A prominent athlete, he became involved with the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and was the Connaught representative on its Supreme Council. He organised athletic sports events in Mayo in 1879 and is acknowledged as being a major influence behind the establishment of the GAA. In March 1884, he was sentenced to ten years’ penal servitude for conspiracy and died in prison in 1891, two weeks short of his release date. In 1900, a memorial to P.W. Nally was unveiled in Balla and in 1953 the Nally Stand at Croke Park in Dublin, the Gaelic games national stadium, was dedicated in his honour.

Michael Davitt (1846-1906), founder of the Land League, was one of the initial patrons of the GAA and later provided the finance for a tour of the USA by GAA athletes in 1888. He is buried in his birthplace of Straide, where a memorial museum was opened in 1984. The local football team, the Moy Davitts, is named in his honour.

The Mayo County Board of the GAA was formed in 1888 and the Connaught Council established in 1902. The Council’s first President was Westport-man Joseph MacBride, a brother of Republican activist Major John MacBride (1865-1916). The Castlebar Mitchels, established in 1885, was the first GAA club in Mayo. Having won two senior football championships before the turn of the century, the club fell into decline for almost 30 years. Revived in the late 1930s, it acquired McHale Park now one of the top grounds in the country with an all-seater capacity of almost 30,000. Over the years, the Mitchels have produced many great players, most notably All-Ireland Senior Winners Josie Munnelly, Henry Kenny, Patsy Flannery, Mick Flanagan, Eamon Mongey and Joe Langan.

The Ballina Stephenites, founded in 1886, was the first Mayo club to win the Croke Cup Final – the nearest equivalent to the current All-Ireland Championship – defeating Kerry, Kildare and Waterford in 1907, 1908 and 1909. At that time, clubs played for the county championship and the winner represented their county in the provincial games, from which they qualified for the Croke Cup. In recent years, Mayo clubs that have contested the All-Ireland Championship Final include Garrymore(1982), Castlebar Mitchels (1994), Knockmore (1997), Ballina Stephenites (1999) and Crossmolina, who captured the title in 2001.

The Green above the Red

The National League and the All-Ireland Championship, both played at various levels, are the two main GAA competitions. In the League, all 32 counties are divided into various divisions and each county team plays each of the other teams in its own division. The top teams in each division play off against each other to win the League. Traditionally in the All-Ireland Championship, county teams competed on a knockout basis within each province, with the provincial winners contesting the All-Ireland semi-finals. Since 2001, modifications to this system were introduced that allowed beaten teams to re-enter the championship at various stages in an open draw ‘All-Ireland Qualifier’ series.

Between 1929 and 1939, Mayo won six successive National League titles and eight Connaught Senior titles. The county team had previously reached the All-Ireland finals in 1916, 1921, 1925, and 1932. In 1925, Mayo thought that they had won their first All-Ireland Senior title, but it was taken away in unusual circumstances. The Connaught championship had not taken place by the time the All-Ireland Final was due to be played in September that year. Mayo was nominated from the province to play against Wexford in the semi-final, whom they defeated. The GAA Central Council declared the other two semi-finalists, Kerry and Cavan, illegal and so Mayo was considered the All-Ireland champions. However, Galway later beat Mayo in the Connaught Final and the Central Council declared Galway as the All-Ireland champions for 1925.

Mayo won the Junior All-Ireland Final in 1933 for the first time and again in 1950. the Minor team won the All-Ireland Final in 1935. But it was the 1936 victory by the Senior team – trained and prepared by Dick Hearns, the boxing champion from Ballina – that was the first major event in Mayo football history. Mayo defeated Laois by 4-11 to 0-5 in a one-sided final.

Mayo has an outstanding team in the early 1950s, winning two All-Irelands back to back in 1950 and 1951. Two members of that team – Sean Flanagan (left corner back and Captain) and Tom Langan (full forward) – were chosen as members of the GAA Football Team of the Twentieth Century. Dr. Padraig Carney, a member of the Mayo All-Ireland winning team of 1950 and 1951, was elected to the GAA Hall of Fame in 2001 and had a stamp issued in his honour. In 1950, the county beat Louth 2-5 to 1-6 in a game in which Sean Flanagan, Eamon Mongey and John Forde starred. In 1951, the score was 2-8 to 0-9 for Mayo, with Meath being easily beaten in front of 78,201 spectators.

The 1960s and 70s were fallow years for the Senior county footballers, with the notable exception of a National League title in 1970. Mayo’s hunger for glory was reawakened with their 1989 visit to Croke Park to play Cork in the All-Ireland Final. Mayo took the lead within a few minutes of the start of the game. The match was a tremendous display of skill and stamina, with Willie Joe Padden demonstrating his high fielding throughout the game. A goal in the early minutes of the second half from substitute Anthony Finnerty emphasised the team’s determination to bring the Sam Maguire trophy across the Shannon. But the Corkmen were not to be beaten and the final score was Cork 0-17 to Mayo .

