Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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Interviews - SPORTING LEGENDS OF IRELAND

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TITLES

All Ireland Championships: 2.

National Football League: 2.

Provincial Titles: 4.

AWARDS

GAA All-Stars: 6.

Sunday Tribune 2009
125 Most Influential People In GAA History.

Footballer of the Year 1995.

Honorary Doctorate
University of Ulster 2003.

BBC Northern Ireland
Sports Personality of the Year 2003.

TG4’s Favourite Footballer
of the Last 25 Years 2009.

PETER CANAVAN
GAELIC FOOTBALL

Prior to his victory at Aintree in 2010, Tony McCoy feared he was going to be recalled as the greatest jockey to never win the Grand National. Much the same label had been pinned to the lapels of Tyrone footballer Peter Canavan when he started his 2003 All-Ireland campaign. Was he destined to go down in the GAA annals as the greatest player to never win an All-Ireland?

He has not yet spent forty years on the planet, but the Ballygawley PE teacher is the most decorated Gaelic football player Ulster has produced, with a massive scoring record of 218 points, six All-Star awards and two extraordinary All-Ireland titles to his credit.

Peter’s father, Seán Canavan was born in 1928 and raised on a 35 acre farm in Greenhill, a few miles north west of the small village of Ballygawley, Co. Tyrone. One of nine children, Seán ran the farm, as well as a butcher’s shop in Ballygawley for many years.[i] A passionate GAA man, Seán was 32 years old when the Sam Maguire crossed the Border for the first time. It was his lifelong hope that it would one day come to Tyrone. He played football for St Ciaran’s Ballygawley, as well as some clubs in Monaghan, and later became honourary president of Errigal Ciaran, the peace-making club which he co-founded in 1991.

Peter was the tenth of Seán and Sarah’s eleven children, raised on the same remote farm and educated locally at St Malachy's Primary School, Glencull. He was generally the most active of the six brothers, always galloping around the yard, hiking the ball into the sky, imagining himself as his heroes and yelling out the Micheal O'Hehir commentary as he ran. You can hear one of his amusing commentaries on You Tube, recorded back when he was a squeaky-voiced 12-year-old.

And yet, all along, he has been up against it. He’s been asthmatic since childhood and, certainly before medication improved, was frequently short of breath and wheezing. He was nonetheless always fit not least because, with his brothers, he spent so much of his time working on the farm, feeding the cattle, saving the hay and sillage and such like.

Asthma wasn’t the only hindrance to his under-age career. While at

St Ciaran's High School in Ballygawley, he made a huge impression on the field, but he was not eligible for selection for the Tyrone minors because his club, Errigal Ciaran Naomh Malachai, had failed to properly register with the GAA. Showing a canniness for which he is widely known, Peter by-passed the problem by signing up as a member of the Killyclogher hurling club. He has never played hurling in his life. But at least he was now eligible for selection.

In 1988, he played on the Tyrone team who won the Ulster minor Championship, but lost in the All-Ireland semi-final to Kerry. Peter went on to captain Tyrone to two consecutive All-Ireland Under-21 Football Championships titles in 1991 and 1992. By this time, he was studying Physical Education at St Mary's University College, Belfast.

His selection for the county’s senior team was inevitable. His older brother, Pascal, was also on the team and they played together for most of the 1990s. Peter quickly became the team’s luminary, winning his first All-Star at the age of 23 and marching the county to the 1995 All-Ireland final in Croke Park. And while Tyrone lost to Dublin, eleven of their twelve points came off the boot of Peter Canavan. He was also the top scorer in Ireland that year, with a total of 1–38, earning him the inaugural Footballer of the Year 1995.

In 1996, he captained his county through to a heated semi-final against Meath in which he was one of six Tyrone players wounded. He tore a ligament in his ankle, an injury that was still ailing him a year later.

In 1998, he was corner forward for Ireland in the inaugural International Rules Series against Australia. The following year, he was vice-captain for the team who basically crushed Australia. His 2000 Aussie Rules campaign was marred by a bitter rivalry with Australia's Jason Akermanis which broke into fights during the first two tests.

In 2002, Peter captained Tyrone to win their first National Football League title. They started that years’ annual All-Ireland campaign as one of the tournament favourites, only to be stunned and ousted early on by Sligo.

Peter contemplated retiring after the Sligo defeat but held steady and the 2003 campaign began. It was to be an emotional journey. Peter’s father Seán died just over a week before Tyrone met Down in the Ulster Final. His funeral at Ballymacilroy was an intense experience for his six sons and five daughters. The following Saturday, Peter lined out in honour of his father. For a while it looked like Down were going to whitewash the Red Hands. Then a penalty kick came Tyrone’s way. Peter took it and watched the ball sail into the net. ‘That kick was the most important of my career, says Peter. The match ended in a draw and paved the way for Tyrone to win their first All-Ireland Senior Football Championship final.

Peter captained the team but during the final but came off with an ankle injury (a split tendon). And then, 10 minutes before the final whistle, Tyrone’s manager (and Ballygawley native) Micky Harte waved his magic wand and reintroduced Peter to the pitch. The Tyrone crowd roared their approval and Peter’s presence inspired the team to a famous victory. He delivered an emotional spine-tingling speech when he finally got the opportunity to lift the Sam Maguire, allowing himself to expunge his many recent experiences of death and injury. ‘It took me a long time to get here’, he told the crowd. ‘I can’t think of a better place or position to be in than right now where I’m standing. It’s time to take Sam to Tyrone’.

In the 2004 and 2005 Championships, Peter accepted the role of 'impact substitute' where Harte would bring him on at critical moments to rally his team, fire the crowd and fluster his opponents. And if proof of Peter’s ongoing deadliness was needed, in the 2005 semi-final against Armagh, he kicked Tyrone through to the All-Ireland final with a single point in the very last kick of the game. He went on to score Tyrone’s only goal in the final, as the county won its second championship.

Peter retired from inter-county football after the 2005 victory, after 16 years at senior level in which he played 49 Championship matches. ‘I’ve spent enough time on the treatment table’, he explained. He continued to play at club level for Errigal Ciarán until 2007. During the seventeen years he played, the club won six Tyrone Senior Club titles and two Ulster Club Championships. In 2008, he took charge of the club as manager and led them to victory in the Tyrone All County League final in 2009.

Throughout his career, Peter retained his job as a Physical Education teacher at the Holy Trinity College in Cookstown. Amongst his students was the remarkable Tyrone forward Eoin Mulligan, and Peter has now gone down in GAA lore as the Jedi master who taught Mulligan his point-taking tricks. Peter writes a column for the Gaelic games magazine, Hogan Stand, and the Northern Ireland edition of The Daily Mirror. Since 2008, he has been a football pundit for TV3’s GAA coverage.

In 1993 Peter married Finola McGarrity, sister of his former Tyrone team-mate Ronan McGarrity. They have four children, Áine, Claire, Darragh and Ruairi, all of whom play football for Errigal Ciarán.

FOOTNOTES

[i] Sean Canavan, one of Peter’s first cousins worked as a carpenter in New York and was killed in the Twin Towers terrorist attack.


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Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.