Two-time All-Star Paddy Moriarty recalls Armagh’s rise from the doldrums at his own expense

By Niall McCoy

PADDY who? When Armagh’s Paddy Moriarty received the county’s first-ever All-Star award in 1972, the youngster’s celebrations were tapered somewhat by a debate played out in local and national media.

Many pundits made their position clear, openly stating that they had never even heard of the Orchard county forward, let alone witness  him playing in the flesh. One commentator said that all he knew was that he had Kerry links given that both his parents came from the Kingdom (Lawlor’s Cross outside Killarney, for the record).

Sligo’s Mickey Kearins was a surprise omission and the blame for that was passed onto the Ulster man. One letter to the editor in a local paper said that the Allstar selector who had pushed for Moriarty must have delivered  ‘the most convincing address since the days of Daniel O’Connell.’

The uncharitable tone isn’t good on reflection, but you can be damn sure that by the time he had hung up the boots 12 years later that everyone in the country knew exactly who ‘Paddy Mo’ was.

For one he earned another All-Star award in 1977, and in doing so joined a very small group that had won gongs both in attack and defence. Moriarty also claimed three Ulster titles and a raft of Railway Cup medals. Brian McEniff and Pete McGrath regard him as one of the best defenders to ever play the game and in 2009 he was named 104th in the list of the 125 greatest players to have ever played GAA. ‘Paddy who’ indeed.

Few may know that he also holds an Ulster Junior Hurling Championship medal, while he was also the man to give Joe Kernan his big coaching break when Moriarty took charge of the Orchard county for three seasons. There are many strands to his story, and ever since his shock arrival on the national stage in ’72, he has always been greatly admired – even if a few media men took their time to come around.

Water off a duck’s back,” is how Moriarty describes that reaction to that first All-Star award – although the man himself actually feels that he played better football in 1971.

You tend to be believe him, too. Speak to the Wolfe Tone legend at any great length and you are left with no other impression than that he absolutely loved every minute of his footballing career. “We had some craic” is a phrase he uses so often that you feel he should trademark it.

He reminisces about the medals he won and the great results the county secured in his time, but Moriarty really lights up when remembering the stories about the characters he played with or against.

Like the time the  Ulster manager Seán O’Neill tried to show the Railway Cup squad some video analysis before a semi-final and one Armagh teammate had secretly swapped in a blue movie that was then played for the entire room.

Or when he was working on documents for a club and needed to find out the date of death for a trustee who had passed away. ‘I’ll ring you back in five minutes, I’ll pop down to the graveyard to check here,” came the response.

Or spending youthful summers operating as a ringer in Kerry club games with the same instruction from every coach – “keep your fucking mouth shut or they’ll catch on.” For an hour Moriarty’s northern accent would be parked, but when some of the footballers he played against would end up in the same changing room to play hurling for another club, the gig would be up.

That was when he was about 13 or 14 and by then he already had the bug.

In 1961 he visited Croke Park for the first time to watch the Armagh minors play Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final.

Armagh lost by three points but their best player on the day was full-back Tom McCreesh. Sixteen years later Moriarty would play with McCreesh as the Orchard county made it to the All-Ireland final for only the second time ever.

That was a world away from where Armagh stood when Moriarty came into the panel in the winter of 1970 during Gerry O’Neill’s first time in charge. Moriarty was only 18 at the time and had only joined the Wolfe Tone senior squad earlier in the season, but his potential was obvious.

Stories have often been told of Armagh going to games and having to pull supporters out of the crowd to make up the numbers, and Moriarty said that was more rampant than people probably realised in the late ‘60s.

The Orchard county were at a low ebb. In March 1970, O’Neill saw his side defeat Leitrim in a league game in what was described as a “shock success.” No wonder, it was their first competitive win in three seasons. Victory over Donegal that November was the first time in a decade that they had won back-to-back fixtures.

Moriarty had huge respect for O’Neill’s attempts to drag the county out of the basement, as he had for Peter Makem who worked with the Derry man in the middle part of the decade.

A lot of what happened in the latter part of the ‘70s flowed from Makem,” he said.

I remember we went to Dungannon to play Tyrone in the McKenna Cup one day. I was injured and I said to Gerry ‘if you get 14 I will stand in as 15’. In the end we could only get 11 or 12.

