The first time I heard the name Sean Duggan was when my grandmother would scoff at the crowds walking the Salthill prom on a Sunday afternoon.
“I remember the days when no one walked the prom except myself, Sean Duggan, and the priest who always carried the beads behind his back!” she would declare.
Years later, when I got to know Sean, I told him about this. It gave him a good laugh, but he also remembered my grandmother Catherine, asked after her, and recalled visiting my grandparents house, when they lived in Belclare, near the foot of Croagh Patrick, during the pilgrimage periods for climbing the reek.
Sean, who passed away last week at the age of 90, was a true gentleman and one of Galway’s best loved citizens. The fact the Sean Duggan Centre on his native College Road was named after him - during his lifetime - was testament to that.
There were two aspects to Sean. One was the legendary hurler, the other was the passionate swimmer.
Sean is regarded as one of the greatest figures in the history of hurling and perhaps its greatest goalkeeper. He was a member of the Liam Mellows Hurling Club, with whom he won five county championships, and from 1943 - 1953 was goalkeeper with the Galway senior inter-county team.
He was on a Monastery School team that won the Dean’s Cup in 1935. He also lined out for Connacht in the inter-provincial hurling competition, winning the 1947 Railway Cup when Connacht defeated Munster.
Sean was a member of the 1951 National Hurling League winning Galway side and, along with his brothers Jimmy and Paddy, played on the Galway side which faced Cork in the 1953 All-Ireland final.
The famous photograph of Sean catching the sliothar one handed has become one of the GAA’s most iconic images and inspired a sculpture by John Behan. It also inspired commentator Mícheál Ó hEithir to say, “Up goes that hand again for Galway” on numerous occasions.
He is regarded as one of the greatest players never to have won an All-Ireland medal, but lack of All-Ireland success did nothing to diminish his reputation. He was selected on the Galway Team of the Millennium by a panel of local sports journalists in 2000 and was inducted in the GAA Hall of Fame in 2002. Further honour came in 2008 when Sean and Jimmy were presented with honorary degrees by NUI Galway.
Yet Sean was never one to boast of his achievements. He wore his status of bona-fide sports legend very lightly, his interest always being in the future of the game.
For many of us though, born after that time, Sean will be best remembered as a keen swimmer. Almost every morning he could be seen in Blackrock for a swim, come rain, hail, snow, or sunshine, year in-year out. He was, in many respects, the unofficial ‘leader’ of the Blackrock swimmers, and never tired of extolling the benefits of the activity, often remarking: “If you could bottle it, you’d make millions!”
Sean was an inspiration to me. As an 18-year-old, during that Indian summer of 1995, when the fine weather stretched well beyond the end of August, I continued swimming in Blackrock. After starting university that October, I found myself swimming on weekends, despite the increasing cold.
“You’re keepin’ it up! Good man!” Sean declared one morning, seeing me about to get in. Sean continued to encourage me and made me feel welcome among the established group of Blackrock swimmers. That was 18 years ago and I have never looked back. I owe that passion to Sean, and Blackrock will, genuinely, no longer be the same without him. We have lost a very good friend.
Yet, as long as there are people who love to go swimming in the sea, regardless of the weather, Sean’s spirit will continue to be a strong presence by the diving tower.