Sport GAA

Sunday 25 March 2018

Clublife: Joe Brolly remembers fallen heroes in a proud parish

Remembering fallen heroes in a proud parish

Joe Brolly, right, and his father Francie enjoying the game. Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Quarter-Final, Derry v Down. Celtic Park, Derry. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE
Joe Brolly, right, and his father Francie enjoying the game. Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Quarter-Final, Derry v Down. Celtic Park, Derry. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

Joe Brolly

When Niall Hassan died last year, his wife found amongst his hoard of cuttings a newspaper obituary of my grandfather Joe Brolly, entitled 'The Most Remarkable Man in Dungiven Parish'.

I was a year old when he died in a work accident. A badly shorn-up trench collapsed, suffocating him. The obituary, written by Seamus Hassan, is extraordinary. "The Greek philosophers tell us that a man should be judged not on how he spends his working time, but how he spends his leisure time. For Joe, his leisure hours were his very life."

It describes his life as a communitarian, disinterested in money and material things, passionate about his club and his neighbour. The author describes how at his wake, one illiterate man told him, "I wept. I have lost a great friend. He filled out my forms for me. He even wrote my personal letters."

There are some delightful flourishes. My grandfather was not a saint. "Joe was a bonny fighter, who loved to lay an opponent by the heels and dearly loved the telling." And when he got drunk, my grandmother would lock him in the coal shed. In 1943, he and Joe Beattie spent £5, 16 shillings and 8 pence on a secondhand set of jerseys from Ballymena Rugby Club. It might just be the best fiver ever spent. By 1947, we were the county senior football champions, training and playing in Robert McGonigle's field.

On August 1, 1953, when the same two heroes bought O'Cathain Park for £800, we were no longer homeless. I was born in June 1969. A fortnight later, Francie Beag McCloskey, a well-loved 67-year-old local farmer, was batoned to death by RUC men in the doorway of Hassan's shop on the Main Street. He was the first fatality of what came to be known as The Troubles. His wanton murder changed things forever.

In our back garden in Station Road my father erected a set of posts from logs. Before every game, I insisted the national anthem be sung. Then, we would play 15- or even 20-a-side late into the evening until we were called ashore. I provided a running commentary à la Michael O'Hehir. ("This man is a ball of fire" etc.)

When my father Francie was detained at Her Majesty's pleasure in 1972, the people of the town rallied around. My mother was left with three young boys. She was the infant teacher at St John's primary school. We were continually harassed by the soldiers. I remember being stopped on the way home after school one afternoon. The squaddie said, "Pull your car over love." "No." "Pull your fucking car over." "No." By now, the traffic was backing up behind us on the Derry road. "Alright love, get out of the fucking car and get the kids out." "No." He went to reach for me and she said, "Don't lay a finger on that child." By now, people were honking their horns in protest. The soldiers had their guns raised. "You're Francie Brolly's wife aren't you?" he said, "We know all about him." "Funny," my ma said, "he knows all about you too." People were roaring at them by this stage. Some were getting out of their cars. The soldier knew he was beaten and let us go. No point arguing with a Tyrone woman.

One afternoon in 1975, three years into his internment without trial, Mary Kathleen Groogan arrived at our door breathless with excitement and said, "Anne, you have to pick Francie up at Long Kesh." Mary Kathleen was the only person we knew who had a phone. I remember sitting on his knee that evening in the kitchen as he ate a tin of oxtail soup.

Later, like his father before him, he became chairman of the club and like Joe, has devoted his life to the community. As Seamus Hassan put it, "One of those men whose vocation begins and ends on the village street." He is 78 now, takes music and Irish classes in the club and the house is an unofficial Citizen's Advice Bureau, where he fills out forms, dispenses advice and tortures me with a bewildering array of legal queries.

My earliest sporting memory is of my father getting his nose broken with Dungiven hurlers. The match was in 1972 against Kilrea. I went to every match with him in our bright green Lada car. Russian-made, it had black plastic seats that burned when it was sunny and windows that could only be wound open with a car jack. In those days, Dungiven's goalie and full-back line had to be approached with extreme caution, in the manner of the presenter of a wildlife programme nearing a group of adult gorillas. Sudden movements tended to panic them, which manifested itself in hard, high pulling towards the threat until it stopped moving.

My father was a cultured centre half-back and not long into the game, he turned to chase a high ball back towards his own square. Billy Taylor was the Dungiven goalie, and as my father bent to pick up the ball, Billy pulled hard on it, and made a real mess of his face. I still clearly remember the blood pouring down over his white-and-black jersey. Billy holds the unique distinction of being able to sing Kevin Barry to the tune of the Sash, and vice versa, he just wasn't terribly careful with the hurl.

