O'Reilly, John Joe (1918–52), footballer, was born 3 August 1918 in the Derries, Killeshandra, Co. Cavan, seventh in a family of seven sons and six daughters of John O'Reilly, a farmer, and his wife Sarah Anne (née Reilly). He attended Corliss national school, and got his secondary education on scholarship in St Patrick's College, Cavan town. In 1937 he entered the army cadet school at the Curragh, Co. Kildare. Commissioned in 1939, he was promoted captain (1942), and commandant (1945). His army career was mostly spent at the Curragh, in the 3rd Bn, 25th Bn, the military college, and the general training depot.
His achievements in Gaelic football were outstanding. While a schoolboy in the famed football nursery of St Patrick's, he won three Ulster senior college championships (MacRory Cup) (1935–7), captaining the side in the latter two seasons. He also captained the Ulster provincial colleges team. Cornafean, his senior club, had been to the forefront in developing Gaelic football in Cavan, and dominated the county championships in the 1930s. John Joe joined their senior team as a teenager in 1935. He won two Co. Cavan senior championship medals with Cornafean (1936–7). After joining the defence forces, he competed in the Co. Kildare championships with the Army Team and the Curragh club. He was the driving force behind teams of the Curragh command in the army championships. Also adept at basketball, he played in inter-command matches. A superbly talented athlete, he won army titles at 100 and 220 yards.
In inter-county football, he made a teenage debut for the Cavan senior team in the 1937 all-Ireland semi-final, playing at right half back (his elder brother Tom was captain and centre back). He remained on the senior county team until 1951, eventually replacing Tom at centre back (his own favoured position), and succeeding him as captain. In his first thirteen seasons he won eleven Ulster senior championship medals (1937, 1939–45, 1947–9). After playing on losing sides in three all-Ireland finals (1937, 1943, 1945), he captained the Cavan team that won the Sam Maguire Cup by 2–11 to 2–7 over Kerry in the celebrated 1947 match at the Polo Grounds in New York, the only final ever contested outside Ireland. In the more familiar confines of Croke Park in 1948, he captained Cavan to a second straight all-Ireland victory by a single point in a pulsating match against Mayo (4–5 to 4–4). Earlier that season he had led the county to its first ever championship of the National Football League. He was also captain in 1949 when Cavan lost the all-Ireland final to Meath. Throughout the 1940s he played with distinction for Ulster in the inter-provincial Railway Cup competition. He was the only footballer to captain three Railway Cup winners (1942–3, 1950), and played on a fourth winning team in 1947.
His football skills were manifold. Fast and remarkably fit, he had impeccable judgement, great speed to the ball, and sure hands. His defending was notable for uncanny positional play and excellent ball distribution. He was a superb captain. A born leader of men, his example was almost his only command. His sportsmanship was exemplary, his commitment inspiring, his unyielding spirit and determination elicited imitation. He was widely acclaimed for his chivalry on and off the field of play. His socialising was temperate. Allowing himself an occasional beer or two (never more), he regarded alcohol as the enemy of fitness, and he was a fitness fiend. He was selected at centre back on the Sunday Independent football team of the century (1984), and on the An Post/GAA team of the millennium (1999). A commemorative stamp was issued on the latter occasion. He was celebrated posthumously in song as ‘the gallant John Joe’.
Outside sport, he was interested in scientific agriculture, and studied production and marketing. He retained a love for equitation from his cadet days. He had a deep interest in and knowledge of James Joyce's Ulysses. He married (1943) Olive Rooney, and had two sons and two daughters. They lived in the Curragh, Co. Kildare.
His older brother Thomas (‘Big Tom’) O'Reilly (1915–95) was the fourth child in the family of thirteen. Playing senior club football for Cornafean (1932–48), he won nine county championships (1932–4, 1936–40, 1943), captaining the team in seven of those seasons. He won three senior all-Ireland medals with Cavan: at age 18 on the 1933 side that won the county's (and Ulster's) first Sam Maguire, again in 1935, and on the substitute panel in 1947. Initially a midfielder in inter-county football, during his prime he played at centre back, moving to corner back in later years. During his captaincy of the county side (1937–45), Cavan were three times all-Ireland runners-up. He won two Railway Cup championships with Ulster (1942–3). He was elected to the twelfth Dáil Éireann as independent TD for Cavan (1944–8). Thereafter he became a successful building contractor and property developer in Dublin, where he resided in Orwell Park, Rathgar. He died 1 February 1995.
On 22 November 1952 this contributor was teaching a Latin class in St Eunan's College, Letterkenny, his text being Cicero ‘De Senectute’. He was construing a sentence that read: ‘Who is so foolish as to believe that he will live until the evening.’ A knock on the classroom door summoned him to the telephone, whereupon he was informed that his friend and captain, Comdt. John Joe O'Reilly, aged 34, had died early that morning in Curragh military hospital, having failed to recover from an operation for a kidney condition. The sudden and untimely death stunned and sorrowed the nation. The funeral cortege, many miles long, proceeded from the Curragh, via Dublin and the plains of Meath, to Killeshandra churchyard, where he was laid to rest with full military honours.