The 1990s will be remembered as the decade when the Men’s Senior footballers almost won the All-Ireland Final on three separate occasions. Mayo reached the 1996 All-Ireland Final after defeating Kerry, the Munster champions. The team was managed by army officer John Maughan, himself a former Mayo footballer, whose career had been cut short because of injury. In the final against Meath, the green and reds were leading by six points at one stage in the match, but the game ended in a draw. The replay is remembered for the flare-up which resulted in the referee sending off Liam McHale, one of Mayo’s key players, and Colm Coyle, Meath’s right half back. The Mayo team rallied, but ten minutes from the final whistle, Meath’s Tommy Dowd scored a goal, giving ‘the Royals’ a one-point lead. Mayo’s James Horan managed to level but Meath answered with another point and ‘Sam’ was theirs. Final score: Meath 2-9, Mayo 1-11.

In 1997, Mayo again reached the All-Ireland Final in Croke Park, playing against Kerry. Mayo reduced Kerry’s lead of seven points at one stage in the second half to a lead of only one point. But the might of Kerry’s Maurice Fitzgerald could not be contained and once again victory slipped from Mayo’s grasp. Final score: Kerry 0-13; Mayo 1-7.

Mayo’s hunger for a Senior All-Ireland title was at last satisfied when Mayo’s Ladies’ football team won the All-Ireland Ladies’ Senior Final in October 1999 and again in 2000. The Captain, Diane O’Hora, accepted the Brendan Martin cup on behalf of the team. Managed by John Mullin from Kilmaine, the Mayo team showed a spirited determination and confidence to successfully defeat their Waterford opponents by 0-12 to 0-8 in 1999 and by 3-6 to 0-14 in 2000. The team won the All-Ireland title again in 2002, beating Monaghan by 0-12 to 1-8.

All Ireland All Stars Awards 1971 – 1999






Johnny Carey


T.J. Kilgallon


Joe McGrath


Kevin O’Neill


Dermot Flanagan; Willie Joe Padden; Kevin McStay


Ken Mortimer; Pat Holmes; James Nallen; Liam McHale; James Horan; Pat Fallon


Gabriel Irwin; Jimmy Browne; Willie Joe Padden; Noel Durkin; Dermot Flanagan


James Horan

Despite the disappointment of not winning the Sam Maguire cup since 1951, many players who donned the red and green jersey over the years have been honoured with GAA All-Star Awards. Mayo’s wealth of talent has been frequently recognised and acknowledged at national level.

Dr. Mick Loftus, a Crossmolina GP, was inaugurated as the 28th President of the GAA in 1985, two years after serving as Mayo’s Person of the Year. Dr. Loftus first played Gaelic football for his local club, Deel Rovers, in Crossmolina and played at minor, junior and senior county level. He was a panel member of Mayo’s 1950 and 1951 All-Ireland winning side and captained the Mayo Junior All-Ireland winning team in 1957.
Dr. Loftus retired from his red and green jersey to take on the onerous task of referee at Connaught and All-Ireland Finals levels. He contributed to the GAA as Chairperson of the National Referees’ Committee and the Rules Revision Group, and as President of the Connacht Council of the GAA. As president of the GAA, Dr. Loftus created an indelible impression nationally, especially in his foresight in recognising the need for a complete revision of the organisation’s administrative structure and a review of the promotion of the game. He has pleaded for unity and pride throughout the GAA and encouraged youth participation in Gaelic sports and in the organisation. He is also a champion of the movement to separate any association between Gaelic games and alcohol, and is vehemently opposed to the GAA’s acceptance of sponsorship from alcohol companies.


Amateur boxing has been a popular sport in Mayo for decades and has produced many champions over the years. Among the earliest was Ballina-born Garda Dick Hearns, five times the Irish Cruiser Champion, who fought throughout Europe and the USA. He won his first national senior title in 1933 and successfully defended it until his retirement in 1939 following an injury. After the disruption of World War II, the 1950s became a great era for Mayo boxing, drawing large crowds to tournaments. Tom McHugh, a former Castlebar boxer, returned from England and revitalised Castlebar Boxing Club. The club ran the hugely successful Connaught Championships in Castlebar each year between 1952 and 1958. Sean Horkan won the first National Championship for Castlebar in 1957, winning the Junior Light Heavy title.

