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Fr JJ Cribbin was a hero to so many


SAYING THEIR GOODBYES The funeral cortege of Fr JJ Cribbin passes a guard of honour in Breaffy last Sunday.  Pic: Michael McLaughlin

Edwin McGreal

SUNDAY last marked the 50th anniversary of Mayo’s famous 1970 league final win over Down.
It was especially poignant because it was also the day that the two-goal hero of that final win, Fr JJ Cribbin, was laid to rest.
Fr JJ was, for those of us lucky to know him, a fascinating man.
His football career regularly clashed with his vocation but he did his very best to keep both going. Seán Rice recalls JJ the footballer in these pages and gives a vivid sense for those of us too young to have seen him play just how good he was.
A young star with his beloved Ballyhaunis, his first posting was to Taugheen where he played with both Hollymount and Carramore and started coaching in the area too.
But it was his next posting where we got to know him.
He was transferred to Breaffy in 1979 and spent eleven years here where he left such a positive, lasting impression.
Not long into his time he would become our next-door neighbour in Breaffy, actually moving into our old house. We were blessed to have him and he became a close family friend.
There was literally a path worn on the grass between the two houses. He was great fun and had a way with everyone.
Mayo football had endured a difficult time after that 1970 league win well into the 1980s so the star quality of players from that era still shone very brightly.
Imagine our luck that here was one of them among us, training us at underage level and kids in the village were seeing him on a near daily basis either at football, school or in the church.
In football-mad Mayo, Fr JJ had a God-like status in Breaffy for those of us growing up and who had him as our first football coach. Such reverence didn’t do his day job any harm either and it was easy convince kids to go to Mass too!
But he earned your respect and reverence. It wasn’t just his legacy and name. JJ was a most loyal and passionate coach. When he was in your corner, you knew it.
If an opposing manager said or did something out of line, Fr JJ didn’t let his collar get in the way of telling them what he felt. Referees who erred were given his honestly held views too!
He was a key figure, along with people like Paul and Mary Fahey and Tommy and Johnny Lyons, in prospering the Bord na nÓg in Breaffy and many great club players went through his hands.
Fr JJ frequently told the story of a five-year-old Marty McNicholas turning up at Under-10 training and JJ suggesting he might be too small, but then reconsidering when he saw his ‘wicked’ left foot.
He planted a seed of passion for the game in so many of us that endures to this day and we will always be grateful for that.
We were not in the slightest bit grateful though when we heard in the summer of 1990 that he was being transferred. Italia 90 was just over and while the nation had a new set of heroes, we were losing our own sporting God and a man who had such a great relationship with his community.
An eight-year-old me could not work out why the archbishop in Tuam would consider moving a priest from a community where he was so at home and so popular.
I still cannot fully understand it today.
I always had hoped to interview Fr JJ and made inquiries in recent weeks only to discover he was fighting his biggest battle – and he had battled illness several times down the years.
It would break your heart to know that a man so popular could not receive visitors near the end when so many would have loved to help him carry his burden in the same way as he eased the pain of so many families down the years.
Also because of Covid-19 his funeral was limited to close family only, but all over Mayo and Connacht, where he served and left a mark, people this week are remembering a humble Mayo hero who left a positive mark on so many lives on and, particularly, off the field.
A man who gave so much. That’s a legacy to be proud of, a life well-lived.

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