hortly after he had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease, I said something dumb to Anto Finnegan along the lines of “what terrible luck”. He said: “There’s nothing to be sad about. I have a great life.”
In June of 2018, by which time he was in a specialised wheelchair/body machine that could raise him into a standing position and all the rest, he rang me to say he wanted to go to the first round of the championship at Celtic Park. Derry were playing Donegal.
I rang the Derry County Board and they made all the arrangements. Anto arrived in his van with his son Conall a few hours before the throw-in, emerged from the rear and parked himself outside Mary B’s bar on the footpath, overlooking the Bogside.
For two hours, we laughed and reminisced on the street, Anto sucking down bottles of lager out of a straw as Conall held the bottles. He would nod to his beloved son when he wanted a sip. Conall would tenderly move his head forward. He would drink. Then give the signal and Conall would move his head back against the headrest of the machine.
People were queueing up to say hello. “Don’t sympathise,” I warned them. I introduced him to Paddy McGurk as “the man who held me to 10 points in an Ulster club semi-final.”
“You’re an exaggerating bastard,” he said. “It was only eight.”
We got into the park just in time for throw-in.
Once, I was making a speech at the unveiling of the Terry Enright mural at Gortnamona. The speech was carried online. I talked about Anto and his example. I said that although he was dying, he was living life to the full. That night he rang me. “I didn’t like you saying that,” he said. “I’m not dying. No more than you are.” “I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s okay, Joe, just don’t say it again.”
Motor neurone disease remains a mystery. There is no cure. It is not known what causes it. It is entirely indiscriminate and can strike at any age.
Anto was a top-class Gaelic footballer with his club and county. He was a fit and healthy man. Then, his electrical system unaccountably malfunctioned and in the eight years since, the lights have slowly been going out, one by one. Still, it was hard to believe when the last one went out.
Last weekend, after our senior club championship match at Ahoghill, I had a jar in the Crosskeys with Paddy Devlin. Paddy is from a famous Cargin football family.
His father Brian is 98 and fit as a fiddle. Paddy, a big strong man full of mischief and fun, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease at Christmas and is already in a wheelchair. His hands are starting to give out, so he was sucking his stout with a straw, or rather two straws stuck together.
“You know what really annoys me, Joe?”
“It’s that I’m not able to drink the creamy bit of the stout.”
He explained that he tried a steel straw, but the taste was metallic and the stout flat. He tried an ordinary plastic straw, then a wider one, then taped two together so he could drink to the bottom of the glass without bending over too far.
“The problem with the straw is that you don’t get to enjoy the cream. It sucks up the straw in wisps and it’s full of air by the time it reaches your mouth.”
We sat there for an hour earnestly discussing this great issue. What could be more important?
That night I rang a friend who is an inventor. He is studying for his PhD at the inventor’s course in Imperial College London. Since then, he has been sending through various prototype designs that his team have been working on. Paddy has been messaging me. “That first one is useless, Joe.” “I like the look of that one. That might work.”
To broaden the experiment, I explained the problem to Ian Canavan on Thursday night in Knockmore. Canavan is an engineering genius and can make or fix anything, the local Caractacus Potts. He thought hard for a moment, then began sketching a prototype on a napkin.
“I don’t see a problem. I can make a device that can be fixed to the wheelchair. A simple holder will keep the pint in place using rubber clamps and springs. The pint will be held firmly in it and it will tilt back and forward as he moves his head.”
The sketch didn’t look simple to me. I rang Paddy and put Canavan on to him. They chatted for ten minutes, in that unique way that two strangers from GAA communities have of sounding like close friends. Paddy is looking forward to seeing these ideas coming to life. To be honest, I’m excited myself. “I’ll patent it and make you rich,” I said to Canavan. “Ah, f*** it,” he said. “I have enough bother without having money.”
Anto and me talked on the phone a few weeks ago. He never mentioned that things weren’t good. Why would he? Like Paddy, he wasn’t dying. He was living. Life lasts as long as it lasts. The trick is to live it to the full. To love and play and give it everything you have. To suck the beer out of the bottle with a straw until there is nothing left to suck. And to savour the creamy bit at the bottom of the pint.