Tuesday 21 November 2017

Joe Brolly: We will always remember Dessie Fox - a true GAA man who was callously murdered

Dessie Fox’s wife Bernadette and his brother Brian lay a wreath at Healy’s Bridge, Prosperous. Photo: INM
Dessie Fox’s wife Bernadette and his brother Brian lay a wreath at Healy’s Bridge, Prosperous. Photo: INM

Joe Brolly

Throughout that Sunday afternoon, it was rumoured that a bookmaker had been murdered on his way to the Curragh Races. Then, it broke on the news. Still no name. Just a bookmaker.

At around 4.0 there was a knock on Mick McGucken's door. When Mick answered it, his neighbour and fellow Edendork clubman Don Mallon staggered through it and clutched his friend. "Dessie's dead, Mick. Dessie's dead." The parish priest, Fr Fox, arrived at Mick's shortly afterwards.

In those days, at the height of the Troubles, the police didn't deliver bad news to our people. Mick was Dessie's closest friend and next door neighbour, so it fell to him. The two men went to the Foxes' front door. Through the glass pane, they saw Bernadette and her three daughters on their knees in the living room, praying.

On September 30, 1990, Dessie Fox was murdered. He was 47 years old. His killers picked a perfect spot for their ambush. Outside the village of Prosperous, at the other side of Healy's Bridge, they waited for their man. It was a back road to the Curragh that the Tyrone man sometimes took. They were well informed. As he came over the small humpback bridge they stopped the car and shot him through the leg where he sat. As he bled to death, they took almost €20,000 and made good their escape. They have never been brought to justice.

Mick McGucken is married to my aunt Marguerite. Mick was a fine footballer and played on the great Ballinderry team of the 1970s and '80s. He also captained Derry before marrying a Tyrone girl and moving to enemy territory. I spent a lot of time in Edendork at their house and one summer I even played for St Malachy's as a ringer. They put me at corner back in an attempt at disguise and for a time, I was the highest scoring corner back in Tyrone. Until, that is, we took the field one evening against Stewartstown and Fergal Logan (who went on to captain Tyrone) spotted me during the warm-up. I walked off, put on a tracksuit top, then casually stepped outside the wire.

"What the hell are you doing here Brolly?"

Members of St. Malachy's GAA club start their cycle to Edendork, Co. Tyrone from Healy's Bridge, Prosperous, Co. Kildare, the scene of the shooting.
Members of St. Malachy's GAA club start their cycle to Edendork, Co. Tyrone from Healy's Bridge, Prosperous, Co. Kildare, the scene of the shooting.

"Just stretching my legs," I said.

Dessie fairly enjoyed that.

He had started out as a teacher, but quickly took to the bookmaking. Game as a pheasant, he would have taken a bet on when the pine needles would start to shed from the Christmas tree. It wasn't long before he became the most famous freelance bookie in the country. He was permanently adrenalised, driving at vast speeds across the country, the car bouncing off the back roads, peeling an orange and steering with his knees as he chatted.

Mick recalls going to Roscommon once, to his first ever race meeting. They spent the morning working on the new Edendork pitch, then Dessie drove at breakneck speed to get there in time for the first race. After a hyperactive day's gambling, Mick thought Dessie had been cleaned, only to discover that his men had been laying off bets all day and Fox had cleaned out the other bookmakers. There was a huge bag of cash in the car. They stopped at a takeaway in Fermanagh, where they loaded up with sausage suppers. Mick assumed they would sit in the place and eat but there wasn't a moment to waste. Not in Dessie's world. A few minutes later they were back in the car, trying to eat battered sausages as the car hurtled along country roads.

He hated to be pinned down. He opened a bookie's shop in Irish Street in Dungannon and although it was flying he closed it within a year. It was too boring. Dessie couldn't sit still.

He was a fanatical St Malachy's man. He played for the senior team himself, then coached at underage. He went on to be club secretary, chairman (twice) and taxi service. He was the first man in Edendork to own a Mercedes. It was a white one as I recall and it was kept busy. When the new pitch and clubrooms were being built in 1987, the only Merc in the parish ferried bags of cement and blocks from the builders yard.

