John P O’Kane was nominated for an All Star in 1979 and yet he doesn’t mention it. (Pic: Arthur Kinahan)
John P O’Kane was nominated for an All Star in 1979 and yet he doesn’t mention it. He played in an All-Ireland final for Antrim and keeps its significance under wraps. The Saffron reached championship finals in his native county, Louth and Down, a feat which few are aware of. Though O’Kane was a marvellous, elegant footballer and is the consummate gentleman, traits which are widely known.
The former Lamh Dhearg clubman, who lined out for Kilkerley Emmets and St. Joseph’s in this part, played for Louth from 1977 until ’83, a period not best remembered for success involving Wee County flag-bearers on the provincial circuit. And yet many of the Gaels tales subjects have included him in their all-time Reds XV.
O’Kane won a senior league and championship double with his Belfast-based outfit while still a minor, in 1971; the first major success in the club’s history. Three years later he was pivotal to the Antrim U21 team that defeated Tyrone in the Ulster final, Cork at Corrigan Park in a memorable All-Ireland last four encounter and forced Mayo to replay the decider in which they fell short.
He was picked on the province’s Railway Cup team for the following two seasons and upon transferring to Louth, featured on the Leinster side to contest the same competition.
His memory of these games and accolades, he claims, isn’t great, although your writer reckons his haziness has more to do with humbleness than anything else. He is, however, able to recall the ’74 campaign vividly for a rather uncomfortable reason.
“Between the final and the replay, I got a back injury and it’s plagued me all my life since,” says O’Kane, who now lives in Rostrevor with his wife, Marian.
“I was never pain-free playing football from that day and it wasn’t as if you could go to see a consultant to sort it out at the time.”
Perhaps, though, his modesty is genuine. Football, he insists, was a source of enjoyment and while “it would have been nice to have won four All-Ireland medals”, his participation was based solely on a love of the game. He hadn’t a fixation for medals or a ruthless thirst for victory.
Rather, an understanding of what Gaelic games meant and offered communities, considering he hailed from a place steeped in political division.
“Every Gaelic footballer in the North had their own problems during the troubles,” O’Kane adds. “I guess if your name appeared in The Irish News as a Gaelic footballer, I’m not saying you were a target but there may have been a suspicion about you, and it was no different for me.
“But it never bothered me one bit. If, by some chance, you were coming from training and arrested, people in other parts of Ireland may have considered it to be an awful place to live, though it never really bothered footballers all that much.
“It possibly may have psychologically left a mark, but, for me, looking back, people just took it in their stride. If you had to go to training and there was something happening on the road - a blockade or whatever - you just made it to training and that was it. There was no such thing as turning back.
“Certainly, it was one of the reasons why I moved, though… the thought of trying to bring a family up and all of this going on.”
He finally uprooted to Kilkerley in 1977, almost three years after his parents, Patrick and Mary, had emigrated to the parish, his father taking up a position with CRV. Married and with a young child, getting out of Belfast was a motivating factor. Not that Antrim were entirely receptive to his bid to declare for Louth.
Indeed, their objection called O’Kane’s involvement in the ’77 Leinster Championship clash with Westmeath into doubt. He would play in Navan, but not that well, he reckons.
“I’m quite sure the people in Louth were saying, ‘what did they bring this guy in for?’”
HOME FROM HOME
By the time he officially threw his lot in with Kilkerley, he was already well on the road to becoming an ‘Emmet’. For years he’d trained with the men in blue and yellow when up with his folks and so when he landed permanently, accustomisation was simple.
The Páirc Emmití charges were building, John McCarthy, the Lennons and O’Kane’s ex-Antrim teammate Paul McKiernan others to join around that time, as Kilkerley won the 1978 intermediate title and Cardinal O’Donnell crown of two years later.
Willie Quigley, Arthur Mulholland and Mickey Clarke he mentions fondly, on top of Paddy Clarke and Louth legend Frank Lynch, both of whom were integral in helping him to transport luggage from his Antrim residence.
“It was a country club and there was no sophistication back then,” he points out, reflecting. “The football field, you wouldn’t be allowed to play on it now because of health and safety; there were no such thing as floodlights.
“They’d a little hall where, during pre-season, as it was, we trained and after five or 10 minutes the boys would have had to go to the door because there’d have been that much dust it would have choked you.
“But they carried on anyway and anything that was ever asked of the lads they did it. When the Lennons came to the club, they gave us a big boost; they were quality players, especially Pat, God rest him. He was a great player and a very nice individual too. It was a big blow to me when Pat was killed.
“We would have played with the county together. He was a very hard individual, but there was always a wee sparkle in his eye every time you looked over; there was a connection between him and I.”
