Why Brolly deserves praise – Ryan Feeney
Last week I witnessed the GAA at its best in two very different circumstances. Firstly on Tuesday morning I received the news that Francie Donnelly, a man I revered and a St Patrick’s Donaghmore stalwart, had died after battling illness. Francie leaves a strong legacy in every area of his life.
He was a man who was devoted to his family, his community and his club, Francie was one of the greatest Gaels I ever had the privilege of knowing. He was given an appropriate send off at his funeral on Thursday where the GAA represented at all levels paid tribute to man whose fingerprints are on every aspect of the Donaghmore community.
St Patrick’s did an outstanding job supporting the family throughout the wake and funeral and in doing so reminded all those who visited the Donnelly house what the GAA is truly about.
Back in mid August one evening I called around to Brolly household to be entertained by Joe and his children for an hour. I would regularly visit Joe on a Friday evening for chat and a coffee – well, strictly speaking, Joe would talk and I would listen – while his wonderful wife Emma usually tries to make dinner and get the boys ready for training with St Brigid’s.
Joe Brolly is someone I have looked up to all my life, a childhood hero, who is one of my closest friends he is without doubt one of the most decent, honourable and genuine people I know. Like Francie Donnelly he is a GAA believer who is constantly in awe of the GAA’s ability to change lives, build communities and be a force for good.
The Brolly family have been at the forefront of Derry GAA for nearly a century. Joe’s parents Francie and Anne have been leaders in the North Derry GAA community for many years. Both are teachers, musicians and Irish language enthusiasts and both became local councillors in their retirement, Francie moving on to become an MLA. They remain excellent company. Joe Brolly was raised surrounded by the GAA, it is the only way of life in the Brolly family.
On the Friday in question I was welcomed at the door by Joe shouting, “Come on in sir.”
He then asked me to come in his living room and shut the door as he had something important that he wanted to tell me that he did not want the children to hear. I sat down thinking this was Joe carefully plotting a joke – he is the man after all who, after watching me play football, analysed my performance by telling me that I had a great future as a GAA administrator.
Joe opened the conversation by telling me about his friend Shane who coached alongside him in the St Brigid’s u-10 team management. He explained Shane’s had a health issue and he required a kidney transplant.
“I have been undertaking tests for about nine months, my kidney is a match so on 3rd October I am giving Shane my spare kidney,” said Brolly.
He stopped talking and looked at me with a smile on his face. I sat in silence, probably the first time in my life as I was completely stunned.
Joe asked, “Well, what do you think?”
I asked him if had he thought through this unbelievable and compassionate gesture. His response was classic Brolly.
“Yes and you and I won’t be having a debate on this as my intellect is far superior to yours, I am telling you this so you know.”
He then smiled and let out a roar of laughter, I looked at him unsure of what to say or do next.
The conversation that we had after is one I will remember for the rest of my life.
He put it plainly, that this is what GAA people do. It is the GAA way. Our Association is about giving not taking. So when a seriously ill GAA man with a wife and children needed his help and he was in a position to help, there was the only one thing to do. There was to be no discussion and no debate. Joe was going to help his friend.
I am delighted to report that Joe and Shane Finnegan are recovering well in Guys Hospital London. Both men whose friendship was formed through their voluntary commitment to the GAA now have a bond that will last for the rest of their lives.
They have also been involved in something totally inspirational and uplifting. Joe’s actions have given Shane and his family a second chance and a future, they will be forever grateful. When I was talking to Joe on Sunday night he was euphoric. All he could talk about was Shane’s progress and how happy the doctors were with the operation. He never mentioned himself once.
Francie Donnelly leaves behind him a close family, a thriving business and a united and strong Club. His service to others and his selfless passion for doing good set a standard that the next generation of the Donaghmore Club members must follow.
As he said himself, “Our Club is about improving ourselves and getting the best from each other.”
Over the years Francie and I had many debates and discussions all of them about the GAA he was a man who always had a clear opinion on the big issues and I can admit now he was always right. In the future when Francie’s grandchildren Joey, Catherine, Eoghan, Molly, Evie and Jack put on a Donaghmore jersey not only will they be representing their club and community they will also be fulfilling the legacy of their Grandfather who left for them a strong GAA in Donaghmore.
For all cynics that say that society is broken, that there is no such thing as community and that the only way to get ahead in life is push a harsh, individualistic and selfish agenda, it is men like Francie Donnelly and Joe Brolly who prove that there is a better way, a positive way, a selfless and honest way. There is the GAA way.
A final thought. What if medical science developed the capability to transplant the spirit, ethos and style of men like Joe Brolly and Francie Donnelly? Think of the benefits.
On second thoughts though, there’s no need for the medics to go down that path. We already have that transplant vehicle in place. It’s called the GAA. Cherish it. Rejoice in it. Be part of it.
Ryan Feeney is head of Community Development, Strategy and Public Affairs with Ulster GAA