A LIVING LEGEND Former Mayo footballer Joe Earley is pictured at the Belmullet GAA grounds in Tallagh recently. Pic: Conor McKeown
Joe Earley’s playing career is the stuff of GAA legend
HERE’S one for you: Have you heard of the former Mayo footballer who won a county senior title with Claremorris, a county intermediate title with Belmullet and a county minor title with Burrishoole?
They are just a few of the many great tales from the career of Ballyvary-born former Mayo defender Joe Earley, who was one of Mayo’s most promising young footballers back in the 1960s and early ‘70s.
Joe’s inter-county career was cut short by a serious leg break during a National League game when times were much different and rehab was non-existent, but even at that stage he had clocked up some serious mileage.
In his trophy cabinet sits a glittering array of medals, from wins in the Hogan Cup, Sigerson Cup, All-Ireland Under-21 championship and the National League, along with a precious Connacht SFC medal. He’s marked some of the all-time greats and even graced the sacred turf of Wembley Stadium in a Mayo jersey.
These days Joe Earley is enjoying the quiet life in his adopted Belmullet, a place he’s called home for over 40 years and where he has become a fabric of the local GAA club, having served in all positions and roles.
So where do you start in an interview with a man that has so many stories to tell, stored in a memory bank as sharp as the Atlantic wind that sweeps across the Mullet Peninsula.
Well, you cast your mind back to February 19, 1967 when Mayo beat Roscommon 1-10 to 2-0 in Tuam Stadium in the National Football League and Earley made his senior debut.
“My standout memory is the first day I lined out for the Mayo seniors against Roscommon and I was marking Tony White,” he told The Mayo News recently. “I always wanted to play for Mayo. It was always an ambition of mine.
“I was football mad at the time and always very impressed by the game. I always remember around the times of the All-Ireland I would cut the pictures of the players that were in the papers and I would hang them on the wall in the wooden porch of our house in Knocksaxon, the likes Frank Ivers and Mick Lane.
“My mother used to tell me that back in the 50s Mayo were playing in Castlebar and she brought myself and my brother, John, onto the pitch afterwards and she put us down on the pitch and told us we’d play here someday.”
The late Ms Earley’s prediction was right, too; with John going on to represent the Mayo minors in an All-Ireland Final against Kerry and Joe following in his footsteps but showing more promise.
The Earley brothers learned their trade in the Fairgreen in Ballyvary as youngsters, where local lads would met up for a kickaround and some training.
“It was mayhem,” Joe laughed, “but it was the only place there was a goalpost! It was literally a field, with cows grazing the days before and the days after, but you’d play away.”
When 1960 arrived, Earley went off to the football nursery of St Jarlath’s College in Tuam and honed his skills even further, going on to win a Hogan Cup medal in 1964 after a replay victory over St Mel’s of Longford.
“They were great days and it was a big occasion,” he said. “I remember the following year we were beaten by St Columb’s College from Derry who went on to win it, and I remember a ball came in from out the field and Eugene Rooney was in goal.
“Next thing the ball was in the corner of the net, I don’t know how, he must have been blinded by the sun. You don’t forget those days.”
After finishing in Tuam, Joe Earley would emigrate to Birmingham in search of work, playing in an All-England Final with Warwickshire in 1966, lining out alongside John McAndrew, an All-Ireland winner from Mayo.
After putting aside some savings, he returned home to the Emerald Isle and enrolled in ‘Ag Science’ in University College Galway where he played in the Sigerson Cup final in 1966.
“I was right half-back marking one of the Philpotts from Cork, and I was getting the better of him,” Earley recalled. “I was probably a bit better than he thought I was, but towards the end of the first half I was coming out with a ball and he turned around and gave me an uppercut and stretched me!
“I think it was Mick Loftus refereeing at the time and he sent him off. I was concussed and couldn’t continue. I remember my grandfather, John, was above trying to get into the pitch to get this fella from Cork!