Westport’s Peter Mullen was the amateur Irish Heavyweight Champion from 1971 to 1973 and again in 1975. He represented Ireland against the USA in 1977, when he was defeated by Larry Holmes, later World Heavyweight Champion. Swinford’s Adrian Sheerin became the National Senior Boxing Champion of 1997-98. The clubs in Ballina, Ballyhaunis, Belmullet, Claremorris, Castlebar, Killala, Geesala and Westport have also produced fine boxers. Paul Quinn from the Ardnaree Club in Ballina is one of the most successful young boxers in the county today. Peter Forde of Ballinrobe won the All-Ireland Junior boxing title in the 1980s. Besides his boxing abilities, Forde was also a great football player and captained the Mayo Gaelic Football team in 1992; he was a selector for the team from 1996-98.

Two world heavyweight boxing champions – James J Corbett and Gene Tunney – has Mayo connections. James J. Corbett (1866-1933) was the American boxer known as ‘Gentleman Jim’. His father, Patrick Corbett, had emigrated from Ballycusheen, near Ballinrobe, to the USA in 1854. Corbett defeated fellow Irish-American, John L. Sullivan, in the World Heavyweight Championship in 1892, the first championship to be fought with gloves and governed by the Marquess of Queensberry Rules. He retained his heavyweight title until 1897, when he was defeated by Bob Fitzsimmons. Corbett was the first boxer whose life story was told on the silver screen, with actor Errol Flynn portraying him in the 1942 film Gentleman Jim.In 1894, James J. Corbett returned to his ancestral Mayo. Among the highlights of his visit were the boxing demonstrations he gave in Ballinrobe Town Hall. Special trains were engaged to bring hundreds of supporters to the performance. The proceeds from the event’s entrance fees were donated for the upkeep of Partry Church, where Corbett’s uncle, the Reverend James Corbett, was parish priest at the time, as well as an active member of the Mayo Land League. Corbett also donated a stained-glass window to the church.

Gene Tunney (1897-1978) was the son of two emigrants from Westport and Kiltimagh. He was born in New York City in 1897 and became World Heavyweight Boxing Champion in 1926 when he defeated Jack Dempsey. He repeated his performance in Chicago a year later and retired in 1928 after successfully defending his title against New Zealander Tom Heaney. Tunney later pursued a successful business career and wrote his autobiography Arms for Living. Gene Tunney, Junior, attended the unveiling of the memorial to Bohola-born Olympic athlete Martin Sheridan in July 1966.


Interest in athletics in Mayo has grown significantly in recent decades. Many athletic clubs have sprung up and older clubs have been regenerated. The Claremorris Athletic Club was founded in the 1960s, with success coming quickly for many club members on the national scene. In the early 1990s, the club achieved major successes in track and field events. Ballina Athletic Club, which had been dormant for some years, was revived in the 1960s with Fr. Michael Flynn as chairperson. Ballina athletes have had many notable achievements over the years. For example, Deirdre Gallagher competed in the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996 and Padraig Howard participated in the Special Olympics in North Carolina in 1999. where he won a gold medal in the shot putt. The Castlebar Athletic Club was founded in 1972 and has also enjoyed recent successes.

The Mayo Athletic Club, catering for junior and senior athletes within the county, was re-formed in the late 1980s. Brenda Murphy was the first female athlete to join the club and she had wonderful success in the Belfast Marathon. Other successes by athletes such as Anne Lennon, Josephine Macken and Frances Lally soon followed. Paddy Murray dominated the road race scene and Paddy Kearney brought great honour to the club for his numerous sprint titles. Eugene McTigue had hugh success at national level in both the 56 lb (25.4kg) and shot events.

The Special Olympics World Summer Games are held every four years with the aim of providing athletic competition in a variety of Olympic sports for intellectually challenged participants. In June 1999, 7,000 athletes from 150 countries participated in the Special Olympics, hosted in North Carolina, USA. Six athletes from Mayo brought back two gold medals, one silver and four bronzes, as well as ribbons for two fourths, one first and two sixths, in equestrian, bowling, basketball swimming and athletic events. It was a success-story made possible by the hard work of the athletes and their coaches at home in Mayo. Fiona Hughes (Hollymount) received fourth place in both her equestrian events (the trail ride and equitation). Agnes McGee (Westport) participated with her unified partner, Colette McTigue, in the bowling event and achieved third place in the World Doubles and third place in a team event, receiving two Bronze medals. Agnes Melvin (Ballina) achieved the highest individual score on her team in the basketball event, winning an Olympic Gold medal. Caitriona Ryan (Easkey), participating in the 25 metre freestyle and 25 metre backstroke events, won both an Olympic Gold and a Silver medal. Padraig Howard (Ballina) won the first Gold medal for Ireland in the shot putt and also received a fifth place in the athletics events of the 100 metre and 200 metre races.