One time they went to Leitrim or somewhere and only had 11 or 12 that day too. There were a couple of games like that.

I can remember going to watch Armagh playing in ’67 or ’68 and they were really struggling. You’d have been going to Davitt Park and Gerry Fagan, God rest him, and people like that were going around the field trying to get fellas out of the crowd to make up a team.

I remember one fella who played for the Tones. There was this day they were playing Antrim and the usual story, they couldn’t get a team. They got him out of the crowd and he scored 2-2.

There was another game when they played Down between their 1961 and ’68 All-Ireland successes. I remember people coming out of the crowd to tog out against those players. These were not county footballers. One boy from Clann Eireann was dragged out to stand in at corner-forward and Jesus Christ, wasn’t he only being marked by the best corner-back in the country in Tom O’Hare.”

Those were uncertain times not only for the Armagh football team, but the North in general.

Moriarty lived not far from Lurgan town, which was part of the ‘Murder Triangle’ that covered parts of Armagh and Tyrone. In this area of Mid Ulster, sectarian killings became a common occurrence in the ‘70s as the Troubles spiralled out of control.

Moriarty said that its impact was inescapable, but that the GAA provided a real beacon of light in a time of great darkness.

It was surely,” was Moriarty’s reply when asked did the Troubles hamper his footballing ambitions. “My whole time playing with Armagh was smack bang in the middle of it all.

You would have been aware because there were roadblocks and stuff like that all the time. Everyone was in the same boat.

It was a near miracle that Armagh came from nowhere to get to an All-Ireland final in the ‘70s. They were difficult times.”

There is a lot of weight in that statement, and not just because of the volatile situation that existed in the county at the time.

From 1966 to 1970, Armagh’s championship record read played five, lost five – and there were some heavy thumpings included in their lot.

The tide started to turn in Moriarty’s first summer with the team. Their championship losing run ended in June 1971 as they defeated Tyrone in Lurgan in front of a tiny crowd.

It looked like the usual story as they trailed by four points after just 13 minutes, but they fought back to win by five points.

Moriarty was injured for the game, but Jimmy Smyth had flown in from England to grab one of their four goals.

Moriarty was back for the semi-final and although the free-taker scored five points and set up Leo McCabe’s goal, Derry were too strong. Still though, it felt like a corner had been turned even if it did take until that famous ’77 season for the side to really make their mark on the championship.

Moriarty’s mark came much earlier than that of course, having been named on the All-Star team in ’72.

I probably played better football in ’71, at least we won a championship match that season.

We played Derry in the Ulster semi-final in Casement but lost to them. Jimmy Smyth and Hugh Niblock from Derry were both at St Joseph’s Training College before the amalgamation with St Mary’s.

The two of them had gone to England for the summer and came home for the match.

The following Saturday I was at home. My da had an aul field and had the hay bailed and I was out sticking the hay. My sister Mary came out and said I was wanted on the phone.

I went in and a fella Eugene Curran was on the phone. He lived in London. He asked me was I doing anything the next day. The Tones had no match so he asked me to go to London to play in the club championship.

He rang back in half an hour to say he had sorted a ticket from Aldergrove and my da dropped me down to the airport that evening.

I said I would be back Monday or Tuesday. It was the first time I was ever on a plane and it was one of the old vanguard planes. The only thing I can remember is that when it got up to the height it shuddered like hell.

I got back home a week and a half later. We lost the match anyway, Jimmy and Hugh were playing for the opposition.

I played a second game for St Vincent’s a few days later against the Kingdom. There was a fight like something out of The Quiet Man.”

The recognition of that All-Star, along with the progress of Clan na Gael who claimed Ulster titles in 1972, ’73 and ’74, suggested that there was quality emerging in the county.

I remember playing in a match in Carrickcruppen around that time, a National League game against Louth, and there were 12 Clan na Gael players on the team,” Moriarty continued.

Pat McCann from the Tones was playing, I was playing and wee Peter (Loughran), God rest him, was playing. The rest were Clan na Gael men.

If us three hadn’t played there would have been three more Clan na Gael men on the team. Louth hammered us that day, they probably would have played better if all 15 came from Clan na Gael.