Crimestoppers poster from 2010
Crimestoppers poster from 2010

He was a most individual man. For example, he wore a suit, but instead of shoes he wore trainers. A forerunner of Doctor Who. He owned one of the first mobile phones, a giant thing like a painted lunchbox with an aerial. In his back yard, he had a red diesel tank. Once, he took a call on his mobile from a punter as he was filling the car. Engrossed in the gamble, he suddenly realised that red diesel was spilling out of the tank and running down the driveway. It was pure Dessie.

Like all truly interesting men, he was a mass of contradictions. He was a devout Catholic, a teetotaller and non-smoker. He was a fanatical gambler and a truly loving father and husband. Paul Maxwell tells a great story about the 1986 championship. In the 1985 season, Edendork had won the intermediate league and championship. The following year, they were drawn in the first round of the senior championship against the mighty Carrickmore, who were the hottest of favourites. Dessie was perhaps the first bookmaker to take bets on GAA matches and had taken a lot of money on Carrickmore to win. Just before the game, he went into the Edendork changing room and announced to the lads that if they won, there was £20 a man in it. The Malachy's men played like demons that day and won. Afterwards, the chant booming out from the victorious changing room was "Twenty quid, twenty quid, twenty quid." True to his word, Dessie went round the dressing room and handed every man, including the subs, a crisp £20 note. When Maxwell, on behalf of the squad, called for silence and thanked him, he said, "Don't thank me boys. Every penny of that was laid by Carrickmore punters." Cue another huge roar.

When the new pavilion was being built at Edendork, Dessie gave what was then an enormous sum of money towards the cost. "Keep it quiet," he said, "I wouldn't want the young people to think there's anything glamorous about gambling." It was only after he died that the donation became known. It turned out his gift was only one of many. For years, Dessie had quietly been giving substantial sums of money to people in the area who had fallen on hard times. All this only came out after he died, when people began to share the stories of his compassion and generosity. No wonder he is still revered.

The magnificent St Malachy's clubhouse is called after him. At Sunday Mass, when the priest is mentioning some event or other happening at the club, he calls it the Dessie Fox pavilion. He is loved in a way that I have rarely seen. When my aunt Marguerite talks about him, her face lights up. Mick's favourite memory of Des is of him going to the newly laid pitch every morning and every evening, just standing there watching the sod to see if any grass was starting to shoot up. He remembers his joy when eventually the grass grew. I sat in Mick's house a fortnight ago and he talked about it again, smiling.

Members of the Edendork club cycled last weekend from the scene of his murder at Healy's Bridge, back to their club, hosted by a series of GAA clubs. Caragh GAC in Prosperous, Kingscourt Stars, Cremartin in Monaghan. Dessie would have loved it. In fact he would probably have taken the opportunity in each clubhouse to open a book on Armagh v Cavan.

The reason for the cycle was not just to remember Des, but to make another push for justice for his wife Bernadette and her three grown-up daughters, Judith, Lorna and Claire. For them, it is as though he was murdered yesterday. I have seen this often. The parents of a girl murdered 30 years earlier sitting silently at the back of the court as the killer is convicted on DNA evidence, holding hands, tears streaming down their faces. The Bloody Sunday families hugging each other, bewildered at the huge weight suddenly lifted from their shoulders.

My good friend John Finucane was nine years old when Loyalist assassins smashed in the front door with a sledge hammer and shot his father Pat 14 times as they sat around the dinner table. He is 36 now, three years younger than his father when he died. He has his own family and leads one of the most dynamic law firms in the North. But the heart of his life is the daily battle for a public inquiry into his father's death and the role played in that by the State. He isn't sure what it is that compels him.

Ask him to explain it and he can't. It's just the way things are. One week the White House. The next Westminster. Then Stormont. Interviews, letters, phone call after phone call after phone call. Public meetings. Panels. Endlessly lobbying. Some force inside him relentlessly driving him on. "It's nearly 30 years now John," I said to him recently. "Christ," he said, shaking his head.

In the end, it is love. Something deep inside us that we cannot really understand. Something that is always there and will not go away. The only cure is justice. Until that day comes, there are four terrified girls, kneeling in the living room, praying for a husband and father who will never come home.

Anyone who knows anything about Dessie Fox's murder can give information anonymously by calling Crimestoppers (Ireland) on 1800 25 00 25 or Crimestoppers (Northern Ireland) on 0800 555 111. Callers do not need to give their name or address and may receive a reward for information which significantly helps the investigation.

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