Phonsie Boyle, known as 'The Boiler', became a bogeyman figure in Derry hurling circles due to the number of opponents who mysteriously fainted during games. In 1978, legendary Kilkenny full-back Pa Dillon came to Dungiven with Freshford to play in a tournament at the field. Afterwards, Phonsie, a keen student of the game, approached Pa at the bar and posed a question that has plagued full-backs since time immemorial. "When is a full-back entitled to pull?" Pa took a good draught of his stout and uttered the immortal line, "When the ball's in the general area." The following morning, Pa took the opportunity to watch Phonsie plying his art at the pitch in a league game against Banagher. When the game was over, Pa approached him and said, "Phonsie, a ball would do you a long time." Phonsie took that as a compliment.

A vital stimulus for hurling in Dungiven had been the arrival across the Sperrins of Liam Hinphey. Having left Kilkenny as a young graduate, he arrived firstly in Ballymaguigan, before meeting my aunt Mary K and marrying her soon after. His installation in Dungiven meant one thing: hurling. Kilkenny club teams came to tournaments in the field. Eddie Keher stayed in our house. Brian Cody stayed in my grandmother's across the road. The fresh-faced young Kilkenny captain briefly courted my father's cousin Sheila. Unfortunately, she couldn't hang onto him, changing the course of hurling history.

The relationships that were built between Dungiven and Kilkenny were more permanent. In 1978, Liam was invited by Monsignor Maher, the doyen of hurling coaches and manager of Kilkenny, to spend the weekend of the All-Ireland in the company of the Kilkenny team. They were playing Cork, and on the evening before the game, Liam watched the training at St Ciaran's, then went with them for their evening meal at Langton's, where he was presented with an entire set of Kilkenny jerseys. For years afterwards, the club senior team wore the Kilkenny colours, and in centenary year both the footballers and hurlers did the senior championship double wearing them.

When I was a child at St John's Primary School the principal was Pat Holloway, a Tipperary man and a fine hurler. All we did was hurl. In 1982, I played right half-forward on the Dungiven team that won the Féile, beating Dunloy in the final in Croke Park. I have two each of under 14, 16 and minor county medals. I have three senior county medals, the most memorable of these coming in a final against Lavey in the late 1980s. Brian McGilligan, a superb hurler, lined out for us at number 11 that day, standing at 6'3" and 15 stone. Colm McGurk of Lavey, all 5'6" and eight stone of him, squared up to him from the start and just as the ball was thrown in, lashed McGilligan across the legs. McGilligan roared like a bull, then pulled across him, breaking his hand. McGurk got it strapped up, came back on and resumed lashing. All the same boys played for the hurling and football team. The Lavey men went on to become All-Ireland senior club football champions. We won Ulster but threw away the All-Ireland. It is my only sporting regret.

This summer, my two oldest boys spent a week at the Kevin Lynch hurling camp, hurling with 165 other kids between the ages of five and 14 and staying with their grandparents. Afterwards, they didn't want to come home and were using the word 'sir' perfectly in context (the standard Dungiven greeting is 'How's the form sir?'). It took about two weeks for this side-effect to wear off.

Kevin Lynch was a fanatical hurler. In 1971, the inaugural hurling Féile took place in Thurles. Kevin was right half-back on the team. A week before the competition was due to start, Kevin's appendix ruptured and he had to be rushed into hospital for emergency surgery. His mother Bridie went to see Hinphey to tell him the bad news. She was devastated for her son. Liam assured her that they would bring him anyway, and keep a close eye on him. The bus was leaving from the town on the Friday morning, and on the Thursday night, Kevin appeared at Liam's back door to leave his hurl and gear. He didn't want his mother to know. Liam Snr, hugely conscious of player welfare, went on to play him in four games over the next two days. Dungiven won it, beating two Tipperary teams en route to the cup. Bridie never found out.

In 1972, he captained the first Derry hurling team to win an All-Ireland. He quickly moved up to senior level and hurled with distinction until his arrest in 1977. In 1981, he died on hunger strike after 71 days, aged only 25. I still vividly remember the shock of it.

A few years earlier, the hurling club had broken away from the football club and used the name St Patrick's as a stop-gap, since it was the name of the local secondary school. A few weeks after he died, the club committee unanimously agreed that the club would be named Kevin Lynch's if the family gave permission. Kevin's father Paddy gave the idea his blessing, and that was that.

When I drive through the town in the mornings on my way to court in Derry, I often see his sister Bridie crossing the road to the chapel with fresh flowers for his grave. To this day, she lights a candle before every senior championship game.

In Seamus Heaney's great work Requiem for the Croppies, he wrote: "They buried us without shroud or coffin and in August . . . the barley grew up out of our graves."

Dungiven's barley is growing beautifully.

Sunday Independent

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