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The secrets of a long-lost medal are finally known

By Liam Murphy

There’s a fella I meet in the pub most weekends. He always has a smile and he can tell a good story. During the summer he will turn up on a Sunday evening with a healthy colour on his face. Yes, you’ve probably guessed it – he’s a golfer.

Now I gave up that game many years ago; yep, you’ve probably guessed correctly again – I wasn’t much good at it. I think it can be classified as a disease rather than a sport. At best it is a good walk spoiled, but many folks I know get great enjoyment from it, so good luck to them. Alister is fanatical about his golf and when he told me his story it came as a mighty surprise  and I didn’t know whether to believe him.

The following Sunday I met Mickey Gribben in Central Station on our way to the All-Ireland hurling semi-final. I retold Alister’s story and he said he had heard about it. The following Sunday he handed me a note confirming Alister’s story and providing more detail.

About ten years ago a GAA medal was found behind a skirting board in a house in Iris Street during renovations. This was handed to Charlie Kearns who identified it as a 1947 National Football League medal. He contacted the Derry County PRO, Gerry Donnelly, who in turn spoke one of the last survivors of that great team, Roddy Gribben. Roddy was baffled and phoned John Hughes of Castledawson, a GAA historian and writer. John told Roddy that Alex McKeever (Alister’s father) had been a sub on that team and that he had gone to live in Iris Street in Belfast but was now deceased. 1947 was an unusual year in many ways.

On the last Friday of 1947, snow began to fall all over Ireland. It continued intermittently until the Monday  when a blizzard set in and strong icy winds and snowfall continued for over 24 hours. Road and rail services were completely paralysed throughout the land and the cold spell lasted right through the month of March.

Pat Duffy once told me that the snow drifts were over fifteen feet high in Glengormley and horses and carts struggled to get over the Burnthill  on Carnmoney  Road in the month of May because the snow still covered the roadway until then. Many stories have been told about men caught in the storm and their bodies not being discovered for weeks. Over 600 people died in what was regarded as the worst storm of the twentieth century. Farmers were late in sowing the crops due to the frosts and the harvest was poor. In South Derry that  year became known as ‘The Year of the Short Corn’.

Despite the poor weather, Derry’s Senior football team trained constantly. Most of the players were from the shores of Lough Neagh, so long distance travelling was out.

They reached the National League final by beating Longford and faced Clare in their first ever National final in Croke Park. They beat the Banner men 2-9 to 2-5  and became the first team from the six counties to win a National competition.

Alex McKeever was a member of that team, but he did not play in the final as he was injured. Alex was a member of the St Malachy’s club, Castledawson, and was the first from that club to don the county colours. He also served as Secretary. Alex worked at various jobs. His uncle Peter did a bread run for Hughes’ bakery and on occasion, he stood in for him. He had the ability to get on well with people and soon he received a call from Hughes’ Bakery headquarters to come to Belfast as a full-time breadserver. As work was scarce in those days. it was an offer he couldn’t refuse and the family relocated to  21 Iris Street.

The loss of such a gifted player as Alex was a big blow to a struggling St Malachy’s but a great gain for O’Connell’s In Belfast and he partnered Antrim’s most famous player, Kevin Armstrong, in many a game at midfield. Alex had a great sense of humour. I’ve been told that whenever his name is mentioned an enjoyable conversation follows, punctuated by laughter as his stories are recalled. When John Hughes drew up the history of St Malachy’s he wrote: “He was an excellent raconteur, whose delivery was timed to perfection. His exploits, home or away, were original and legendary and are still fondly recalled in Belfast and Castledawson. If one considers our club as a pack of cards, then Alex was the joker.”

His cousin, the poet Seamus Heaney, wrote: “He was one of the most winning and heartening people I ever knew. Since I was a child, I loved to see him appear in our house or at any of those weddings or funerals where the clan foregathered. His cheerfulness and scampish intelligence  were a real help,  they kept people in good spirits; there was just always something extra in the air when he was about.”



Alex McKeever didn’t talk about his playing days, so that when the medal was found his children were amazed to know how talented a Gaelic footballer their father had been.

So  where is the medal? Alex McKeever had a whole array of medals but Alister reckons they were all “borrowed” (permanently) by little friends of his sisters. The National League medal is the only one retrieved. When John Hughes returned the medal to the family they decided not to keep it but to give it to John Hughes for safekeeping in Castledawson. John gave it to Roddy Gribben. Roddy gave it to Seamus McCloy, then County Chairman. The medal is now on display in Derry’s Centre of Excellence, Owenbeg, just outside Dungiven. Every time I pass Owenbeg I think of ‘The Medal of the Short Corn’. Some day I will be lucky to be there when the centre is open and to view it.

I don’t know Alister’s handicap, but it is not storytelling. It’s obvious he has inherited all the attributes referred to so eloquently by Seamus Heaney.

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