First Published on the HoganStand.Com
Owen Roe McGovern, the last surviving member of Cavan’s 1947 Polo Ground winning All-Ireland team, passed away in New York on Monday, May 2nd, 2011, aged 93. The Swanlinbar native won two All-Irelands, two national football leagues and four Ulster titles during an illustrious career with the Breffni County. Born in 1918, Owen Roe moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1957 with his wife Philomena.
The following is an interview with Owen Roe McGovern from the 2010 Breffni Blue Cavan Yearbook
‘Great memories’ for Owen Roe
The sad death of Mick Higgins this past January touched every gael in and outside this county. None more so than his former team-mate Owen Roe McGovern, who is now the last surviving member of the Cavan team which made history at the Polo Grounds in 1947.
They say that memories last a lifetime. That certainly seems to be the case with Owen Roe McGovern, who, at 92 years of age, is still hale and hearty at his home in Elizabeth, New Jersey and fit to recall the great times he enjoyed with the Cavan football team as though they were yesterday.
Sadly though, there are too many GAA buffs out there unable to recall him so thoroughly. After Mick Higgins’ passing on January 28, 2010 the Cavan 1952 All-Ireland winning captain got the tributes he and his family so lawfully deserved from Croke Park, the Cavan county board, local and national media and even certain members of state.
However, in some places it was said that the 87-year-old had been the sole surviving member of the famous Cavan team which defeated Kerry in 1947 to become the only group of players to win the Sam Maguire Cup outside the Irish borders – a record which stands to this day.
Hopefully, this piece can go some way towards providing insight when it comes to the great Cavan teams of the ’47 and ’48 and its true remaining surviving member.
During his inter-county playing career, Owen Roe won two National League titles, two All-Irelands and four Ulster championship crowns. He had come into a fit and young Cavan team for the first time at the seasoned age of 27, after winning an All-Ireland medal as a member of the Armed Forces football team and impressing alongside his brothers James and Joe with Swanlinbar in the county junior championships of previous years.
“I played my first game for Cavan in 1945 and the trainer was Hughie O’Reilly and he was a good one,” Owen Roe quipped.
“It was great to be training alongside players like John Joe and Mick Higgins. I will never forget Mick in the ’48 final. He scored a goal which came from the sideline and it put us ahead and we won the final against Mayo by a point.
“That was a great time and it was a good team,” he added.
In his first season with the team, Owen Roe helped Cavan to lift a seventh consecutive Anglo-Celt Cup – a record which firmly speaks for itself and went a long way towards underlining Cavan’s status as the aristocrats of Ulster. The best was yet to come though.
While their attempts at an elusive eight-in-a-row of Ulster crowns was marginally disrupted by Antrim, the Breffni Blues came back strongly the following year and returned to the provincial decider, where they would avenge their defeat to the Saffrons by sending them back across the border after handing them a 3-4 to 1-6 defeat.
Hughie O’Reilly’s men had proved that they were well able to bounce back after defeat and, as Owen Roe recalls, he had the players sharp and ready to go again when the time came to play the champions of Connacht, Roscommon, come the first Sunday that August.
Two goals helped sink the Rossies at Croke Park and send the Cavan players on a trip that they would forever carry in their memories and be remembered as immortals for in their home county afterwards.
“I travelled over by boat and it was a desperate hot day when we arrived,” Owen Roe recalled of his arrival in ‘The Big Apple’.
In the final, the kings of Munster, Kerry, met Ulster’s finest in Cavan at the Polo Grounds in New York on September 14, 1947, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“We were a fit team and although Hughie O’Reilly was a strict trainer with us, he was still very good,” said Owen Roe.
“I remember a lot about that day. Kerry got away to a big start and they got a couple of slippery goals at the beginning. Cavan were the younger team though and they came out on top in the end, winning by four points (2-11 to 2-7).”
As one could only imagine, the celebrations for such a unique occasion, with a huge Irish population in New York, must have been colossal.
