Tuesday 21 November 2017

United by the love of football

Dermot Crowe tells a tale of two strangers whose paths crossed in Parnell Park

An ambulance at Parnell Park last Saturday evening
An ambulance at Parnell Park last Saturday evening
Dom Browne (back row, fourth from left) in the Knockavilla Kickhams team that won the 1955 West Tipp SHCand

Dermot Crowe

Like a lot of people in the GAA, Dom Browne and Owen Roe O'Neill had a great deal in common. They lived around 200 miles apart but on Saturday week last both were headed in the direction of Parnell Park in the hope of seeing their county triumph in the final of the All-Ireland under 21 football championship. Dom Browne travelled with his wife and son from Knockavilla in west Tipperary. Owen Roe O'Neill and his wife left Killyclogher just outside Omagh. They were seated in roughly the same area of the main stand.

The day would have tested any follower's fortitude: grey and sullen, with heavy unrelenting rain. Live television coverage offered a way out but neither man considered that a viable option. Dom Browne was 80 and had a devotion to football impressive in someone from an era steeped in hurling tradition. In 1952, he won an All-Ireland minor hurling medal with Tipperary on a star-studded team that demolished Dublin in the final. A ridiculously precocious half-forward line featured Liam Devaney, Tony Wall and Seán McLoughlin.

In the final, a 9-9 to 2-3 rout of Dublin, Dom scored a goal playing at full-forward. He won a succession of West Tipp senior hurling titles in the '50s. Yet football seemed to cast a spell on him and he travelled frequently to support their county teams. He attended every All-Ireland senior football final since 1948. Earlier this year he was on Tipperary's National League trips to Armagh and Drogheda.

Owen Roe O'Neill turned 68 in March and originally came from Benburb. He also appeared to go against the fashion, showing a preference for hurling in a county where it is a minority sport. In 1966, he won a Tyrone senior hurling championship with Benburb when the club relied on seminarians from the local Priory to fill their teams. Later he moved to Killyclogher and became active in promoting hurling. Two of his sons represented the county in the code, one winning a junior All-Ireland medal. In 2001, his nephew, Ryan O'Neill, won an All-Ireland minor football medal with Tyrone.

Both followers were retired. Dom Browne, named as John on early team sheets but later taking the second name of Dominick, ran a pub and hardware store in Knockavilla that he inherited from his father for a long number of years. In recent years he kept a small farm holding. He was a teetotaller and non-smoker. O'Neill worked as a fireman and had also taken retirement, his eight children reared.

In spite of his passion for football, Browne had to miss the Tipp under 21 semi-final win over Dublin at Tullamore. On Holy Thursday he was walking in the grounds of Rockwell College with his wife, Eileen, when he took ill. As a result he had three stents placed in his heart and made a good recovery. Nothing would stop him going to see Tipp bid to win the title for the first time.

"He decided he was going to go the final, it did not even come into his head to say no," explained his son-in-law John McCormack, a member of the Munster Council refereeing panel. "I was fortunate enough to be with him when the minors won the All-Ireland (football title in 2011) and when Tipperary won the Tommy Murphy (in 2005), those were the two he took great pride in. The tears ran down his face those two days."

For Owen Roe O'Neill, there was the added appeal of having two Killyclogher footballers, the goalkeeper Sean Fox and corner-forward Mark Bradley, on the team facing Tipperary in the under 21 final. He joined the procession from the North to Donnycarney, hoping to see Tyrone become the first winners of the championship since Cormac McAnallen was captain in 2001. Dom Browne, as he usually did, travelled on the Friends of Tipperary Football bus, one of two commissioned for the day. He went with his wife and son John to Cashel and joined the bus there.

"He'd always go to all the away league games, he loved Tipperary football," says Michael Power, the chairman of the Friends of Tipperary Football Association. "A lovely quiet man, himself and his wife Eileen would travel together. Very quiet unassuming man, but he had it at heart - he loved Tipp football. And coming from a hurling background and hurling area as well.

"We parked the buses at St Vincent's GAA club, they put on tea and sandwiches for us when we came up. Dom came in and we were just having a chat with him; I said, 'You are flying now' and he said, 'I wonder how will I be after the match?' He went to all the games. He travelled to most of the away games. He would be a real Tipperary supporter. His passion was the football.

"He just loved, I suppose, the commitment the footballers gave. When you are playing in the lower divisions, you know yourself, it is about the pride they have in the jersey. They wouldn't be in the limelight. Hopefully we will right that." His son-in-law, John, says he fell in love with football: "I don't know what it was. He was a great man for the underdog."

Dom Browne and Owen Roe O'Neill sat down to watch a first half taut with tension and excitement, at the end of which Tipperary led by two points. The teams went off to the shelter of the dressing rooms for their half-time break.

John Browne sat between his mother and father. At some point late in the half his father had placed his hand to his head and said he wasn't feeling well. His son immediately went looking for medical assistance. Before long word circulated that a supporter was receiving attention and a medical emergency was declared. The match would be delayed. Tipp went back out for the second half at one stage but had to return to the dressing room.