When Makem came along he went around asking people to play for Armagh. He pulled in people who wanted to play.

That was around 1974 and ’75 and they put a bit of pride back into Armagh football.”

Armagh’s reputation was growing, as was Moriarty’s. In 1973, the Queen’s student helped the Combined Universities team to the Railway Cup – the only time in the competition’s history that it hasn’t been won by a province.

Moriarty played corner-forward in the final against Connacht in Athlone on Easter Monday. The side that also contained the likes of Kerry’s five-time All-Star John O’Keefe.

The Orchard county were also getting to play at Croke Park for National League play-off fixtures, something Moriarty said would prove invaluable for their run to the 1977 final – although he was keen to stress just how big the gap had appeared before that famous season.

There was one year we played in Croke Park three Sundays in a row.

We played Clare and it finished a draw. We won the replay against them and the following Sunday we were playing Cork. The next year we beat Wexford in some match at Croke Park too.

In ’75 and ’76 we got two unmerciful hammerings from Derry in the Ulster Championship (11 points and 15 points). Sean O’Connell was still playing for Derry at the time and he must have been near 40 because he had played in the 1958 All-Ireland final. This was near 20 years down the line.

I certainly didn’t see what was coming around the corner.”

Armagh’s 1976-77 National League campaign was decent. They won three of their four group games before they lost narrowly to Cavan to miss out on the prize of a quarter-final clash with Dublin.

The counties would meet again in the Ulster Championship four months later with the Breffni side favourites not only for the game, but for the provincial crown.

It would be Armagh who advanced at the Athletic Grounds though despite trailing 0-10 to 0-2 in the first half.

At that stage, Moriarty stood over a penalty that was saved by Aiden Elliott, but he was able to convert the rebound and in the second half Armagh took control to win out 2-14 to 0-12. He also remembers the match as one of the few occasions that he was booked, something that sticks out for a player who was never sent off in his life at any level.

I was playing half-back that day and I got booked. I was holding on to Tony Brady a bit too tightly.

I never got sent off although I came close a few times. I found that in club matches, certainly post ’77, referees would have given you a bit of latitude.

I heard this from the horse’s mouth. Carrickcruppen were playing someone one day and there was a ‘Cruppen player who was with Armagh. He kicked the ball and got buried. The referee blew the whistle, held the game up while he recovered. As he was about to get up, the referee whispered in his ear and said ‘it was number seven and there are only four minutes left.’

We certainly wouldn’t have been expected to beat Cavan in the first round. Once we beat Cavan, it opened up. It was Monaghan in the semi-final so one of us was going to get to an Ulster final.”

It would be Armagh after a four-point win over the Oriel county in Dungannon. Late Gerry Fitzpatrick and Eamonn Tavey goals left the scoreline more flattering to Monaghan than the reality.

Gerry O’Neill’s side were in the provincial final, the first time the county had reached that stage since 1961. One major problem stood in their way – a Derry side that had made boys out of them over the two previous summers.

Armagh had built up a head of steam though and despite a nervy first 15 minutes, they waltzed to a 3-10 to 1-5 win – Moriarty, Larry Kearns and Noel Marley with the goals.

We hadn’t won an Ulster since 1953, 24 years,” said Moriarty.

I think Derry probably thought that they just had to turn up for the Ulster final. Jimmy Smyth was being interviewed recently and I think he said that Mickey Moran and Brendan Kelly, two Railway Cup players, were away in America for the summer.

The idea was that they would come home for the All-Ireland semi-final.

We got two goals just before half time and in the first 10 minutes of the second half Larry Kearns got a goal and it was show over for Derry.

I can picture Sean Vallely, one of the team attendants. He was taxi driver, masseur, everything. It was a very warm day and he was probably out on the field with a water bottle but when Larry Kearns hit the net he ran out on the field and did a jig and a jump. He couldn’t believe it.

It was great. You had the Troubles and then this was a diversion.”

Just like on their last visit to the All-Ireland semi-finals, it would be Connacht champions Roscommon lying in wait. Again it would be Armagh who would get through, and again it would be tight.

In ’53 they claimed a low-scoring 0-8 to 0-7 win while 24 years later they needed a replay before again slipping through with a point to spare.