However, there have been two athletes in particular who have achieved great success both nationally and internationally. Born in Kiltimagh, Sean ‘Baller’ Lavan (1898-1973) was a superb athlete with tremendous natural ability in many different sports. Among his achievements was the initiation of the ‘hand to toe’ technique or ‘solo run’, which is today such an integral part of Gaelic football. Between 1918 and 1924, Lavan played Gaelic football for Kiltimagh and for Mayo. He won every athletic competition in Ireland in the 220 and 440 yard races (200m and 400m), played rugby on occasion and boxed when at college. In 1924, Lavan represented Ireland in the Paris Olympics on the first Irish national team since independence. He competed in the 400 yards (365m) event, reaching the semi-finals. Four years later, he captained the Irish team in the Amsterdam Olympics and later acted as the Irish team’s medical officer in the Helsinki Olympics.
Besides his sporting pursuits, Lavan had first trained as a national school teacher and later studied medicine in University College Dublin. He subsequently lectured there in anatomy and also worked for a while as a police surgeon. During his sporting career, Lavan earned over 120 medals, which were exhibited in his native Kiltimagh in 1997.

Bohola-born Olympic champion, Martin Joseph Sheridan (1881-1918) was one of the most outstanding athletes of his time, winning more Olympic medals than any other Irish athlete. He retired from athletics in 1911, having established 16 new world records and winning nine Olympic medals – five gold, three silver and one bronze – at St. Louis (1904), Athens (1906) and London (1908). Having emigrated to New York at the age of 19, Sheridan set his first world record in athletics when he was 29 with a discus throw of 120 feet 7 and a quarter inches. He subsequently won the American All Round Athletic Championships three times between 1905 and 1909. Although an all-round athlete, his main expertise was in pole vaulting, discus throwing, the long jump and the high jump. On a visit to Bohola in August 1908, Sheridan visited his family home where his brother Joe and his wife, Kitty, lived. She was an assistant teacher in Carragowan school, which Martin himself had attended, and was a sister of the renowned Republican and statesman Michael Collins (1890-1922). It was during this visit that Sheridan created yet another world record, this time by throwing a 7 lb weight a distance of 99 feet 10 inches, which was 2 feet 7 inches more than the previous world record. A memorial to Martin Sheridan was unveiled at Bohola in July 1966 by Gene Tunney, Junior, son of the Irish-American World Heavyweight Boxing champion, and Bohola-born Paul O’Dwyer, then Mayor of New York.


While show jumping has always been a minority sport in Mayo, it has experienced phenomenal growth in recent years. The county now boasts a number of talented senior and junior riders, competing regularly at both national and international level. Notable among this ever-growing band of successful showjumpers is Cameron Hanley from Claremorris who, among his numerous international successes, won the prestigious King George V Cup at Hickstead in 2000 (the first time Ireland has done so since 1937).

Hanley’s international show jumping career began in 1989 when he competed against 13 nations to win an individual European silver medal on an unusually young six-year-old pony called ‘Kilclooney’. As anchor man of the Irish team, Hanley jumped three clear rounds, helping to assure Ireland of a team Bronze medal in the jump-off. Successes followed in the senior competitions and Young Rider Qualifiers at the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) in the early 1990s and as winner of the Swiss Young Rider Championships on ‘Rocky Jackson’ in 1993. Hanley had a remarkable year in 2000. In February, he came third in the Zurich Grand Prix, the world’s largest indoor international show jumping competition. In May, he joined Ballaseyr Stables and was on the winning Nations Cup teams in June at Drammen (Norway), Helsinki (Finland), Falsterbro (Sweden) and Hickstead (England), where he also won the King George V Cup and the qualifying competition in July. In August, he won the Grand Prix at the Horse Show in Dublin’s RDS and, to finish the year, he won the Grand Prix in November at the Millstreet Indoor International Horse Show.

Another great success in the show jumping world is Crossmolina rider Damien Gardiner, now based in the USA and competing on the American circuit. He achieved the ultimate accolade in being selected to represent his country as a member of the Irish team in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

At ‘Young Rider’ level, the success achieved by some of the younger Mayo showjumpers is a positive indicator of the continuing growth and prosperity of the sport in the county. Samantha Duffy of Knockmore and Carl Hanley of Claremorris represented Ireland at the European Championships in Hungary in 2000 and produced exemplary performances. The selection of these Mayo showjumpers as members of the National European Showjumping Team is evidence of the limitless horizons to which young Mayo riders can now aspire.

(Extracted from 'The Story of Mayo'; copyright Mayo County Library)

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