Joe Brolly: It was an illustration of how bittersweet life is. The kid just wants to live
The new St Canice's Dungiven social club was officially opened last Saturday, and to mark the occasion we had a state visit. Prince Philip was unavailable. The man who once asked a group of Aborigines during a visit to Australia, "Do you still throw spears at each other?" has retired from public life. So we had to settle for a member of the Kerry Royal family, Prince Tomás of the ó Sé dynasty.
"We have a commemorative plaque made for you to unveil," I texted him. "Grand," he texted back. "It reads 'Officially opened on 6th May, 2017, by Tomás ó Sé, five-time All-Star, five-time All-Ireland winner and Kerry legend." A moment later he came back " You are f***ing joking me. Seriously?" The phone went shortly after. "Jaysus Joe, are you pulling my leg?" "No Tomás, you are revered up here. Brace yourself."
He was a bit delayed coming up the road and I got a text that said, "Are there many speed cameras up here, Joe?" "They don't apply to Free Staters Tomás," I texted, "steam on." We met outside Belfast and I piloted him to the town. As we drove through the club gates, he saw the welcoming party and went bright red. Hordes of our under sixes and under eights were gathered in a long line, waving Kerry and Dungiven flags and cheering. There was a large placard welcoming him. The car park was full of parents and coaches, cameras at the ready. "We wouldn't have done all of this for the over-rated Colm Cooper," I said. His reply can only be printed in the adult version of this paper.
After he had signed boots, jerseys, flags, even faces for half an hour, he came onto the pitch, which was packed with every underage team in the club and most of the club's members. He remains, at 39, a marvellous specimen. As he strode around the field in his Kerry tracksuit, coaching each of the groups and saying a few words, it was hard not to feel great pride that he was with us.
His main session, which was attended by all the club coaches, was with the under 16 group. He started by emphasising the primacy of good, accurate kicking, then took the group through a session which was all about quick foot-passing. He finished with a long-kicking game where bonus points were awarded for accurate kick-passes.
The under 16s loved it. In the middle of them, young Michael McNicholl, who is very ill with liver failure, was giving it everything he had. Falling over. Getting up. Running for the ball. Even when he was exhausted, he kept going. Afterwards, Liam Harry said to him, "Come on Michael, get a picture with Tomás." "Ah, I'm alright," he said. Eventually, Tomás went over and stuck his hand out to him and the photo was taken. It was an illustration of how bittersweet life is. The kid just wants to live. To give it everything. All around him, his team-mates glowing with health. Every team in the club wears optforlife on the jersey. Michael will only live if he gets a transplant.
In the bar afterwards, Tomás cut the ribbon and spoke beautifully, first as Gaeilge, then in English. Then, the great man was whisked off to a charity event in Derry by our clubman Martin Heaney.
On Sunday, my daughter Meabh was playing in the Antrim Feile final against Gortnamona. We were standing at the wire where the Gortnamona girls were warming up. Everything they did was done through the medium of Irish. Again, it was hard not to feel great pride. Their club pitch is named Terry Enright Park after a young man who was shot dead during the Troubles. I was chatting to his brother before the throw-in. Since his death, the club has made a massive effort to make Irish their first language and it is bearing ripe fruit.
The game itself was fantastic. No sweepers. Lots of long kicking. When football is played like this you see the characters on the teams. The girls are able to express themselves. St Brigid's went way ahead early on, which was just as well, as these young Gorts were superb. At the end of the first half, they scored one of the best team goals I have ever seen. It started with an interception by their full-back on her own 21. She immediately delivered a long kick-pass over the head of her midfielder for her to run onto. In turn, she collected it, did a one-two, then kicked a perfect ball to the full-forward, running towards goal at the diagonal. She caught it and immediately drove it low to the bottom corner. The Gortnamona ones went wild. Even the St Brigid's parents clapped. What a score.
The finale was a cliffhanger. With five to go, we were seven ahead. They scored a point. Then another. Then, a superb goal lashed to the net after a high catch on the square. From the kick-out, they drove forward again and scored a point to leave them just one behind. Somehow, we held on.
At the final whistle, none of the players celebrated. Both sets went to the ref to find out the score. To be honest, I started to get worried about my own maths. Ten seconds later, the St Brigid's captain squealed with delight and ran towards her team-mates, arms in the air. You know the rest.
It was hardly fair on Gortnamona. But life is bittersweet. The important thing . . . is to opt for it.
Sunday Indo Sport