Louth GAA

Benny McArdle, the Louth and Dundalk Gael that slipped Young Irelands' net

Louth GAA

Caoimhín Reilly

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Caoimhín Reilly

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caoimhin.reilly@dundalkdemocrat.ie

Benny McArdle, the Louth and Dundalk Gael that slipped Young Irelands' net

Benny McArdle had a summer to remember in 1978. Not only was the Dundalk Gaels clubman on the Louth U21 team, he also tasted an incredible success in the Dublin senior football championship. (Pic: AK)

Benny McArdle had a summer to remember in 1978. Not only was the Dundalk Gaels clubman on the Louth U21 team which pushed a star-studded Kerry outfit all the way in a much talked about All-Ireland semi-final, having won Leinster, he also tasted an incredible success in the Dublin senior football championship.

The latter assigns him to a fairly exclusive grouping, Paul McGee (Roche Emmets), Shane Lennon (Kilkerley Emmets) and Benny Gaughran (Clan na Gael) other Wee stars to have got their hands on the capital’s main prize.

By winning all there was to with Gaels as a juvenile, including the 1974 minor title, on a team that never lost through its years on the underage circuit, McArdle had a fearsome record by the time a Colaiste Rís crew containing himself, Mickey McCabe, Larry Goodman and Pat Lennon took hold of the Lennon Cup for the first time.

Forced to repeat his Leaving Cert in order to gain entry to what is now known as St. Patrick’s, the primary teaching training college in Drumcondra, he recalls Dan Hegarty remarking that the Yorke Street side may be in line for two-in-a-row, which they were.

What’s for you won’t pass you, as they say, and McArdle was just destined to experience a year like no other in ’78. In the second batch of students undertaking the three-year course at St. Pat’s, only for his sixth year resit, he’d have missed one of the most remarkable triumphs in GAA history.

“Erin’s Hope, as we were known, only entered the Dublin senior and U21 championship - we didn’t play league football,” McArdle tells The Democrat.

“And so what we achieved was crazy. It’d be like saying Hunterstown Rovers will win the Louth senior championship next year.

“Dublin football when Heffo (Kevin Heffernan) came in in the ’70s became very, very strong. That filtered down to the U21 championship, which we competed in. We competed very strongly because we’d a lot of county minors and U21s, but we couldn’t win it.

“We were beaten in the final the first year by Cuala and in the ’77 quarter-final by Na Fianna. So going into the third year, we knew it was going to be our last chance to win something at the college. We’d been walloped by nobodys really in the first round of the senior in both of those years.

“We were down to play Crumlin in the U21 on the Saturday and Crumlin seniors on the Sunday. They beat us by a couple of points in O’Toole Park on the Saturday and we just reckoned our chance was gone. The boys got it hard because 12 of our U21 team was our senior team.

“They’d about a half-dozen of their U21s playing the following day against us, who even had subs from the Saturday playing because lads had picked up knocks, but we beat them by seven or eight points.

“We would have been 100/1 to win the championship at that stage and all we thought was ‘we’ll get another game out of this’. The second round, a few weeks later, we played Ballyboden in Parnell Park and beat them by a couple of points.

“I remember being picked up that day by Paddy Kenny and taken to Dromiskin to play for Gaels against the Joe’s in the first round of the league. The Dublin senior championship game was at 11:30 in the morning and I played for Gaels at Cluskey’s field in Mansfieldstown in the afternoon.

“Next thing we’re playing in the quarter-final, against St. Mary’s of Saggart. We’re winning matches, but it was like St. Francis in 1990 going on that famous FAI Cup run - we were just going to the next game. How could a team that had failed to win the U21 championship for three years in a row turnaround and win a senior championship?

