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Memories made of ‘Road to 51’

Sean Rice
Sean Rice

Memories made of ‘Road to 51’

IT’S a story lost in the mists of time. The year was 1925, the Connacht championship had not been completed in time because of numerous draws among the other four counties, and as a consequence Mayo was nominated to represent the province in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Having beaten Wexford in the last four, Mayo got a walk-over in the final and were assumed to be the new All-Ireland champions when the other semi-finalists – Cavan and Kerry – were suspended from the competition.
Subsequently, the new champs were pitted against Galway for that season’s Connacht title, unaware their All-Ireland crown was also at stake. They lost the match in Tuam on October 18, and despite lengthy objections and recriminations lost their All-Ireland title with it.
That story was in danger of being consigned to the realm of myth had it not been resurrected by James Laffey in his new book, ‘The Road to 51’ which he launched last week in Ballina.
The author devotes a whole chapter to that episode of Mayo’s burgeoning football years. He highlights the travesty of their defeat and the machinations that led to Galway claiming the All-Ireland title. It is even claimed that a spectator kicked one of the winning points.
This is just one chapter of a book that by any standard is a glorious read. You are brought back to a disturbed period in Irish history when the final struggle for Independence had commenced, a period when some members of flying columns descended from the hills where they had been in hiding to play Gaelic football, when the countryside was in turmoil, British bans imposed on large scale gatherings, GAA officials and players arrested, and fixtures postponed and cancelled.
Yet despite those topsy-turvy events Mayo were one of the top football teams in the country, and even though no All-Ireland bedecked their efforts they did reach the finals of 1916 and 1921, the semi-finals of ’23 and ’24, and, of course, the infamous events of 1925.
On the bare bones of those statistics, Laffey puts the real meat, the day-to-day problems confronting those involved, the minutiae of how they got there and who led them.
The social history of the period is delved into and personalities about which many of us had only the sketchiest of information come alive in their Herculean work for the GAA together with their engagement in the fight for independence, and the tragedy of the Civil War.
Indeed in a way the two were linked. For in the aftermath of the savage Civil War, the divided loyalties, the killings and the destruction of families and friendships, the GAA is seen as a unifying force, a kind of healing agent helping to have differences set aside.
All of the controversies and arguments throughout the years are dealt with, as the author gets behind the headlines and builds fascinatingly to 1936, culminating in that purple period of 1950 and ’51. All is meticulously recounted and in reading about the lives of the protagonists you feel you have known all of them personally.
It is the definitive history of the development of Gaelic football in Mayo in the first half of the last century. The people who made that history are profiled in detail. There is the disappointment of the lean years, the painstaking periods of recovery and the climb, the slow arduous ascent to the summit of ‘51.
The Road to 51 is teeming with great characters and individual stories. It beautifully written, and it holds your attention through every riveting chapter.  At €20 it is available in most bookshops and is an ideal Christmas present for those interested in Mayo football.

Dr Billy Kenny: gone but not forgotten
BILLY KENNY epitomised the mystique of the men of Mayo’s golden era. His All-Ireland input ended fifteen minutes into the final of 1950, but his character was the inspiration for the back-to-back success of his colleagues.
As he was carried from the field in great pain with a compound fracture of a leg, Kenny rose from the stretcher and “lifted his clinched fist in a gesture all the rest of his team-mates fully understood,” said Eamonn Mongey.
“The gesture epitomised the whole outlook of Billy Kenny, for all through his life in whatever has been his lot he has shown the same courage, the same determination, the same concern for others, and the same lack of consideration for himself.”
Billy never played football again. He spent six months in hospital and six months convalescing. He qualified as a doctor – having giving up a lucrative job with an oil company – married Kay Divilly from Headford and emigrated to Canada.
“I suppose we all forgot Billy Kenny – just a little bit – after he emigrated,” said Mongey. “The same thing could be said about Fr Peter Quinn who had left the country. But when Peter came back in 1959 his colleagues decided to play one match and give the proceeds to him for his work (on the missions).
“It was a fine Sunday in July when we all got together in a hotel in Ballina togging out to take on the current Mayo team. Suddenly, there was a screech of breaks outside the hotel. We all looked out the window and there was Kenny arriving from Shannon, having flown in specially from Canada for the match.
“Not only did he come at his own expense, but he also insisted on making a contribution to the funds, about which no one else except myself knew. That night he was gone again,” said Mongey.
Billy built a brilliant reputation in Canada as a doctor, and in Burlington became one of its distinguished citizens. In 1958 he was the only citizen of the city (pop 50,000) listed in the Social Register of Canada. The following year he was elected president of the Lion’s Club and named citizen of the year.
In 1959 five young boys in the city were burned in a fire. Billy Kenny was asked to tend them and his skills and expertise over a two-year period nursed the boys back to full health. He also organised the ‘Burned Boys Fund’ which raised $35,000.
He was involved, too, in the establishment of a new hospital in Burlington, brought in the first patient and presided over the first birth. “His name became a household word around Burlington,” said Eamonn Mongey.
Later he contracted an illness that prevented him from practising as a doctor. In 1962 he came to Sligo with his wife and four daughters, then courageously hit for England to study, and was admitted a Fellow of the Institute of Dermatology at London University.
This great Mayo man returned to live with his family in Galway and worked at the Regional Hospital in the city for some time before he died.
Two trophies commemorating Dr Billy Kenny were presented for football competitions in Mayo: one, in 1971, was donated by Mayo GAA Board for his ‘brave and spirited action’. Four years ago the Kenny family donated another. Billy’s daughter Dr Roseanne presented that trophy to the captain of its first winners Pat Hyland of Shrule/Glencorrib.

Just a thought …
No response yet from headquarters to Dublin’s request for provincial status. If it were to be granted one condition ought to be mandatory – that the county is divided into two separate GAA entities.