“But there was plenty of that going on back then. You had to be determined and I was used to the more physical game having played in England.”
Joe Earley’s performances had him on the radar for Mayo and he established himself as a star performer on the Under-21 team that defeated Kerry in an All-Ireland Final replay in 1967 in Ballinasloe. It was Mayo’s first All-Ireland title at that age and it produced a famous figure in Mayo GAA folkore, in rather bizarre circumstances!
“That was the day ‘Four-Goal [Willie] McGee’ was born,” he said. “It’s funny, because there was three lads in Maynooth at the time and they weren’t allowed out to play for the replay; PJ Golden from Ballycastle, Fr JJ Cribbin and Fr Mick Lally from Ballintubber who passed away a few years back.
“They were huge losses, but if Fr JJ was playing in Ballinasloe, McGee would never have got his four goals. Cribbin was the usual full-forward and no one came in around the goals. That was Fr JJ’s territory and wouldn’t be long telling you to stay out of his way!”
Joe’s performances that year would earn a call-up to the senior squad, who were looking to end a 12-year wait for a Connacht title.
They would meet treble-winning All-Ireland champions, Galway, in the Connacht semi-final and it’s another famous day Earley remembers.
“The Connacht Final against Leitrim was an easy game,” he said. “But we played Galway in the semi-final in Pearce Stadium and it was fierce. That was some competition that day.
“The biggest thing I remember was at the full-time whistle, the Mayo supporters pulled down the concrete posts and mesh surrounding the pitch trying to get on.
“It was a massive win for us. We were young and athletic and Galway were probably a bit tired. We had the likes of Martin Flatley who was very agile, and Seamus O’Dowd got a goal.”
Joe Earley never got his hands on the sacred All-Ireland medal, but he experienced great days against teams like Offaly, Dublin and Kerry along the way.
And in 1970 he tasted national success in Croke Park, during Mayo’s 4-7 to 0-10 win against Derry. “That was a big achievement,” he modestly admits.
But it’s only a fraction of the story about the life and times of a remarkable man.
He had boots, Joe travelled!
CLUB football was different back in the good old days.
Travel wasn’t as freely accessible as it is today. So wherever you happened to be at the time is what jersey you wore at the weekend. Joe Earley has the medals to prove just that.
In 1971, the former Mayo star started teaching in Claremorris and was only there six weeks before he broke his leg playing for the Green and Red seniors in Derry.
But during that six-week window, Claremorris happened to be playing in the County Senior Final so Joe Earley got drafted in for one game.
“I signed up for one match, the County Final against Aghamore, and we won it,” he laughed.
The circumstances were even ‘greyer’ for his West Mayo Minor medal win.
“I was a Mayo minor in 1964 and at the time Harry McGovern was the county chairman,” he explained. “There was also a Seamus McGowan involved with us from Newport and after we were beaten in the All-Ireland semi-final he brought me down to Newport for a few days and I did a bit of training with them.
“One day we met some fella in a pub in Westport, I signed a few papers and next thing I was a Burrishoole player!
“I didn’t have much say in the matter, but there was a West Final on and three teams turned up in Westport to play it. There was a bit of a row and no game was played that day. But they ended up winning it out and I got the West medal even though I didn’t actually play at all!”
A decade later, and before a short stint teaching in Ennistymon in Clare, Joe Earley secured a job in Belmullet and moved to North Mayo in 1973.
After the leg break in Derry, he hadn’t played any football. His time with the Mayo panel was over and he ‘had no interest’ at that stage. But whilst socialising in a popular Belmullet spot one evening, some local GAA lads tracked him down and asked him to tog out in the North Mayo Junior Final against Lacken.
He reluctantly agreed, and next thing he knew, he was part of their 1973 County Junior title winning team that beat Balla in a packed semi-final in Ballina and went on to defeat Kilmaine in the final, ending a hiatus of 44 years for some silverware.
