Davy Sheils, a clubmate, produced a photograph to a few of us lying over the wall last week. “Do you know who these are?” he asked. I recognised them both but only got answering to one – Noel Rice – before he revealed the identity of the other, who happened to be Gerry Heeney.
Sadly, both have passed on, but they remain fondly remembered, Noel especially. Oftentimes, when there is a flag to be found or an event that needs organising, the good old ‘if Noel Rice was about...’ line will be trotted out.
There are omnipresent figures in every club – life-time members who are inevitably there when you visit a ground or there is a match on involving a particular team. The hardcore.
And there’s something poignant about it.
As Dermot Woods would regularly say, when he used to come to officiate in Roche, there’d be the same few about to open up the referee’s room and welcome him – slightly better than visitors used to be greeted into Jack’s field down the road…
Sure it would be Seán Conlon or a Callan or a Quigley or poor Noel, or even my father, Eamonn. Men who are still there on a matchday, through thick or thin.
Go to Cooley and you’ll likely find Nicholas Rafferty or Jim or Odhran Thornton there. In the Pat’s there’ll be a McCann or a White or a Keenan on call, rest assured.
John McCarthy is a certainty in Kilkerley – Willie Quigley and a few Litchfields too – with Paddy Farrell or Pat Mackin accounted for in St Bride’s.
Think of Glyde Rangers and straight away two men come readily to mind – Patsy Reid and Tommy Burns.
Consider St Joseph’s and sure you’ve the Gorhams, Mulligans, Hoeys, Fagans and probably Noel Mackin!
Up to O’Connell’s and there’ll be an O’Brien or two, Peter Bannon, Bernard Culligan and lots more. The McGeoughs and Aidan King in Dunleer; Brennans, Wogans and Rogers’ in St Kevin’s; the Rooneys, McKennys and Paddy Lennon in Ardee.
Back to Dundalk, there’ll be a Harrison, Curran, Dixon or Duffy at hand at Clan na Gael Park, with Joe Carroll, the Lamberts, PJ Loughran and Noel Connolly among the Gaels diehards. The O’Briens, Crawleys and Mackins of Sean O’Mahony’s, Gerry McGee in Na Piarsaigh and the Thorntons above in Haggardstown.
And sure you’d never get out of Naomh Fionnbarra without a Butterly or Thomas McQuillan to nod at, nor Dreadnots without the Aidan Connors, Anthony Murphys, Califfs, Lynchs, Raths or Shevlins of Clogherhead.
The champions, Naomh Máirtín, have the father and son duo of Paddy and Gerard Briscoe, alongside Martin Morgan or Noel Healy, with the Reids, Bannons and Sherlocks of Mattock Rangers. There’ll be a Mathews, Levins or Taaffe in Hunterstown, along with the gate guardians, Seán McClean and David Fedigan.
Glen Emmets have the Carolans, there’s always a Moore in O Raghallaighs and a Carter or Heeney at St Nicholas. St Fechin’s have the McGlews and Danny Nugent remains the most tangible Newtown Blues figure, at matches of all ages.
Then there’s Mickey Matthews and Tomás Ó hEochaidh in Oliver Plunkett’s. And, deary me, every trip to Croke Park recently involved a discussion about Dan Woods or Charlie McAlester (RIP), two stalwarts of GAA in Drogheda, with the Plunkett’s and Newtown Blues clubs respectively.
For the sake of not going into a total ramble, not every club is mentioned, but that’s not to say there aren’t people you immediately associate with a certain entity, place or game.
All of these names came flooding to mind as Jamie Bryson, the Unionist whose modus operandi it is to stir hatred and conflict, attacked the GAA with such venom on social media last week.
Gaelic games are a bedrock of Irish society and a true expression of culture and identity all over the island. I sat beside a Kerryman at the recent All-Ireland football final, and we chatted pretty much throughout the match. He was a Cahirsiveen native now living in Laune Rangers territory, Maurice Fitz to Mike Frank and the Hassetts.
Immediately, we had common ground. The same in Louth. When you visit these clubs, you meet familiar faces, people who you mightn’t ordinary be in contact with but the conversation flows as though the relationship was fraternal.
It’s deep, the GAA. It’s who we are and what we represent. Never change.