"The emergency services, the Guards, were absolutely fabulous," says John McCormack. "Ciarán McDonald, the Tipperary senior footballer, is a doctor and he was near and rushed over and tried to revive him. I think the first time Dom was in Parnell Park, Ciarán was captain of the Tipperary under 21 team against Donegal (2010 All-Ireland semi-final). They spent 30 to 35 minutes trying to resuscitate him."

The wake at Dom Browne's house on Wednesday had people filtering through for six-and-a-half hours. John Costello, on behalf of the Dublin County Board whose offices are situated at Parnell Park, was among the people calling to pay their respects. Never is the GAA family more supportive of one another and above tribal differences than at a time like this. Some years ago at Parnell Park, an umpire suffered a heart attack and the Dublin team doctor, Noel McCaffrey, treated him at the scene. He died later. Never before had the venue experienced a situation where two men suffered cardiac arrest at the same match, within moments of one another.

While Dom Browne was being attended to, Owen Roe O'Neill, who had never previously had heart trouble, also suffered cardiac arrest while seated beside his wife, Mary. The Tyrone team doctor Michael Logan, a brother of the team manager Feargal, went to his aid and after a lengthy effort, managed to revive him. He was taken to hospital where he had a stent placed in his heart and was closely monitored over the following week.

His sister Frances couldn't go to the game. She watched it on television and saw the long delay which placed the match in doubt before it eventually restarted around 40 minutes over schedule.

"He went to Beaumont and then they took him to the Mater and they put a stent in. He got out of intensive care yesterday," she said on Wednesday. "Because of the severity to the collapse they did a brain scan and thank God that has come back ok. He is going for another scan, hoping to do it soon. They need to see if there is any damage to the heart. He may need another stent or pacemaker. He was just very lucky, we are most thankful to everybody - he has four brothers and six sisters. He comes from a big family. So you can imagine when you get a shock like that.

"He has eight children. Five sons, they are all hurlers, three daughters. He has always been very involved in the GAA. As much as he loves football, he is really interested in the hurling. His nephew was nearby and came over.

"The girl beside him was a cardiac nurse out of Beaumont hospital. They were able to get the Tyrone doctor, it was his intervention that brought him back. It was hard work to get him back. It took everything they had. It was just so unfortunate for the other family."

Dom Browne was taken to the city morgue. His son John has spoken of the wonderful compassion shown by gardaí caring for him and his mother while the emergency was under way. Later, the bus that took them to the game waited until they were ready and they travelled back home. Dom Browne died doing what he loved, watching his county football team. He departed as his team led an All-Ireland final against Tyrone and playing some wonderful football. There is some comfort in that for his family.

Michael Power heard the news later that evening. "My daughter was with me at the game, she's an occupational therapist, and she said if you were going to get a heart attack it was probably the best place to get one, lots of people and facilities near, you were near to everything. Everything was done as quickly as possible. Sometimes it just doesn't work out.

"He was after missing the win over Dublin, he wasn't at that you see. I think he was adamant he was going to this match one way or the other. It was just before half-time. I think he turned to his son John and said, 'I think I am in trouble'".

Brendan Harkin is secretary of Killyclogher and a Tyrone County Board officer who attended the same game but moved to the other side as the stand had nearly filled when they arrived 40 minutes before throw-in. "Owen does the scoreboard for all the home games. He is very involved in fundraising. He is chairman of the hurling committee of the club.

"The other dimension to this is the defibrillators being available is as a result of the legacy of Cormac McAnallen. As a result of that, every ground has one, every club in Tyrone has one. The interesting thing there is Owen Roe played for Benburb, it is beside Cormac, they are practically neighbours. It was Cormac's legacy's that helped save his life."

McAnallen's brother, Donal, was at the match. "I was within 20 yards of the man who died," he says. He also knows the man who survived. "He is one of the longest-serving hurling disciples left in Tyrone."

Dom Browne was buried in Knockavilla on Thursday, where he was life president of the local Kickhams GAA club. "He was stuck in the heart of it there, with the GAA and having the pub and shop over so many years," says club chairman Tony Farrell. "A great man to go to all matches."

His son-in-law, John, says that it would have mortified him "to think he would have held up the match for half an hour - he would not want to be the centre of attention. He wouldn't be looking for any headlines."

A neighbour and former local school principal Danny Morrissey, described him as "a GAA man though and through since his childhood. He retired I'd say from the game at about 25, which was very young at the time. I was very friendly with him as a young lad, he was the type of person who always had time to talk to everybody, especially about the GAA.

"He was a great admirer of the Down team that came in 1960 and '61, I remember as a young lad he telling me all about them and how good they were. So his football interest in not new to me, I am not surprised by it. It is very much a hurling country around here. I doubt if he played football himself.

"I can remember as a young lad, Dominick talking to me about Patsy O'Hagan, a very stylish Down footballer of the time, and Dom was very taken by him. He took me on my first trip to Croke Park in 1968, the All-Ireland against Wexford. He loved social dancing. I had a couple of family bereavements and he was a great man to attend these events. He was very, very loyal in that respect."

Nobody really had a bad word to say about John 'Dom' Browne. And nobody, certainly, could accuse him of being a sunshine supporter. He was loyal as they come. Loyal to the last. Tipperary and the GAA have lost a true follower.

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