The following year he was trainer/player as Belmullet completed the back-to-back wins and won the Intermediate title.
Joe Earley was a well-travelled footballer, having even graced the turf of Wembley Stadium for Mayo over the three different June Bank Holiday weekends, in what used to be a showcase tournament to promote Gaelic games.
“We played Meath in 1968 and there was a big rivalry at the time because it was a replay of the famous semi-final in ’67,” he said. “It was a very attractive fixture and we got the better of Meath that day in front of about 40,000 people.
“I always remember being in the tunnel getting ready to line out and seeing the pitch and the condition it was in. We never saw anything like it because you have to remember Croke Park wasn’t like it is now at the time.
“Joe Corcoran played very well that time and, because the supporters couldn’t get on the pitch, they waited outside afterwards and they were going mad altogether. They were sticking tenners and 20s down Joe’s togs – they had a field day!
“But that was a huge event for the counties involved.”
Joe Earley on…
Injuries he suffered
“I put my ankle out in the 1968 Connacht Final in MacHale Park and I remember at the time we togged out in the TF [Hotel]. But with the confusion and the crowd around afterwards, I ended up missing the lifts back and had to walk with my ankle out. I got it put back in the following week in Tuam, there were no scans or physios back then.
I broke my leg in 1971 playing Derry up there. I drew on a ball and Anthony McGurk came lunging in and all his weight came down on my leg. The tibula and fibula was smashed. Sean Calleary was a selector at the time and he ran on and said ‘Get up, Joe, you’re all right’.
But sure my leg was bent at 90 degrees.
There was a bit of ‘4 x 2’ timber stuck between my two legs, a bandage wrapped around and I was lifted into the back of a plumber’s van. That’s the way it was back then. There was no notice taken afterwards, no contact, you were just gone out there door and forgotten about. That was the norm.”
Jinkin’ Joe Corcorcan
“Joe Corcoran came back in 1966 and he was a star performer. If he was going well he was unstoppable. But I played right-half back and we used to have some battles in MacHale Park at training. He was an outstanding player and the only forward I ever played with that never tried the same dummy twice.
We were the best of friends too and we’d love trying to get the better of each other because I was a tight marker and he would often say that to me.”
The Mayo/Galway rivalry
“There was awful competition between us, it was a fierce rivalry. It was hammer and tongs every time. But there was great banter too because we knew each other and we’d meet them all the time.
I remember in ’67 we played them in a league play-off and Ray Prendergast hit Cyril Dunne an almighty rattle. Down in the pub afterwards, Prender’ turned to Cyril and said ‘I thought you were done’. Cyril turned around to him and said ‘I wouldn’t give you the satisfaction of staying down!’. And that would be the craic after the games.”
His Belmullet career
“I have trained father and sons and even grandfathers and grandsons in Belmullet! I had Willie Joe Padden and his son Billy Joe Padden and I trained Michael Togher and his grandson!
I managed Belmullet to three Comórtas Peile Finals and we won two; 21 years after we won it in 1985, I was on the side line again when we won it in 2006 in Spidéal.
Also, when we won the intermediate title a couple of years ago, I was coaching the under-12s that played at half-time in that game against Burrishoole. It was 44 years after I won it in 1974 and that was a very nice moment.
Players he marked
“We played Offaly in Wembley one year and I ended up marking Tony McTague. Myself and Tony had numerous run-ins. He was a great footballer.
I played on Sean O’Connell in the league semi-final in 1970 and he was a big star at the time. He was the tallest player I ever marked. I stood behind him in Croke Park that day and I used to be able to look out under his arm, but I was faster than him and when the ball would come to him, I was able to be out in front and I held my own that day.
We would always actually beat the Dubs at that time. I don’t think they ever got the better of us. But they had the likes of Jimmy Keaveney and David Hickey in the 1971 league semi-final and they came good years later.”