To the end, Paddy Fenning’s serenity could almost fool you into mistaking his condition for the equivalent of a head-cold.
Just ten days ago, he was raising index and middle finger in a V-sign to camera as family friend, Pat Nolan, delivered a hauntingly beautiful pipe rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ from the deck of the Fennings’ back garden in Tullamore.
A sign that can, of course, be interpreted as either victory or peace. In Paddy’s case, I suspect it represented both.
He passed away in the early hours of this morning, taken by motor neurone disease from the loving embrace of Kathryn and their children, Barry and Amy.
“I have accepted it. Like why not me? Why should it be somebody else?” he told me maybe six months back, having immersed himself into a fund-raising campaign that it was hoped might raise money to be shared between MND research and Offaly’s homeless via the Simon Community.
Fund-raising was Paddy’s thing once he stopped playing football.
He was named ‘Offaly Person of the Year’ in 2011 in recognition of his management of a myriad of projects, among them helping erase the debt on Tullamore’s GAA Social Centre; raising €200,000 to purchase a CAT scan for the local hospital as well as supporting an arts centre and municipally-owned swimming pool in the town.
He was, of course, a senior All-Ireland winner too, winning Celtic Crosses with Offaly in ’71 and ’72, a notably fearless forward the great Tony McTague would grinningly instruct: “You get the frees Fenning, I’ll put them over!”
Paddy played eleven seasons for Offaly, retiring after the 1980 All-Ireland semi-final. It meant that two years later he witnessed arguably the most famous goal in GAA history from a seat high up the back of the Hogan Stand.
Still just 32 at the time, he could joke all these years later: “Funny thing is, had I stayed on, I would definitely have been brought on instead of (Seamus) Darby!
“I often joke to him since ‘Sure anyone can score from thirteen yards out, I got one from fifty yards out in ’72 (All-Ireland final), against the breeze!”
There was never a sliver of discernible self-pity in his acceptance of a diagnosis that Paddy and his family always recognised as terminal. On the contrary, it seemed to me that time spent in Fenning’s company invariably proved time splashed with self-deprecation and easy laughter.
We exchanged texts on April 20 and, for me, his last message will forever resonate with that rare grace that so distinguished his final days.
It read: “If someone said to me ‘Fenning in your 70th year, there will be a Pandemic and you will get Motor Neuron Disease’, I would say to that Person ‘YOU’RE MAD’…life is all about the moment. Cheers and UP THE FAITHFUL
“Paddy (followed by emojis of Cups).”
One of nature’s true gentlemen has left us. Heart-felt condolences to Kathryn, Barry and Amy.
It is hoped that Paddy’s MND fund-raising campaign, involving a charity summer walk, can still happen in his honour, soon as Covid-19 restrictions allow. Donations can be made on this link. www.gofundme.com/f/MNDwalk.