All that is good about the GAA
Jarlath Burns column
THIS is supposed to be a quiet time of the year for GAA activity. On Sunday, in our club, we signed off on our coaching year with the Michael Donnelly Cup. This is the last outing of the year for our u-10s and 12s. We divide them up into four teams and play them off against each other.
It’s always a relaxing day of football with a lovely atmosphere and Sunday morning was as warm and sunny as many of the summer Sundays we didn’t have. Michael Donnelly was an underage member of our club who was tragically killed when his family pub and shop at Silverbridge were attacked by a Loyalist murder gang on 19th December 1975.
He was only 13 and his death shocked and repulsed everyone, not only because of his age, but because it came during what was supposed to be a ceasefire. It was also right in the mouth of Christmas.
I remember that night very well. We had just put up our Christmas tree and there was a real festive atmosphere in the house when the phone call came. My dad and two older brothers went down to Silverbridge straightaway and what they saw that night horrified them to the extent that they have never spoken about it since.
Michael was on our under 14 team. His brother Rory is our club sponsor and a mainstay of the club. His nephews Aiden Quinn and Conor Boyle were part of the St Paul’s panel that beat St Colman’s in the MacRory on Saturday.
They are a family with GAA in their DNA. So every year we play for the Michael Donnelly Cup in memory of an innocent child who, through no fault of his own, lost his life in a futile and tragic manner for some cause belonging to someone else.
None of the children playing on Sunday knew Michael, or the circumstances of his death, but for the coaches and older members, it is etched in our hearts and minds.
I can never gather myself to do anything on the 19th December. It is always a sad day, even though the tragedy happened 36 years ago. I was only seven-years-old at the time, but I remember every second of it.
The mentions of Michael on the news, the sadness of the funerals, passing the pub and shop on our way to Newry in the weeks and months afterwards and seeing it boarded up and then the Donnelly family coming to live in Creggan where we lived.
But most of all, there was the bewilderment as to why Michael died, or had to die that day along with two other innocent men. That will never leave.
We in the GAA are good at remembering. Our grounds are called Keeley Park, after Peter Keeley, the living embodiment of the type of cast iron generation of men who turned the GAA from a disorganised curiosity of townland teams, into a living breathing, vibrant patchwork of clubs, communities and families who were proud to represent their parish. Every club had a Peter Keeley and every club still has.
And each year we hold a Kevin Hearty minor sevens tournament that takes clubs from all over Ulster to participate. This is to honour a man who took underage football to a new level in our club and was the type of coach who was simply involved with every team, and seemed to be at the club every single day of the year. You know the type.
Meanwhile, across the mountain, Mullaghbawn hold an annual u-14 tournament in memory of Charlie Grant who was their Peter Keeley. All clubs remember their great Gaels. We do this sort of thing very well.
And on Saturday night week, the match for Michaela will take place in Belfast. Another example of the GAA honouring in a special way, one of its own who was cruelly taken from us in a way which defies logic or sense. It is fitting that we are still remembering Michaela, her life, her values and her attitudes, because in a complex world, the principles she espoused and lived out, should shine like a beacon to all girls embarking on adulthood.
This past fortnight, members of the Donegal and Ulster teams have been doing the rounds all across Ulster for photocalls and media events to make sure this match is a sell-out. Fair play to them.
In any case, it is a great idea to give the Ulster panel a run out also at a time of year even though the competition itself is over for this year and the Railway Cup in Ulster yet again. Up here, our interprovincial team means a lot to us and we can always guarantee a full turnout of the best footballing talent whenever the call goes out.
Its long term future was being debated on Saturday at Central Council, so I had to make an extra, supreme, serious, sacrifice to go there and support it because eldest daughter was representing Silverbridge at Ballerin in the Ulster club semi-final, while next two sons were playing MacRory against St Colman’s, all at the exact same time.
This might be sacrilege to say, or write and might be used against me, but thanks to my iPad and ‘destinationnewry.com, I was able to watch the whole MacRory match live during the meeting while checking out the scores from the girls’ match on Twitter and speaking on behalf of the Interprovincials. A busy day.
It was a strange, but wonderful sight watching St Paul’s, the school where I have taught for over 20 years, running out in the MacRory Cup against St Colman’s, where I went to school and where I was taught so much about the GAA, the Irish language and mostly, how to catch a ball, a skill which got me out of many a tight spot round the middle of the field in latter years.
It was Dan McCartan who was responsible for brainwashing me into my GAA conservatism, Pete McGrath for demonstrating how effective coaching can turn an ordinary group of lads into a winning combination and Ray Morgan for managing at a level which even now, is away ahead of his time. Morgan insisted we play with discipline and character, never lower ourselves to the tactics of the opposition and always remember what we were representing; the school and the GAA.
Mickey Doyle, Liam Mussen and Cathal Murray are the descendents of this tradition and they have carried the torch on in great style. For St Paul’s School, to be sitting on four points at this stage after two matches having beaten such giants as Enniskillen and the College, is the stuff of dreams.
The GAA is a remarkable organisation; so full of everything, it imprisons us, sucks us in, damages us, liberates us, makes us feel pride in a way that nothing else can, but most of all, when all is said and done, it remembers us when we are gone. And this is the most beautiful thing of all.