What was your inspiration for writing this book?
I was familiar with Charlie Gallagher from hearing about him over the years and he was a figure I found intriguing. Everyone in Cavan, of a certain vintage, has their own Charlie Gallagher story. He had that sort of charisma about him, he had the handsome movie star good looks, the personality and wit and the incredible football ability and it’s very rare to get all of that in one individual.
I had heard of the stories of crowds gathering on the side of the street when he would arrive into Cootehill in the 1960s in his sports car and I was fascinated by that whole celebrity angle, the fact that Charlie was a genuine GAA superstar yet almost forgotten about now outside of Cavan.
A couple of years back, he was voted at number 94 in the Irish Independent’s list of the 125 greatest ever footballers which, when you consider the thousands of grat players through the decades, was extraordinary for a man who didn’t play in an All-Ireland final let alone win one.
What were the main challenges of writing this book?
The main challenge was trying to do justice to this larger-than-life character in how I portrayed him. He was a very complex man, full of contradictions.
There were so many strands to the story too, a big part of which was the relative decline of Cavan football and the rise of counties like Tyrone, Donegal, Derry and especially Down in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s.
I also had to tread carefully when getting into Charlie’s alcoholism. The book would have lost all credibility were it not explored but it’s a sensitive topic so that had to be handled with care.
You’ve mentioned some of the people you interviewed, what was their reaction to the book?
Charlie was adored. Nobody had a bad word to say about him which is unusual for a person who was such a public figure. Everyone I spoke to was delighted to reminisce about him and his contemporaries were mostly thrilled to see him being remembered in print because he was a truly iconic figure and so popular.
Are there any stories that you enjoy more than the rest?
The book opens with the story of Charlie scoring 2-10 against Down in 1966. Before the game, he turned to the man he was marking, the great Leo Murphy, and said ‘go easy on me today Leo, I’m not going well, I’m afraid they might drop me’. That was typical of him, then he turned around and put on an exhibition. The winner of that game got a free trip to play in Wembley, which was massive at the time.
Gabriel Kelly, who was one of the greatest Cavan players of all time, told me a story about training in Breffni Park on Thursday nights and going to the Farnham Arms Hotel for sandwiches afterwards. Most of the players wouldn’t have had much money, they’d have been getting paid on a Friday, and they’d be making their way back to Dublin or wherever and Charlie would take a notion and decide to book into the hotel for the night and drive back to Derry, where he worked as a dentist, the next morning.
He was a man of means at the time but he was extremely generous, a lot of the time he wouldn’t even charge his patients for dental work he had done.
Probably my favourite story was about Cavan beating Down in the 1964 Ulster final in Casement Park. After the game, Charlie drove back to Derry and dropped one of his teammates, Frankie Kennedy, to St Johnston in Donegal. It was all very low key and then Charlie said, feck it, we’ll go to Cootehill!
They drove to Cootehill and someone got wind of it and the place was thronged. They partied all night and drove back the next morning, it was daylight when they arrived home. Charlie was like that, he just attracted people and was mad for the craic.
As time went on, the drink got a grip on him. His family told me that he gave away a lot of his medals to strangers in pubs and things like that. It was a very complicated story.
What makes this book special, and why should our readers buy it?
I think this book tells the story of a once-in-a-lifetime individual and there’s a social history to it too. Gallagher’s life was so interesting – he was a big part of the last great Cavan team, he lived in Derry at the outbreak of the Troubles and he was a superstar in small town Ireland in the 1960s, often referred to as “the George Best of the GAA”. And then he was gone, just like that and it was like none of it ever happened.
That’s why we came up with the ‘Lost Icon’ part of the title, because he was lost in the collective consciousness of the GAA family. You could say he was the greatest superstar a lot of people never heard of.
What sort of reaction have you received?
The reaction has been amazing, the book has sold very well and gone into a second print run thankfully. People from all over Ireland and overseas have been in touch sharing memories of Charlie.
I think, without being too over the top about it, it might have brought a sense of closure to the story of Charlie Gallagher. He died in a drowning accident aged 51 and he had had trouble with drink for a good while at that stage. He was forgotten about in ways but people who knew Charlie are really glad to see that he is now remembered for the right reasons, for the great man and gifted athlete that he was.
He was an iconic figure all over Ulster. He was from Cavan, lived in Derry, had a wife from Strabane and a mother from Castleblayney and played countless matches in Donegal… He was an Ulster football hero, loved everywhere he went.