Owen Roe McGovern recalls.
“The celebrations were great afterwards,” he stated. “We were wined and dined and never let buy a drink anywhere. There were a lot of people who wanted to celebrate with us and they all wanted us to come into their pub afterwards.
“There were big celebrations when we came home as well. We came back on The Queen Mary and when we arrived in Dublin the welcome we got was terrific. We got a bus down to Cavan and there was nothing to beat the celebrations.”
As members of the team, Owen Roe and TP O’Reilly had headed the celebrations when they finally arrived back to Swanlinbar, which still goes down as one of the liveliest nights in the village’s history.
The following year, and what was fast becoming a great Cavan side were on the path to All-Ireland glory again after they’d beaten Antrim for the second time in as many years to triumph in Ulster and then slayed Louth by 1-14 to 4-2 in the All-Ireland semi-final. Perhaps even more so than in ’47, the team were led from the back by their gallant captain from Cornafean, John Joe O’Reilly.
Having defeated Kerry by a ten-point margin in their respective semi-final, Mayo entered the final against Cavan the fancied side in many peoples’ minds at the time.
Both teams produced a thrilling finale at Croke Park, in which Owen Roe had come on as a second-half substitute in defence. Tied at 4-4 apiece with ten minutes to go, Peter Donohoe kicked the decisive point from a free and Mick Higgins blocked a Peadar Carney 14-metre free late on to make sure Cavan would hold on to the Sam Maguire Cup.
Twelve months later, Cavan were denied what would have been the first three-in-a-row of All-Ireland titles in the county’s history when they lost out to Meath by four points in the final. Owen Roe started at left corner-back against the Royals and to this day recalls it as a game which Cavan “should have won”.
Three years later the Breffni men – captained by their talismanic centre-forward Higgins – had their chance to avenge the defeat of ’49 against their neighbours and took it, which, astonishingly, remains as their last appearance in an All-Ireland senior final.
Owen Roe was not a part of the winning side in ’52, as by that point he had been playing his club football in Dublin with Clann na Gael. Into his mid-30s, he played at centre-back with the club and led them to Dublin SFC finals in ’49 and ’54 both of which the team lost to an awesome St Vincent’s side which dominated senior football in the capital, winning eight county titles between the years 1948 and 1955.
Three years after his adopted club’s latter defeat to the Dublin kingpins, Owen Roe made the trip across the Atlantic again, but this time there no plans to return.
“I moved over here in 1957 for the same reason as everyone else – to look for work,” he put it simply
“I started a team called Elizabeth Gaels. We got to the championship final and lost it and I was 45 years of age playing, or trying to play should I say, on that team. We weren’t a bad team now.”
With the help of Gaelic games, Owen Roe adapted to life in New Jersey and would eventually buy the Morley and McGovern public house in Roselle Park, which he went on to own for many years.
He had been a regular visitor back home up until recent years, with his last visit coming in October 2004, when he was a special guest of honour at the centenary celebrations of the Swanlinbar St Mary’s club at the Slieve Russell Hotel in Ballyconnell.
Always a Cavan man through and through, Owen Roe still does his best to keep up to date with what goes on back home. When asked what he thinks of the current county team, he quickly responds: “What’s wrong with them?”; thus he can’t be too far behind the news.
At the end of January, he learned of the passing of an old friend back home after a short-term illness.
“Mick Higgins and I were very great,” he said. “In ’48 he came into the half-back line during the final and when we needed him most he played like hell. He was a great footballer.
“A friend of mine called me from Birmingham and told me about (the death of) Mick and I was very sad to hear it.
“I prayed for them all and they’re all gone now.
“What a wonderful bunch. I have great memories of that Cavan team,” concluded its last surviving element.
Owen Roe McGovern was born in Swanlinbar, Co Cavan in 1918 and moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1957 with his wife Philomena, who is a native of Dowra. They have three sons and one daughter.