A lesser well-known element of former Mayo manager John O’Mahony’s stellar career is featured in John Scally’s new book 100 Great GAA Controversies. Scally writes:
The long relationship between the GAA and the Catholic Church is rich and complex. Although culturally and in many respects spiritually they were very close and the Catholic Church was to the forefront in promoting the GAA, the Church banned its priests and seminarians from actually playing intercounty football for years. Seminarians and priests had to assume a name to allow their footballing careers to continue at the highest level despite the curious irony of men who so often preached the truth practising deception. Everybody knew who they were, including the bishop, and a blind eye was turned. It was a Jesuitical solution to a uniquely clerical problem.
The late Seán Freyne captained the Mayo minors in 1953, but missed out on playing in the final because he had entered the seminary in Maynooth and was precluded from playing because of the rules of the Catholic Church at the time. He navigated the choppy waters of deception and finally got the opportunity to play for Mayo seniors in 1956 against Galway under an assumed name.
Seán left the priesthood and went on to become Professor of Theology in Trinity College. He explained the Church’s thinking to me in relation to the ban on priests playing Gaelic games:
‘There were two aspects to it. The Catholic Church was and is always preoccupied by appearances. If a priest was spotted playing aggressively it was seen to reflect negatively on the Church.
‘There was also a deeper issue. Playing sport was of this world. Priests were supposed to be of the next world and to reject the worldly dimension of our human existence. Human existence itself was often seen as sinful and unworthy and the emphasis was on the salvation of one's soul which would be attained in the next life.
‘That all changed in the 1960s and the Second Vatican Council when the Church lost its controlling power: but that was arguably good. In the 1970s Iggy Clarke was ordained to the priesthood and went on to become one of the greatest hurlers of his generation and a household name, winning four All-Stars with Galway.
Two time winning All-Ireland winning manager John O’Mahony was one of the last to be confronted with the rule. He attended Maynooth as a clerical student. His bother Dan did too and is a priest. John O’Mahony chose a different path than the priesthood. ‘I didn’t last the pace and nearly didn’t get to play in the 1971 minor final. I remember going up to Monsignor Newman, the college president, at the time and there was no guarantee that I’d be allowed play. There was a retreat on the day and Dan and I had to break the rules to escape because you weren’t meant to leave. We had got the press onside by asking them not to print our names in the report. We appeared in the papers as J and D Maloney!’
These stories and more were discussed by John with Scally with Michael D McAndrew on Sunday Sport.