“It was the last game before the exams, the middle of May, and we were there, ‘Jeez, boys, if we win this we’re playing against UCD in the semi-final; we’ll get back up to Dublin in July and have a great craic!’ UCD would have hammered us…

“We’re playing Mary’s anyway and I’ll never, ever forget it for as long as I live. They were south Dublin, mountainy men; absolutely filthy and we got zero protection at all from Dublin referees; we were culchies, ‘stewdies’… I never was as happy that I was centre half-back on a team because the forwards were being fu**ing lynched and I mean lynched. I never saw the like of it in my life.

“I’ll tell you how bad it was. The best player on their team was their midfielder, the No9, who was wearing a hurling helmet. We beat them by a good bit, but we were slaughtered. The heading in the Evening Press the following week was ‘Erin’s Hope Win War’ and the whole article was praising our resilience and criticising the Saggart team’s approach.

“Anyway, we’re in the semi-final and playing UCD, a Sigerson team who’d won the All-Ireland twice in years before that. The game was in Croke Park, a Friday night in July, and all we were looking forward to was getting back for the weekend! ‘We haven’t a chance here’. UCD had already beaten Vincent’s.

“We got a draw… played well… got a draw. Replay the following Friday at Parnell Park and we came out and just played an exhibition. I was centre-half and over the two games out to the forty came Colm O’Rourke (Meath), Tony McManus (Roscommon), Tommy Murphy (Wicklow) and Donal Donohoe (Cavan). Gerry McEntee (Meath) was playing midfield, PJ Finlay (Monaghan) and Jackie Walsh (Kerry). It was an incredible achievement for us to beat them.

“The final was against Erin’s Isle in Croke Park. We didn’t play well the first day, but got a draw and two weeks later, on the August Bank Holiday weekend, we beat Erin’s Isle by three points in the replay.

“Twelve of us were gone from the college and we went on to the Leinster club in the autumn, beating St. Patrick’s from Longford in the first round after a replay, and Walsh Island, with all the Connors, they beat us by just two points in Portlaoise in the month of November.

“We’d no training. We didn’t train for this championship after we left in May. We were only coming together the night before games, but we fared out well. It was just one of those fairytales. You talk about Sunderland winning the 1973 FA Cup… It was a glorious summer.”

And, extraordinarily, not only was McArdle the sole Louth man on the team, but the only Leinster native involved as well.

Erin’s Hope’s fourth Dublin senior victory, 22 years since their last, it’s a major feat, the magnitude of which will never be matched.

A GREAT GAEL
The McArdles are “medal-hunters”, Benny quips. Between himself, brothers Eugene, Paul and Philip, sisters Jacqui and Anne, and his father, Vincie, the family has just about every domestic medal you can think of.

Vincie, born and reared across the road from St. Patricks’ Lordship base, played on the great Cooley Kickhams team of the 1930s, winning the 1934 junior and ’39 senior championships, before moving to Seatown through work.

The eldest of six, Benny played in Cumann Péil na nÓg at a time where most games took place at the old Gaels field. His father togged out for the blue and whites upon moving to town and so once Joe McNally, “a very shrewd operator”, saw McArdle junior in action, he wasn’t long breaching Young Irelands territory for recruitment purposes.

“He was 10 steps ahead of anyone else in the town,” says Benny. “If he saw a good player and if he thought the person had Gaels connections, that was his way in. A fella might have lived in Marian Park but if his father played with the Gaels, he’d go down and see the father. Joe came down and got me up to the Gaels before the Irelands even knew it!”

Irelands had copped on by the time ‘Ya’, three years younger, came to a playing age and so Benny became the outlier of the next generation, a lonesome Dundalk Gael. It’s a choice he doesn’t regret, despite spending only five of his 18 years as an adult player among the senior ranks.

A Louth team member during the late 1970s, as Gaels fell down the tiers, McArdle found himself struggling in the early years of the following decade. Dropped from the county side ahead of 1981, his form had measurably dipped and the club were amid a turbulent time.

He requested and successfully managed a transfer to Young Irelands in 1984, but was back fighting out of The Ramparts within a year.

