Thursday 18 October 2018

Joe Brolly: We do things differently up North - just ask Henry Shefflin

Sean McGuigan, chairman of Slaughtneil, who set the standard on and off the field in Derry. Photo: Jonathan Porter/Press Eye
Sean McGuigan, chairman of Slaughtneil, who set the standard on and off the field in Derry. Photo: Jonathan Porter/Press Eye

Joe Brolly

Slaughtneil Robert Emmets held their gala dinner last Saturday night. There were over 800 people there. "It's like the Third Reich," said Gerry Donnelly.

They are All-Ireland senior camogie champions, as well as Ulster senior hurling and football champions. But they are much more than that. Irish speakers, communitarians and socialists, they are loyal to their place and people, but at the same time would give you the shirt off their backs. Henry Shefflin was the guest of honour and he was visibly taken aback by the whole experience.

There were people there from clubs all over the county. After the meal, Gerry Donnelly did an interesting and funny Q&A with Henry. With a straight face, he said: "Henry, with next year's dinner dance at Ballyragget already sold out, is there any chance you could squeeze me two tickets?" He asked Henry about Cody's philosophy. Henry said: "He never once mentioned winning to us. He just said we were brothers and we would build an unbreakable spirit."

It is worth remembering that during the hunger strikes, Slaughtneil pulled their teams out of all competitions as a mark of solidarity with their neighbours. They didn't even have a hunger striker. Their seniors - the jewel in their crown - were relegated to intermediate for the next season as a result. In Dungiven, where we had two hunger strikers, we never forgot that.

When my sister Nodlaig went to Slaughtneil over a decade ago to ask for their support in revitalising Dungiven, they showed us what they had done and since that moment, have advised us at every step on the way. In Dungiven, we now have three Irish schools, from nursery to secondary, and the town is coming alive. Out with the Manchester United jerseys, in with the language, the music (we even have a harp school), the football and the hurling.

Ray McCartney, one of the best human beings I have known, was taken off the first hunger strike on his 53rd day, when they thought they had a deal. By that stage, he was almost blind and very close to death. After 30 days the body starts to consume itself.

A few days before the gala, Ray emailed me a black and white photo of three small boys together, wearing shorts, arms around each other, smiling broadly. "Who are they?" was his challenge. The photo was hazy, but I recognised the one on the left immediately. "Kevin Lynch," I texted. "Who are the others?" I was beaten. I had to send it to my father. Not 30 seconds later, he came back "Eugene, Oisin and Pauline Hassan." I was kicking myself.

Looking at the photo brought me back to those terrible days in '81. I have never been able to bring myself to watch anything about the hunger strikes. I couldn't watch the movie Hunger with Michael Fassbender, and although I taped the recent Bobby Sands: 66 Days documentary, in the end I deleted it. I have often spoken to Ray about how he managed to come through it all. He says the strength of their bond made their spirit unbreakable. "All of us were in it together. That's how we coped."

Eugene Hassan, who is in the photo, was one of the strongest men who ever played for us. In the 1982 county final against Ballinderry, which was probably the greatest unlicensed prize fight ever seen on Irish soil, Eugene was our number six. The referee's report after the drawn game said: "This was one game not played in the spirit of the Gael. Had it not been for the fact it was a county final, I would have blown it up after 10 minutes, by which time there were fist fights going on in every part of the field."

At one stage, one of the Ballinderry players was poleaxed by a heavy uppercut from Liam Murphy after he had barged our goalie John Somers into the net. This prompted another melee, in the course of which Christy Grieve got his leg broken. After a lengthy delay, an ambulance came onto the pitch to collect the wounded. When the crew closed the back doors and were ready to drive off, Hassan said to them: "You may hang on boys until you have a full load."

Gerry Donnelly name-checked the various clubs who had a presence at the gala, paused, then said, "and of course Foreglen". Everybody laughed. Even the Foreglen boys there. Gerry's pauses are as funny as his jokes. He said: "I don't think I'm speaking out of turn when I say that the introduction of referees almost destroyed Gaelic football in Foreglen."

My father remembers playing in the North Derry league away to Foreglen. They played in a farmer's field - like most places, they didn't have a permanent pitch.

He says: "If you got a reasonably flat field in those days, you approached the farmer and you rented it for the day. The farmer would have taken his stock off it on the morning of the match, but you would have been playing through cow claps and the like. Makeshift posts were put up. There was no such thing as mowing the field for the game. The rushes were a Godsend if there were any, for kicking the frees off. There would sometimes have been a single strand of wire around the perimeter of the playing pitch.

"In Foreglen, the spectators would have surrounded the pitch, so you had to be careful about getting too close to the edge as you were liable to get hit over the head with an umbrella or a stick."

My father remembers some ferocious fights, but says: "Generally speaking when the match was over, it was over, as the boys would have worked together and were friendly off the field as we were neighbouring parishes." Though sometimes, he says, quoting James 'The Miller' Kane, a Swatragh native, our "friendship warmed to blows".

"I remember playing a match against Foreglen at the Foreglen Sports once and Willie Murphy was refereeing. The game only lasted five minutes: the row got up, and Fr Danny McNicholl came out onto the field and hit one of the Foreglen supporters. I can see him yet," says my father, "he drew out and hit him with his fist in the side of the ear." When the stunned supporter (my father refused to name him) realised that he had been hit by the priest, he left the field of battle with his tail between his legs.

"Fr Conway, the Dungiven PP, was also there watching the game and he came onto the pitch, ordered the Dungiven team off and commanded us never to come back to Foreglen again."

The priests' intervention was decisive.

Gerry turned his attention to Patsy Bradley's father Mickey, who has the distinction of being perhaps the most red-carded player in the county's history. "In fairness to Mickey," said Gerry, "at one stage he went three weeks without being sent off." Mickey, sitting beside his son Patsy, Slaughtneil's heroic midfielder, was tied to the stake. Gerry was only starting. He told a story about a game between Bellaghy and Slaughtneil. One of the "wee Bellaghy forwards" as Gerry put it, was coming through on a solo run and kicked the ball in. Three or four seconds later Mickey hit him with everything, knees into his chest, elbows into his face, leaving him knocked out on the ground. The referee called Mickey over. "Mickey, you were very late there son." Mickey said, "I got there as fast as I could."

It was a great night. I sat beside their chairman, Sean McGuigan. He was in Kenya earlier this year with 20 locals, building a new school in the impoverished village of Embu. Sean and his team raised £30,000 and built these youngsters a school with their bare hands. The work took longer than they thought, so they missed Slaughtneil's county final wins in both hurling and football. When the work was finished, Sean stood before the delighted children of the village and wrote on the blackboard, Up the Robbies (the Slaughtneil club is named after Robert Emmet). He then led the children in chants of 'Up the Robbies'. You can see it for yourself on my Twitter account.

The week before the gala, I was chatting with the inimitable Fergal 'Rooster' McCusker and mentioned to him that I was going to the gala. "They are hateful b*****s on the field," he said, "but they're what we all want to be." As Sean McGuigan put it when I told him, "That's a good jealousy."

I cannot tell you the number of people from the South who have texted and rung me over the last fortnight to say, 'We have no idea of what things are really like in the North'. Last Saturday, the greatest sportsman this country has ever seen joined their number.

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