Tuesday 22 October 2019

'I have a deeper spirituality, I've been introduced to a new world'

Joe Brolly
Joe Brolly

Declan Bogue

THE decision to give away a kidney was an instinctive one, made instantly because it just felt like the right thing to do.

That gesture to his fellow St Brigid's coach Shane Finnegan opened up new dimensions to Joe Brolly: All-Ireland winner, All Star, barrister, columnist and RTE pundit. The only thing he regrets about it now was the kidney failure and Finnegan's ongoing struggles.

In every other facet of his life, the world now appears different. For the first time ever, he admits, he can smell the flowers. Here's the remarkable thing though: nobody discovered more about Joe Brolly in the last six months than Joe himself.

"I've found, interestingly, that the whole thing has improved my confidence," he says. "Genuinely, it was a life-changing experience for me in many different ways. I think that first of all it has given me a deeper spirituality and a stronger, more concrete sense of others.

"It has cut certain things out of my system. I had a restlessness; 'is this all there is to life? Is this as good as it gets? What's the point?' All that has disappeared. I have been introduced to a new world."


His new world is that of campaigner for Opt For Life and Make Life Your Legacy – groups that wish to implement an automatic 'opt-in' system of organ donation, as utilised in countries such as Spain and Austria, where it is almost unheard of for patients to die from want of an organ.

Next Saturday, thousands of cyclists will join him on a 55-mile bike ride, setting off from Belfast Harlequins rugby club on an awareness-raising drive. His profile has pulled in some big figures.

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Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson will be jostling at the front of the peloton with former Tour de France veteran and famous Lance Armstrong botherer Paul Kimmage.

Martin McGuinness will be in charge of the starting pistol and Brolly is already sharpening the joke he is going to tell about that particular irony.

Such are the circles he moves in nowadays, when he picks up the phone he can call on practically anyone in Ireland. "I have been able to use that to do something really good like this, which people who have been working at the coalface have been crying out for. I do actually feel in a privileged position," he marvels.

Some time ago, he was asked to call in to visit Gary Dillon, the PRO of the St Joseph's Calry club in Sligo, who is suffering from cystic fibrosis in St Vincent's Hospital in Dublin.

In the room next to him is fellow sufferer Gary Dempsey from the St Eunan's club in Letterkenny and Brolly explains how their days are spent.

"Their daily routine is massages to try and move the mucus away from their lungs to try and breathe. They are on oxygen machines, nebulisers, they have to walk on a treadmill, they have an intensive daily regime of physiotherapy and medications. These are the most cheerful people I have ever met.

"It gives you a very powerful perspective out of all of this and I have met so many people who have suffered, had their lives transformed through transplants and just generally, I have seen a different world.

"I would say that particularly for someone like me, because I am a sponge. Emotionally, intellectually, I am a sponge, so it has had an overwhelming impact on me."

He now has the energy of the evangelist. "I have been, and will continue to be, totally relentless about this Opt For Life and Make Life Your Legacy campaigns.

"Anything that is required, whatever that might be. Whoever needs to be met, whoever wants a piece in the paper written, whoever needs assistance, I do that without thinking now, whereas in the past I would have been thinking if it was affecting my schedule."

In this new lease of life, Brolly opened a Twitter account and was soon bringing his own brand of irreverence to the masses. At the time of writing his following topped 14,000 (latest tweet: "If I have to endure marriage, I see no reason why it ought not to be inflicted on the gay community").

He maintains that once Twitter has served its purpose he will close the account. But that remains to be seen. He's having too much fun on it, slaughtering sacred cows.

"The people in Opt For Life are literate with this sort of thing. They are re-tweeting anything about the meaning of it, what's happening with it, it's being re-tweeted about 200 or 300 times. So you could have up to a million people at times getting the tweets.

"I was sceptical about social media, but I can see now why Barack Obama used it to get elected the first time. I have seen first-hand how quickly it spreads knowledge and information."

With five children of his own at home, he gets enough time with his brood because "I don't drink in the pubs" and, of course, he and Finnegan are still coaching the club U-12 and U-14 teams, "but I think they think the less time they spend with me the better!"

The punditry will take care of itself but he certainly won't be worrying about it. Like everyone else, he's looking forward to the Donegal and Tyrone match. Derry's form also excites him, as does the prospect of them, Dublin and Kilkenny all sporting the Opt For Life logo on their jerseys for this championship season – "I am very, very proud about that."

So Joe, the insomniac who would take up a new hobby every month to while away the small hours in the dark by himself, has a new zest and a new purpose: life saver and campaigner.

You might have known him as a pundit, but he surprises us once again. "Football's good, it's good craic and fun, but this life and death stuff is far more interesting."

And who are we to argue?

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