IT goes without saying that Cavan GAA has a distinguished past, and celebrating that fact is a dedicated new museum in the grounds of Kingspan Breffni.
Officially opened last September by GAA President Larry McCarthy, the gallery is a tasteful flavour of all that has gone before – from the halcyon days when Cavan ruled the roost at All-Ireland level to their most recent provincial triumph in the Covid-season of 2020.
George Cartwright, former county chairman and involved in the project from its inception, is keen to emphasise that the museum, by its very nature, is an ‘unfinished’ construct. Cavan GAA will keep on keeping on, and he hopes that the exhibits will serve as inspiration to the youth of the county.
“It’ll give young people a sense of Cavan’s past and hopefully it will inspire them to know that generations have gone before them and achieved at the highest level.
“We hope the memorabilia on display will add to the tourist potential of Cavan county and Cavan town as well. There’s other aspects as well – murals have been done outside by Colette Carney, and a sensory wall as well.
“I suppose the plan is to make Kingspan Breffni somewhere where a tour group or school might spend an hour and to some degree that’s happening already. We had 25 members of the Cavan Gaels club here last week to look at the gallery and have a cup of tea and reminisce.
“There’s opportunities there for schools and tourists, on a pleasant day there’s nothing as nice to sit in the stand and look around the whole amphitheatre and visit the museum.
He continued: “Our Gallery records for posterity the material that’s out there, that possibly could’ve been lost only we retrieved it. It’s only a snapshot, we had to be very discerning because there’s only so many cups or old football jerseys that someone will look at. It’s a flavour but a flavour that can be added to.”
Complementing the Cavan County Museum that already exists in Ballyjamesduff, the Gallery didn’t come about overnight. County chair Kieran Callaghan had a lightbulb moment during the bleak days of Covid, and for Cartright and co it was very much a labour of love.
“We had a reasonably good room in Breffni and Kieran called us together and asked if we’d embrace the idea. I was one of those people, alongside Savina Donahoe and Anne Fortune.
“We worked on it for 18 months, at times during Covid there wasn’t much done but then we’d get a new bout of enthusiasm. It all came together last September, but a museum is never finished and we’d like to think new items and memorabilia will be added to it.”
For the Cavan GAA aficionado, it’s a little slice of heaven. The Breffni County’s five All-Ireland winning teams spanning 1933 and 1952 are well-served by the museum, as you would expect. Cavan’s three All Stars from 2020 are also displayed, but it’s not just a celebration of the obvious.
Cartwright said: “It embraces all the disciplines in GAA really – football, hurling, camogie, rounders, ladies football, handball and scór.
“It opened up in September and it’s gone down very well. There’s a good few photos, an extensive timeline, action photos and memorabilia such as medals.
“I think the medals are the real selling point of the museum because there’s a representation of every year that Cavan won an All-Ireland, including our All-Ireland minor medals in 1937 and 1938 and they’re lovely to see.
“We were particularly happy to get the medals. Obviously they’re all on loan but we’re thrilled they have been donated to us. They’re behind a glass structure.
“A player who won 11 club championship medals with Cornafean, we have all his medals on display too, and it’s a rarity really because medals in the past tended to get misplaced, stolen or given away. There wasn’t as much weight put on medals in the early days now as there was in the past, so we really appreciate that we were able to get our hands on some of them.”
While constricted by the physical space at their disposal, Cartwright says they’ve made clever use of QR codes to enable visitors to further their research whenever and wherever they desire.
“When you’re designing a museum, you don’t want to flood the walls with text because it just bores people, so we keep it brief.
“At the bottom of each section there’s a QR code and with your phone you can download a link and it takes you to the Cavan GAA website, which covers the area in much more detail.
“So if you’re a student doing a local project or somebody with a keen interest who wants more information, you can go down that route.
“There’s only so much text you can realistically include in a room, but you can go home to the comfort of your own sitting room and read a reasonably detailed synopsis going back to the origins of the various codes.
“The design of the museum was something we were very conscious of. We brought Killeshandra man Martin Gaffney, a designer in his day job, and he added the artistic touch to the gallery, as well as coming up with the idea of using QR codes, and they’re a very valuable addition. Niall Doherty worked alongside him and brought a lot to the table as well.”
Thanking everyone who has contributed to the project, Cartwright hopes that it adds another layer to the rich tapestry that is Cavan GAA.
“It’s been popular so far. It was opened regularly during the club season and we received a lot of visits. People said they’d love to come back and bring their friends.
“We were lucky we got great support in terms of funding, from the likes of Cavan ‘Leader Funding’ and grant aid. There were other people involved and I’d like to mention one in particular, the late Kevin Smith who was on the committee and passed away a couple of months ago.
“He was only 49 and was a great fella and deeply invested in the project.
“Cavan County Council were very helpful as well, because it’s like anything else, it’s an asset to the county and complements our museum in Ballyjamesduff. There of course in November we unveiled the statue to former Cavan great John Joe O’Reilly, the first of its kind in Ulster.
Summing up, Cartright again emphasises that the museum is by no means a full stop. The Breffni County are making significant strides, including the ongoing development of the Polo Grounds of Excellence adjacent to Kingspan Breffni, so hopefully, from their perspective, the future is blue and bright.
“The cynic might say ‘Cavan’s living in the past again, Cavan’s talking about the Polo Grounds again’ etc, but it’s important to record the past, and as recently as two years ago we were Ulster Champions, and that was no mean achievement because we beat a very fancied Donegal team. Look it, every year’s a new year and we’ve started off well and hopefully we’ll keep going. There’s a lot of work going on between clubs and committees, managers and players, so we’d be optimistic about the road ahead.”