The O’Donnell Cup win of 1980 was significant in that it’s the sole senior prize in Emmets’ history. They defeated Cooley, the title holders, in a final which O’Kane remembers for an incident involving Kickhams goalkeeper Gerry Farrell.
“I remember a ball was put into the square and I went up and fisted it towards the corner. Gerry just stretched across the goal and tipped it around the post. It was an absolutely brilliant save.
“Not alone for that incident, but I don’t think Gerry Farrell was ever given the recognition he should have because he was just at the very top.”
An elite-class midfielder, O’Kane would have been familiar - had a relationship, even - with Farrell and so knew his attributes intensely. County colleagues throughout the Ulster man’s link with Louth, they, unfortunately, were in tandem on more bad days than good. Not that results take from his many positive memories.
“There were some very, very good teams in Leinster at that stage - Dublin, Meath, Kildare and Offaly. It’s not to say that Louth weren’t prepared when we went out to play them, it was just about quality when it came down to the bit.
“That Dublin team, with Brian Mullins and Jimmy Keaveney; as far as I can remember, when I was sitting in the dressing room before going out to face these boys (Navan, 1979), we were going out with the intention of doing well, but after 15 or 20 minutes everything just seemed to start falling apart; doubt started to enter people’s heads.
“What was the problem? We just hadn’t got the quality and you were competing against better opposition. We could do our very, very best, but it wasn’t good enough.
“As far as the management was concerned, they left no stone unturned. I know when Frank Lynch was there, he was as passionate a man as you would get anywhere and I know for a fact that after games, losses hurt Frank more than it hurt a lot of players; it meant that much to him.”
On the topic of Lynch, Billy Powell, a well-known Welshman who was a physio back in the day, treated O’Kane during his stint along the border…
“Everybody knew Frank Lynch as Lolley, but whenever I’d go in to see Billy, he’d say, in a little Welsh accent, ‘I’ve known ‘Ollie’ this years and years and years’. I often say it to Frank when I meet him.”
Ollie Lynch? No, ‘Lolley’ still sounds better.
If the workman’s jump from Antrim caused controversy, and it did with plenty of newspaper coverage, his signing for St. Joseph’s in 1982 did anything but. Residing in Glenwood, he was a good friend of Danny Culligan and though insisting his fellow Louth senior “never outrightly asked” him to join Joe’s, O’Kane did, training the team as well as playing.
The Dromiskin/Darver charges were down a grade from Kilkerley, who progressed to the year’s senior final, though that was of little significance to JP, who captured the Seamus Flood Cup for a second time in 1983 as the Cluskey Park troops gained top-flight status.
He remained close to Culligan and having taken ill on the week of “a big game” against Mattock Rangers, was the beneficiary of many prayers...
“Danny Culligan kept a vigil over me,” he quips. “There was a doctor there from Dromiskin as well who was doing the same.”
It worked. He played, albeit in a “weak” state, such was Joes’ desperation to have the big man involved. Perhaps it was loyalty to Culligan, who he tells a story of, that drew O’Kane from his sick bed.
“Danny Culligan is a very witty guy and he used to talk about the old people a lot. He told me one time about an old guy who used be around the Joe’s. On one occasion they were playing a game and this old guy stood up and says: ‘There’s a tribe out in Africa called the Mama and they drink the human blood. That’s what I want you boys to do today!’”
Then again, maybe he got up through fear.
A downturn in the economy saw JP, his wife and family up sticks and relocate to America in ’83, spelling the end of an action-packed period in Louth. Though he’d continue to play, with the Sligo team in New York, prior to returning home after six years and settling in south-east County Down.
He spent a further year with Lamh Dhearg, in a bid to settle whatever rifts there were on foot of his departure almost 20 years earlier, before agreeing to see out his playing days with Rostrevor. And, in 1992, at almost 40, O’Kane was at midfield on a losing cause in a senior championship final against Burren.
Mourne boss Pete McGrath was now a fellow clubman and so roped O’Kane into his Down management for four subsequent seasons. Indeed, his coaching career would eventually take him back to Dundalk and a term with Gaels, but that’s behind him now and he’s left with a treasure trove of mental and physical souvenirs.
Yet his career wouldn’t have been complete had he not gone back to where it all started for one last tilt. It was - and still is - important to him and he’s looking forward to next year’s 50th anniversary celebration of Lamh Dhearg’s remarkable breakthrough.
A hero of 1957, Seamie O’Donnell may have something to say when it comes to tagging Louth GAA’s greatest import, but, sure as heaven and hell, O’Kane is up there.
After all, not too many Wee stars were ever in contention for All Stars.