Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Art Foley - The Greatest Goalie

            I once had a conversation with Johnny Cash, an experience akin to having a pint with one of the figures on Mount Rushmore.

            And yet, meeting Art Foley, the goalkeeper of the great Wexford hurling team of the 1950’s, trumped that. I guess you’d have to be from the Model County to appreciate the moment.

            Wexford has had some success in hurling since that golden era, but for many time halted in 1956 when Foley stopped a rocket from Cork’s Christy Ring in the dying minutes of the All Ireland final.

            It was as if the spirit of the 1798 Rebellion had been rekindled. Tar barrels burned all the way from Gorey to Wexford Town the night the victorious team arrived home. And it was all relived at the Wexford Association’s recent dinner.

There are not many Wexford people in New York. To this day I’m more likely to meet my fellow county people in Cricklewood or Camden Town rather than Woodlawn or Sunnyside, for London is a mere boat and train ride from Rosslare Harbour.

            But John Murphy, the indefatigable president of the Wexford Association, twisted arms, cajoled and pleaded, and there was a full house of us at Rosie O’Grady’s Manhattan Club on a recent Friday night.

            It was an interesting mix of people – the old timers who had come out in the 1950’s and the more recent arrivals like Barbara Jones, Irish Consul General in New York, along with keen young lawyers, hawkeyed bartenders, and fearless entrepreneurs. We were joined by Jimmy Van Bramer, New York City Council Majority Leader, some of whose people came from Enniscorthy.

            And there in the thick of it all was the mystery man, Art Foley. While on a trip to New York soon after the momentous 1956 final Art decided to stay. He didn’t make a big deal about his decision – so in essence the greatest goalkeeper of his era just disappeared.

            When his name would arise in Wexford sporting conversations – which it often did – the best that could be offered was, “I think he went to America.” And that was that.

            Of course, Art and his wife, Anne, were getting on with their lives. They would eventually have six children and make their home in Mastic, Long Island.

            Art knocked around at different jobs doing “anything and everything” until eventually joining TWA where he worked as a crew chief for 37 years.

Back in the 1950’s. Irish sportsmen might have been heroes but like everyone else they had to scuffle for employment. That innocent, almost threadbare, world came leaping back to life on the video screen of the Manhattan Room.

            We were transported to Croke Park in September 1956 to cheer along with 83,000 enthusiasts - the men in their Sunday-best dark suits, the ladies in their flowing summer dresses.

            It was the old Ireland with pre-Riverdance steppers out on the pitch, the Artane Boys Band playing up a storm, and then two teams of Brylcreem warriors going at it hell for leather for 60 minutes.
Back then people didn’t travel outside their native counties very often – going to Croke Park was a major event to be planned for weeks ahead.

            In pre-TV innocence people gathered in kitchens to socialize or went to ballrooms to dance; the parish priest was more important than any politician, and there was a respect for authority that would only begin to crumble a decade later.

            Art Foley was a hero in that world – a name that was spoken of with awe. Christy Ring even complimented him immediately after his game winning save. Imagine that happening today?

            Almost 60 years later it was hard to take your eyes off the soft-spoken Enniscorthy man in the Manhattan Club – still vital and self-possessed in his mid-80s. The keeper who had saved the certain goal and restored a county’s sense of itself, in typical modest fashion accepted the various awards on behalf of his teammates, almost all of whom had passed away.

            Long may you hurl, Art! It was great to see you there in the midst of your loving family. I hope you realize that you’ll never be forgotten back on the banks of the Slaney.

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