James Nolan: Remembering the Boy in Green who never came home
The parents of James Nolan can't wait for the upcoming European football championships to be over. The memories are too much to bear. Four years ago, their son travelled to the Euros in Poland, but then tragedy struck.
Published 05/06/2016 | 02:30
By the time Cesc Fàbregas found the back of the Irish net to give Spain a 4-0 lead, the supporters in green inside Gdansk's PGE Arena were in full voice.
Their version of 'The Fields of Athenry' floated from TV screens across the continent. These Irish supporters came to Euro 2012 to enjoy themselves, and they weren't going to allow this unfortunate drubbing dampen their spirits.
Amongst them was 21-year-old James Nolan from Blessington in Co Wicklow.
The environmental engineering student at the Institute of Technology in Tallaght had travelled to the championships with a group of friends and was enjoying every minute.
While there, he found out he'd achieved excellent results in his end-of-year exams including an 'A' in mathematics. Life was good.
"They met up with a gang of Polish lads and were playing football games, out singing every night - they were having a ball. We'd get texts off James every single day. Often he'd be looking for phone credit - I used to top up his phone for him… I still have those texts on my phone," his father Jimmy tells me in the sitting room of the Nolan family home.
But on Sunday, June 17 no text message came.
Following the Spanish defeat, James and his friends made the journey south towards Poznan where Ireland were due to face Italy in their final group game.
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They stopped off in the city of Bydgoszcz on the Saturday night, parked up their camper van and went out to a number of bars.
But when the group were to return to their camper van park, 2km outside the city in the early hours of Sunday morning, it appears there wasn't enough room for all of them in the taxis and James attempted to return on-foot.
When James' friends woke in the morning, they realised he hadn't returned, his phone was dead and later that day they began searching for him. As the hours passed, the seriousness of the situation dawned on the group.
"Adam Cullen, a friend of James's rang me on the Monday," recalls Andy, James's older brother. "He told me that James had been missing for the whole of Sunday, that he never arrived back to where they were staying. They'd been looking for him but couldn't find him. I said okay, but that I wasn't going to say anything to mam and dad yet because, obviously, I thought he'd show up and didn't want to worry them. But he told me I should because they were starting to put up posters so it was going to be known very soon. It's then I told Da."
James and his father Jimmy were particularly close. The baby of the family, James shared Jimmy's love of Manchester United and the pair would often visit Old Trafford to watch games.
James, or 'Jam' as he was known to his friends, had a particular fondness for Roy Keane, and earned the nickname 'Captain Fantastic' after leading his club side in Blessington when younger. Club managers Willie Boyle, Ciaran Ryan and Vinnie Balfe cultivating the young striker's game and helped him along.
Jimmy describes his beloved boy as "always very outgoing, never one bit shy and a grand young fella, we never had an argument".
As soon as Jimmy heard his son was missing, he feared the worst.
"When he wasn't ringing me or texting me, I knew there was something seriously wrong because he wasn't that kind of fella. I knew if he could have contacted us, he would have," said Jimmy.
James's mother, Essie, tells me: "We thought his phone was dead, it needed to be charged, or maybe he was out of coverage - or he let it fall by accident. We didn't panic initially."
But on the following Wednesday, the family's worst fears were realised when a body was pulled from the river near Bydgoszcz Cathedral, some 200 metres from where James was last seen.
There were no railings or street lighting at that stretch of the river bank, and a number of others had fallen in at the same point in previous years.
Police soon identified the body as that of James.
Andy, his brother-in-law Gareth Dudley and other family members were preparing to fly to Poland when a garda rang and broke the worst of news.
"I had hope. I was clinging to something. But as soon as Garda Mick O'Rourke rang, that was it," says Andy. His sister, Suzie, tells me: "We thought maybe he could have been in a hospital somewhere... but then our world fell apart."
Family members made the trip to Poland to identify the body and make arrangements for the repatriation to Ireland. Gareth explains: "In Bydgoszcz, locals were coming up to us on the street and hugging us. They held candlelit vigils along the bank of the river and were so compassionate. They did everything they could to help."
"We have hundreds of messages and cards from Polish people," says Jimmy, adding: "We got cards and letters from literally every county in Ireland, and all over the world. Our neighbours and friends couldn't have done more for us. And the FAI and the Irish team were very supportive too."
Shay Given and John Delaney attended James's funeral in Blessington, as did Robbie's Keane's wife Claudine. "Robbie himself has telephoned the house here a few times over the years and sent text messages," says Jimmy.
The support has helped… but the pain never dims.
"I still think he's here sometimes," says James's heartbroken mother, adding: "I still expect him to walk through the door."
Since James's tragic passing, Andy has become a father to two boys, Max (3) and six-month-old AJ. In April, James would have been 25.
"Those two boys have brought some much-needed light into our lives," says Suzie, while Jimmy told me: "Max carries on like James, he has his ways."
Initial reports suggested a row had taken place between a group of Polish men and the group of which James was part in the hours before his disappearance - but a post-mortem examination revealed that there were no external or internal injuries that could suggest foul play.
"The only thing we were content about, I suppose, is that there was no violence, no attack, that nobody touched him," says Suzie.
Jimmy tells me he can't wait for the upcoming European Championships to be over. The constant adverts and build-up brings back so many painful memories.
"I don't know if I'll even bother looking at it. I probably will, but I'll just be going through the motions. In saying that, we'll always be grateful to the FAI and the team for their support," he said.
"Jam was the glue that held everyone together," explains Mick Byrne, his friend of many years, while another, Eddie Boylan, said: "I feel lost without him because he organised everything and knew what everybody else was up to. We all miss him so much."
Reg Hamilton, another of James's many friends, said: "It's devastating. He was such a big character. Everyone knew him, everybody misses him."
While former colleague from the Lakes pub in Blessington, Elaine Casey, told me: "We have a picture of Jam up in the pub. He was the life and soul of the place. He's irreplaceable."
Jimmy Nolan pleaded with young people planning to go to this summer's Euros in France to look after themselves and their friends.
"Remember what happened to James and please be careful," he said. "Four years ago, every parent who said goodbye to their children when they went to Poland was thinking in their mind 'I hope they'll be alright' - but for us we suffered the biggest heartbreak any parent could."
Not far from the loving home where he grew up, played card games, threw darts and entertained friends, and from the little football pitch where he scored a hat-trick in his very first game of soccer at the age of seven, James Nolan is laid to rest.
On his grave there are two footballs, and on his headstone his mantra: "Smile and the world smiles with you."
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