“I was after going through going off the Louth team and it hit me hard in a way. My form and confidence dipped, and Gaels were going badly at the time. We didn’t have a home pitch from 1977 to ’87 and the club went down junior in 1983 to ’86. I was a bit fed-up with football and I felt I needed to try something different.

“I played with the Irelands in 1984, centre-half all year, and the Irelands treated me well, but ‘nil aon tintean mar do thintean féin’... ‘there’s no place like home’. I was a Gaels person.

“I came back and we’d a glorious period, winning the junior championship in ’86 and the intermediate in ’87. We got our home field again as well.”

Joe Ward continues to evade a club whose last senior title came in 1952. McArdle’s sons, Eanna and Conall, were panellists in 2017 for Gaels’ latest final shot, when Newtown Blues dealt their defeat, while Benny has been team manager on occasions, in charge when they won Division Two a few years ago.

He’s served his side with distinction.

THY KINGDOM COME
Democrat: “Do you regret not taking Kerry’s bye in 1978?”

Benny: “We were asked as a panel what we thought and we wanted to play. Just say we’d gone to the final and beaten Roscommon, I think it’d have been tarnished had we not beaten Kerry.”

Two days after the drawn Dublin senior final, McArdle was back at Croke Park for the Leinster U21 showpiece against Offaly. Centre-half on a team which Frank Lynch and Paul Kenny were involved in the selection of, their victory remains one of the last by any Louth team at provincial level.

Ahead of the All-Ireland semi-final, a fairly strong Dublin senior side landed for a challenge match, in which The Reds were beaten by only four points. So they approached their home duel with Kerry buoyantly, only for the Munster men, who’d dominated at the grade in prior years, to offer a walkover, their concentration fixed on that year’s senior decider instead.

Louth insisted, though, and just a week after winning Sam Maguire, a Kingdom brigade - minus the suspended Charlie Nelligan - containing Eoin ‘Bomber’ Liston and Jack O’Shea came to Drogheda, prevailing only narrowly in front of a crowd in the region of 20,000.

Through a variety of ways and means, Roscommon piped Kerry by a point in the subsequent final, but McArdle’s displays at No6 were deemed enough for his catapultion to senior status. Though it was “a very short” stint, lasting three years. He was 24 when his top-grade career finished.

It’s a disappointment, albeit he represented Louth juniors for two years before hanging up the boots.

“I wasn’t playing well enough to keep my place with Louth in the early ’80s, but there was also serious competition in the half-back line with Dessie Callaghan, Peter Fitzpatrick, Aidan Wiseman, Mickey McCabe, Gary O’Callaghan…

“I was one of a few who happened to get a couple of years on the Louth team. From 1978-’83, Louth won the Leinster U21 twice, lost in two finals and in 1980 were beaten by four points by a Dublin team that went to the All-Ireland final. Louth were in the top two teams in Leinster for five of those years.

“I know U21 players don’t make great senior players, but I think in the ’80s Louth only got to one Leinster senior semi-final. We were expected to go out in Leinster after coming through without having any patience shown.

“In 1980, Offaly beat us 0-13 to eight in Croke Park in the Leinster quarter-final. Louth were after winning the O’Byrne Cup, but instead of sitting down and reviewing, and saying ‘okay, that Offaly team went on to win Leinster’ - winning it for the next three years and the All-Ireland in ’82... Half a dozen or more of that great Offaly team had played against Louth at U21 and wins were fairly evenly split. It was the same with the Dublin teams, who Louth beat in 1981 in a Leinster U21 semi-final.

“The powers that be, with better management and had they not stupidly changed the Louth management and selectors so often, depriving continuity and planning, I’m not saying we’d have won a Leinster, but we weren’t given an opportunity to bed in. I felt the brunt of that in the Louth senior team.”

Nonetheless, there’s few more decorated than Benny McArdle, the star that slipped the Irelands net.