Moriarty’s performance in the drawn encounter was perhaps his most famous in an orange and white jersey.

It was a day when the press hacks were left stunned by the decibel levels of the Armagh fans – they outnumbered Roscommon supporters four to one – and much of their noise was courtesy of Moriarty’s heroics.

He started in attack and set Smyth up for an early goal, but when Tom McCreesh had to leave the field injured, Moriarty was stationed in the half-back line. He had a huge influence on the game as he scored a crucial penalty and also somehow prevented Tony McManus from kicking a later winner with Dermot Earley Senior missing the resulting ‘45’.

Tom was taken off and Sean Devlin came into the forward line and I was put back to centre half-back.

I had played one match there 10 days before the Ulster final when we played Dublin at Parnell Park. Tom wasn’t there and Gerry O’Neill put me there.

I played right half-back in the first round against Cavan so I had a bit of experience back there.

I was no sooner shifted back when Jim Finnegan, our full-back, got injured. When he went off Tom came back on, but at full-back.

I remember there was a high ball coming in. I was about to jump for it and Tom let a roar out of him from behind to leave it. He caught the ball and as he came down the point of his elbow landed on my head. I didn’t know a thing about it until half an hour later in the dressing room. Someone told me I was bleeding.

We were on a bus going home but the roads were packed because the support was phenomenal.

Gerry Fagan took me in the car to Drogheda to the hospital and I got stitched and got back on the bus. I was in the hospital, got a couple of stitches and was done for the time the bus came through.”

While the first game was a free-scoring exhibition, the replay was a more abrasive affair. It mattered little though as Armagh won 0-15 to 0-14 to reach only their second-ever All-Ireland final. There were 11,000 extra supporters present, many in Armagh colours, and they invaded the pitch afterwards to salute their heroes.

Moriarty, who started at centre half-back, was outstanding once more as he kept a lid on Roscommon captain Mickey Freyne and also played an almost sweeper role alongside it.

The replay was a fortnight later and there was a bigger crowd at it because it wasn’t televised. I think the Irish Open was on in Portmarnock (won by two-time major champion Hubert Green).

After the replay I went down to Killarney for a couple of days. My mother had been down there and I went to pick her up. Alf Murray came with me, as did my girlfriend (Una) who is now Mrs Moriarty.

I went over to Tralee to see Tony O’Keefe. I knew him from university football. He was on the Kerry panel in 1976 and he spoke about Jim McKerr and the long hair.

There was no training at the start of the week and I was back for the Saturday session in Armagh and it was just a roller-coaster from there.”

Sam Maguire didn’t come to the North for what would have been only the fourth time after Down’s trio of successes in the ‘60s. Instead Dublin’s star-studded side were much too powerful as Jimmy Keaveney’s 2-6 tally helped them to a 5-12 to 3-6 win.

Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, who had been appointed the Archbishop of Armagh just a few months earlier, and Father Malachy Coyle had visited the Armagh dressing room pre-match but there would be no divine intervention at Croke Park.

Moriarty scored an early penalty, but saw another saved by Paddy Cullen late on as the fairytale came to an end one stop too short.

In 1993 Jack Mahon, who won an All-Ireland with Galway, did a book, he was a teacher but he did a bit of journalism too.

He went around the country interviewing different people and had a chapter on them all. He interviewed James McCartan Snr and myself on the same night and he stayed in McCartan’s.

We got invited down to the launch and we went down and we took the four youngsters with us.

I introduced Finnian to John Maloney, the referee in 1977 and Finnian said ‘you should have given Armagh 10 penalties because my Da would have scored the half of them and Armagh would have won the All-Ireland.’”

Despite that penalty miss, Moriarty was named at centre half-back on the All-Star team and this time nobody was asking who he was. Smyth and Joe Kernan joined him on the 15, and Moriarty has the honour of being one of just six football All-Stars to win awards in both attack and defence.

The other five are Ger Power (Kerry), Eugene ‘Nudie’ Hughes (Monaghan), Seán Lowry (Offaly), Anthony McGurk (Derry) and Graham Geraghty (Meath) – not bad company at all.

It was nice to get but some commentators, not them all, were pointing out that I only played half-back for two and a half games. I wasn’t going to turn it down though.”

