Con Murphy

May 22nd, 2007
by Weeshie Fogarty

They laid Con Murphy to rest a few short weeks ago. One of the all time great GAA men of the last century in my humble opinion. He led the association as president from 1976-1979. I had the great pleasure and privilage of meeting the late Con Murphy on a number of occasions. I certainly won't claim that I got to know him well but he was one of those people who leave a lasting impression in your memory. Quiet and soft spoken he was one of nature's gentlemen. When he spoke you listened and you knew in your heart that here was a man whom you would trust literally with your life. Of all the great GAA men and women I have met during my life Con Murphy for some reason are another was special. I just can't put my finger on the reason.

In 1979 my own club Killarney Legion launched our club history celebrating 50 years in existence and it was my duty to contact Con requesting him as president to write the foreword. I traveled to Cork with some trepidation to meet him in relation to this. I need not have worried he soon put me at ease with his gentle approach and soft voice. But what struck me most of all about this former great Cork hurler was the way he looked you straight in the eye when he spoke and took you hand in that strong reassuring grip of his. I would often meet him later as I refereed games in Cork. In 2002 I had a long conversation with him as I attended the launch of Jim o Sullivan's excellent book on referees, Men in Black. On that occasion we covered many facets of his exemplary life. However it was his personal involvement in the Crossmaglin club South Armagh that may be one of his greatest lasting legacy's as president.

A number of years ago I found my self in Crossmaglen in South Armagh. At the time popularly referred to as "Bandit Country" a hot bed for republicanism and of course home to the great Crossmaglin Rangers, present All Ireland club champions. I was there to do a programme for Radio Kerry on an up coming clash between Kerry and Armagh. It was in many ways an unforgettable experience. The programme was broadcast from the magnificent complex at the grounds. But this was unlike any surroundings I had ever found my self in before or since. During the live show the crashing sound of helicopter flying overhead and landing outside the complex at times threatened to drown out the programme. The shouts of British solders to each other from the highly fortified watch towers surrounding the pitch could also be clearly heard.

Later that night as we were entertained by our host in the club bar and afterwards in a little pub in the square I learned a lot about Con Murphy and when many others were too pre occupied with other things how he stood by Crossmaglin in their hour of greatest need. The local RUC station stood just beyond the boundary wall of the land owned by the club. As the political conditions deteriorated a huge number of British army soldiers occupied the barracks. In May 1971 they began to use the adjoining pitch for their own sporting pleasure when off duty. The club protested but to no avail. As the situation further deteriorated military activity increased. The army began using the pitch as a helicopter landing pad and on many occasions this went on as games were in progress and players would have to dive for cover.

There was wide spread intimidation of club players and supporters and as tensions mounted outside the town there was little or no notice taken of the clubs plight. On May 17 Th 1972 tensions reached boiling point. Silverbridge was due to play Crossmaglen. As the ball was about to be thrown in a helicopter landed; British soldiers emerged with orders to clear the pitch. Players and spectators were assaulted and from here on the club found it increasingly difficult to function. A wall around the ground was demolished giving easy access to the troops and the pitch it self was repeatedly damaged as heavy machinery moved in and out and helicopters continued to land on the pitch even when matches were in progress. Events were getting progressively worse for the men and women of Cross. When the club erected special gates on their premises the army brought out their big Saracens and simply bulldozed the gates to the ground. The pitch lost its status as a county ground and it appeared as if this magnificent club would literally be blown out of existence. The pitch became a quagmire and all life as a GAA grounds practically came to a stand still. But the men and women of the area never raised the white flag.

Then in 1976 as I was told came a man that was to lead the fight to reclaim the club grounds. Association president Con Murphy visited Crossmaglen in 1976 and issued a statement afterwards that left no one in any doubt what so ever that as far as he was concerned the British army were not going to walk over any of his GAA clubs while he was in charge.

"I must truthful say that I am appalled at what I saw and learned. The complete entrance to the grounds is taken over; entrance gates and fences are damaged; the club social centre is damaged and cut off, therefore unsuitable in the circumstances and has been destroyed by heavy vehicles, thus rendering the field unplayable. Players and officials are being constantly harassed by soldiers. In other words the people of the area are being completely deprived of their rights". The president left no one in any doubt where his sympathies lay and he went even further, adding. "The local club officials and members, whose anxiety is to preserve the GAA property for recreation facilities for the local community for all ages, are to be admired for their courage, patience and sense of responsibility in these highly provocative circumstances and our associations in full support of their stand". Con Murphy had laid down a marker, what he said is in retrospect most significant and set the agenda for the fight to regain the clubs premises over the following 25 years.

He set up a committee, the Crossmaglen Croke Park committee which would lead the fight and the men and women of Cross knew well that they were now to get full backing from Con Murphy and Croke Park. Outside Crossmaglen Cons voice was the one raised the loudest in defense of St Oliver Plunkett Park and his was often a lone voice. And so he began a journey that was to last almost a quarter of a century culminating in the last derequisitioning orders served on the club and a final compensating settlement in 2002.

In one of his final interviews some time before his death Con recorded what exactly were the circumstances at that time of great trouble and strife. Humble as always he stated.

"Well I was only acting on behalf of the association and there was no particular credit due to me. We were very concerned of what might be the trend not alone in Crossmaglen but in many other situations in the six counties. Casement Park had previously been taken over and there was every indication that these grounds were also going to be taken over as well. So some one had to lead the campaign to prevent that. It was a difficult time for the country and in particular for the clubs in the six counties. It has to be said that in a broad context that where ever large crowds were gathering there was great danger."

"I spend many difficult times up in the North but I was dealing with great people who wanted nothing but peace and prosperity in their area and that the games and that association and the way of life that they knew would not be put down by anybody. Thankfully they survived that extremely troubled period and the Crossmaglen grounds are back in the hands of the club". He had lavish praise for the club in relation to the great victories they had achieved on the field of play. "They were being kept down, their movements were being restricted, and the young people of the area were being deprived of playing our national games. I witnessed as a matter of fact young people being chased off that field by soldiers with fixed bayonets. When you are under that kind of pressure and then you get the relief of shaking it off you'll make up for it because the spirit is there and Crossmaglin are wining their All Ireland championships and to an extent Armagh winning their All Ireland has proved that is the way we react when we are suppressed. When we get the chance we will fight back with the spirit we have and the know how and well come good in the end".

Con Murphy won 4 senior All Ireland hurling medals and also referred at the same level. He was one of the greatest administrators the association has ever had. Born in 1922 he gave his life to the GAA. But above all he was a man of principle and he epitomized the very spirit of an association that consumed his life right up to the time of his death. But for me his leadership of the Crossmaglin battle to regain what was rightful theirs from the forces of the British army is the one defining cause that makes this Corkman one of our all time great Presidents. But most of all he was on of nature's true gentlemen.

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