Wednesday 16 October 2019

'It hurts to be called a thug' - Dubs legend Duff on journey from 'public enemy number one' to devoted family man

Dublin legend recalls his journey from 'public enemy No 1' of football to devoted family man benefiting from support of former opponents

Kieran Duff in action for Dublin in the 1989 Leinster final against Meath. Photo: Sportsfile
Kieran Duff in action for Dublin in the 1989 Leinster final against Meath. Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Less than a minute into 'Don't Judge Me', the Laochra Gael documentary on Kieran Duff, three separate voices have essentially already done precisely that.

"Public enemy number one..."

"A bit of a gurrier..."

"Thug!"

The last voice belongs to Duff himself.

"It does hurt when you're just getting called a thug," he reflects 36 years on from a moment that all but stamped the Swords man with a branding iron.

To this day, his sending-off in the 1983 All-Ireland football final emboldens complete strangers to greet him face-to-face with that resilient perception of him being as he puts it, "a dirty b*****d".

Four men got the line that infamous day in Croke Park; only one became all but defined by the walk.

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Yet, Duff would play the next decade for Dublin without another dismissal. In that time, he was targeted (often brutally) by opposition backs, men recognising the pivotal role he had in the Dubs' attack.

Specifically when Meath became the standard-bearers in Leinster football, their policing of Duff was seldom weighed down with much scruple.

Don't Judge Me revisits that occasionally lawless era through the eyes of a man now strikingly sanguine in his recall of sins committed against him, some of which would make that flick of his boot in the direction of Pat O'Neill's head seem a genteel, almost desultory act.

Duff, the only Dub on the 1988 All-Stars tour to America, came in for particularly rough treatment from the Meath contingent during a trip that was bookended by two league final meetings between the counties.

In a game in San Francisco, he recalls twice being left bloodied by Meath interventions, prompting an infamous stand-off in a pub car-park that evening that only the intervention of some Galway hurlers reputedly prevented from turning ugly.

Duff's recall?

Stitches

"First half, I'd say four Meath lads had a go at me. I got four clips, stitches under me chin in the first half. So I thought, 'Right, if that's all it's going to be, happy days!'

"But the game was only on five minutes at the start of the second half. BAM. Kevin Foley decks me with a box. So I'm on the ground, blood spewing out of me.

"With 10 minutes to go, they take me off in case I'd be sent off. Because you know, at this stage now, I'm frothing. So I'm still fuming kind of for the rest of the evening.

"We go out and have a few jars. Now I would have been good friends with a good lot of the Galway hurlers. There was an argument, a bit of a hullaballoo, but that was it. It was just verbals. Fair play to the Galway hurlers, they stuck to me back."

One week after their return from America, Foley would be sent off after Duff had again been floored in the league final replay.

He says of the Meath defender, "his specific job was to take me out of the game one way or the other, whether it be legally or illegally."

That rivalry became a schizophrenic tangle of opera and the Wild West, arcing into the extraordinary four-game epic of '91, by which time Duff had slipped to the periphery of management's interest.

Yet nothing from that Dublin-Meath archive is quite as jolting to the senses as a shocking challenge from Offaly's Mick Fitzgerald on Duff - "all I see is two feet coming to my face" - in the '83 Leinster final, triggering a minor pitch invasion during which Fitzgerald was struck by a Dublin supporter.

RTÉ chose not to broadcast the incident on The Sunday Game given - as presenter Jim Carney explained - "that matter is now being pursued by Fitzgibbon Street Garda Station."

So Kieran Duff took his share of punishment, yet ended up having to remove his number from the telephone book, after - as he says - being "treated like a criminal in the GAA world, as if you're after committing murder."

He was slapped with a 12-month suspension for that single flick of his left boot in '83.

Inevitably, Don't Judge Me revisits that story in detail, something that maybe leaves you ill-prepared for the beautiful intimacy of what follows.

Because in June of '93, just as he was coming to terms with life after inter-county football, Duff and wife Mags became parents to the real love of their lives, Ciara.

Mags especially speaks harrowingly of the realisation that their daughter would be severely handicapped, explaining how Ciara today has special needs, is quadriplegic, suffers from cerebral palsy, has seizures and has the mental age of a three-year-old. But a mother's love is palpable as she declares emphatically.

"Ciara is amazing. She was very hard got. We were 10 years married before I finally got pregnant. And I had a difficult pregnancy. I was losing her from when I was 13 weeks and five days, but she's a little fighter. Ciara's our precious baby that we waited so long for, but we were told that she'd never recognise us as her parents, that she'd basically be a vegetable. And I hate that term, absolutely hate it.

"That she would just lie there, she wouldn't know anything that was going on around her. She'd never know us as her parents. We were basically advised to put Ciara into care and get on with the rest of our lives.

"And I said to the neurologist 'If you knew us, you would know how ignorant you sound to say that to us. She mightn't be perfect to you, but she's our daughter. She's perfect to us.'"

It's as that point the camera settles on the kitchen of their Swords home, onto the achingly beautiful tableau of a loving father massaging his daughter's feet, one communicating the precious bond between Ciara and Kieran Duff, the smiles and kisses, the sense of easy mischief that a cold, medical prognosis once told them would be unreachable.

Ciara's life today carries wretchedly cruel physical and mental restrictions, but if there is one over-riding message that comes soaring from this remarkable documentary, it is that real human love can't be chained by even awful circumstance.

And Mags's recall of those early, harrowing days shines a light on her partner in life that becomes nothing less than uplifting.

When the extent of Ciara's handicaps first became apparent, depression hit Mags like a wrecking ball, forcing her to give up work.

The couple were in the process of building a house at the time, imagining that an acre of land at the back would be their children's playground. Instead, they were now re-designing the house to be wheelchair friendly.

"He really was my saviour," she says of the man the family calls 'Dully'. "He just took over everything and he really looked after me and Ciara."

As Kieran massages Ciara's feet now, he is chatting relentlessly.

"What do we say about them referees?" he says, he and Mags exploding with laughter as Ciara responds with a familiar, thumbs-down gesture. The love in the room is reciprocal. Unmistakably so.

Mags describes her husband as "deeper than people realise" as someone who "keeps his own counsel all of the time".

She says of their early days with Ciara, "I really don't know how he did it... because... he's a better person than me."

When Ciara was maybe six, they heard of a treatment called Dolphin Human Therapy in Florida, one of nature's little miracles in which human peace can be found in interaction with maybe the gentlest aquatic mammals around.

Therapy

The therapy is expensive but Kieran and Mags managed to make four visits with Ciara after extensive fund-raising. And there, at the fore of that fund-raising, were men 'Dully' once knew only as resolutely hostile enemies.

"You know it's all these Meath guys that you battled against, these were the main guys that rowed in behind me," says Duff.

"Plus loads of other inter-county players from around the country. Soon as it was mentioned I was having a fund-raiser for Ciara, everybody joined in. And we raised enough money over that period of time to do the therapy for four years.

"Nearly every club in Dublin threw money into the fund, so that shows you how strong the GAA is."

A lineman with the ESB for the past 37 years, traversing the country roads of his beloved North County Dublin, the truth about Kieran Duff ultimately finds expression in three of the last voices heard on Don't Judge Me.

"A great person . . . "

"As good as there was . . . "

"A fantastic daddy . . . "

None of these, naturally, is his own.

'Don't Judge Me, the Kieran Duff episode of Laochra Gael, airs on TG4 tonight at 9.30

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