The Orchard county lost their Ulster crown easily to Cavan in the 1978 quarter-final and would fall at the provincial semi-final stage the following season but in 1980 they rebounded to win another Anglo Celt. Another success in 1982 made it three Ulster titles in just six seasons.

For Moriarty, 1980 will always be the one that got away.

Quelle surprise, it was Roscommon awaiting in the All-Ireland semi-final when they came through Ulster, and it looked like their good record against the Connacht side would continue.

In 1977 Armagh had twice come back from the dead to force a replay, but the roles were reversed on this occasion.

Kernan and Colm McKinstry had boxed out Earley Senior and Seamus Hayden in midfield while Martin Murphy and Smyth scored goals to leave the men from the North 2-6 to 0-7 ahead at the break.

Roscommon came back strongly in the third quarter but when a Peter Loughran free somehow ended up the net, the storm looked to have been weathered. Back the Rossies came though, and Mick Finneran’s goal proved the difference.

We missed the boat in 1980,” Moriarty said. “We were a better team in 1980. I have no doubt about that.

Brian Hughes had come along at full-forward. If we had gone to the All-Ireland final, we wouldn’t have been too far off. There wasn’t much between Roscommon and Kerry in that final.

Eoin Liston didn’t play in the final and if we had reached it Hughes would have gotten the All-Star.

Martin Murphy from Silverbridge was in too. They had strengthened the outfit, no doubt about it.

McKinstry got injured though and had to go off and we brought Hughes out to midfield and put Martin Murphy into full-forward. Hindsight is a great thing but I wonder what would have happened if they had taken a replacement in straight off the bench for McKinstry.

Jim Loughran was on the bench and so was Denis McCoy. The two of them were on the line and either one could have done the job.”

After the 1977 All-Ireland semi-final, a number of Roscommon players spoke out post-match about how they wanted Armagh to go on and finish the job. After 1980, when the disappointment had subsided slightly, the Orchard dressing room would have been hoping that the Connacht outfit would lift the trophy for the first time since 1944.

It wouldn’t happen for either, but a bond had been developed and in 1982 the two squads came together for an American three-game tour. Destinations: New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

God rest him, but it wouldn’t have happened only for John O’Reilly,” said Moriarty.

Some of the boys took a notion that we were going to go to America but we didn’t have the clout to do anything.

John O’Reilly took over the organising. He didn’t go but it wouldn’t have happened without him.

I’m assuming that he liased with counterparts in Roscommon. They organised their trip to coincide with Armagh’s, it wasn’t a joint trip as such.

We flew out about five hours before Roscommon. We would have been in New York when they were just taking off.

It was great. We played them three times in ’77, twice in the All-Ireland and at the official opening of the Wolfe Tones pitch. Then there was the semi-final in 1980 a few National League games in between.

It was a nice rivalry. In 1973 on the All-Star trip, I was very friendly with Mickey Freyne from Roscommon. We knocked about together on that trip.

There was about 200 went on the trip in ’82, there was a full plane,” he said. “You wouldn’t have been going across the Atlantic in a two-seater. The money came in from somewhere for it.

A lot of us brought wives and girlfriends. My two eldest (Eimear and Patrick), now they were only two and one, but we brought them with us. I remember having them in a double-buggy and someone in Central Park tried to buy it off us. They’d never seen one before.

We brought some ex-players too, so we had about 40 lads who had played a bit but some had quit the county by that stage.

Fran McMahon scored as good a headed goal as you’d ever see in one of the games. Myself and Jimmy (Smyth) have a disagreement about what actually happened.

My recollection is that Martin Murphy brought the ball in along the line and passed the ball back to the 14-yard line and McMahon was running in and in the mood of the moment headed it, bang, into the back of the net.”

Back in Ireland, Moriarty would reach one more Ulster final before hanging up the boots.

That was in 1984 against Tyrone, the game famously known as the Frank McGuigan final.

Stationed in attack, team captain Moriarty could only watch on as the Ardboe wizard scored 11 of Tyrone’s 15 points – all from play.

His time with the Orchard county wasn’t finished yet though, and in late 1988 he was appointed manager of Armagh, replacing the out-going Father Sean Hegarty.

In September of that year he took charge of the side for the first time as Armagh faced Tyrone to mark the pitch opening of south Armagh club Dromintee.

It would be an Ulster Championship meeting between the rivals a few months later that would go down in notoriety though.

Long before Dublin came north in 2006, ‘the battle of Omagh’ referred to Armagh and Tyrone players taking lumps out of each other during half time in their Ulster Championship clash at Healy Park.

The Orchard county had led 2-4 to 0-4 at the interval and Moriarty feels that the violence cost them an Ulster title, especially as the Red Hands went on to lift the Anglo Celt Cup.

We were five or six points up,” said Moriarty. “The row cost us the match.

The referee (Michael Greenan) called Brian McAlinden, the Armagh captain, and the Tyrone captain out at the start of the second half and said that the first person that lifted his hand was going to the line.

Almost from the throw-in, someone in a white jersey ran in and milled Mark Grimley in the back of the neck. The referee couldn’t have missed it because it was at the actual throw-in, but he didn’t do a thing about it.

It practically took Grimley out of the game and he was playing some stuff. They went on and won the Ulster Championship.”

The following year Armagh would gain a degree of revenge on the Red Hands with a one-point win before the late Kieran McGurk starred as they earned a semi-final replay win over Down.

Donegal defeated them in the Ulster final by a point with Moriarty and the Orchard players left furious by the awarding of a 45  for Donegal when, they claimed, goalkeeper McAlinden hadn’t touched it.

Moriarty’s last game in charge would be the remarkable two-point loss to Down in Newry in 1991 which gave birth to the famed supporter quote that “the pick of those two couldn’t win an All-Ireland.” Down did.

The usually reliable Jim McConville missed a great goal chance to win it for the Orchard county in what was one of the worst games of Ulster Championship football in modern times.

As it was, Down won 1-7 to 0-8, and would go on to lift Sam Maguire for a fourth time and Moriarty would reflect on three Ulster Championship defeats with a combined losing margin of just four points. The three teams that beat them went on to lift the Anglo Celt and, in Down’s case, the All-Ireland title. Sliding door moments.

Two weeks after that loss at the Marshes, Moriarty offered his resignation to the Armagh County Board. His blood had been already up before the Down game as a heavy club schedule had been pencilled in alongside their pre-game preparations. It meant that a number of players lined out for their clubs on a Sunday afternoon before playing Kildare in a challenge match that evening.

Also stepping aside was his number two, a certain Joe Kernan who had been given his chance to be involved in an intercounty set-up by Moriarty.

Obviously big Joe learned something from the experience,” he said with a laugh.

Charlie Sweeney, God rest him, was in with me but he didn’t stay too long. Joe would have been there by the time we played Tyrone in ’89.

We were just picking it up as went along. Basically our philosophy was to get as physically big a team as you could have, which is why we had a lot of big men around the place.

The first year we had the (Grimley) twins and Paul Grimley, Kieran McGurk, God rest him, Nial Smyth, (Martin) McQuillan. Gareth O’Neill was another good footballer.

We had good players and at the tail-end of it we had (Kieran) McGeeney and Cathal O’Rourke coming into the panel. Cathal was well put together.

We had a crack at it but I thought we were unlucky when Donegal beat us in the final. Brian McEniff was a bit cuter than we were.”

From then, his former Armagh teammates took centre stage. Jim McCorry replaced him as manager, then the two Brians, Canavan and McAlinden, took the county back to Ulster glory.

Kernan’s stint in 2002 brought with it the county’s one and only All-Ireland success.

By then Moriarty was enjoying his role as a dedicated fan. The Moriarty name would continue to be heavily associated with the county through his younger children, Meabh and Finnian.

Meabh retired from the Armagh ladies last February having won an All-Ireland Intermediate title and coming so close to the Senior crown in 2006.

Finnian won the 2004 All-Ireland U-21 title with Armagh and went on to be an excellent defender for the Orchard county with a knack for getting up the field and grabbing a goal.

Last year, he guided Maghery to their second-ever Armagh title and although he will not admit it publically, his ambitions are sure to include following in his father’s footsteps and managing the county team.

For now though, Paddy is just looking forward to watching a few games this summer, hopefully in person rather than over the internet. Whatever happens, as long as there is “some craic” he’ll be happy enough.

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