Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

This festival of football showed us what matters

Kevin Cassidy no longer plays county football for Donegal
Kevin Cassidy no longer plays county football for Donegal

The discussion at the St Brigid's GAA Chat Night a couple of Fridays ago was of a boisterous nature. There were some serious points made, but mainly it was a show of one-upmanship, giddy humour and there were interjections of slightly poor taste.

An example, coming right up. With the night almost finished, Joe Brolly was given a chance to make an appeal on behalf of the 'Opt for Life' scheme, which aims to radically change the way organ donation is organised. Sitting beside Brolly while he was in the middle of a heartfelt appeal, Oisín McConville leaned into me and asked if I wanted him to sign an autograph for me, prompting a fit of stunted giggles.

As someone who kept up a never-ending stream of patter throughout, no matter who held the mike, Brolly wouldn't have been the type to be too bothered.

Earlier in the evening, the two-time All-Star told a story of the contrast in having, and not having an All-Ireland medal.

Recalling Dublin's 2011 All-Ireland, he explained how he and Ciaran Whelan made their way from Croke Park after the Dubs landed their first Sam Maguire since 1995. As Whelan approached Meaghers' Pub in Fairview, those assembled in glorious reverie noticed their former midfielder – a totem pole of Dublin teams going back over a decade – who had retired at the end of the 2009 season.

The crowd broke into spontaneous applause that spoke of sympathy, appreciation and respect. It was a solemn moment that jarred with the jubilant mood only minutes earlier. Whelan couldn't keep it in. This big, strong man had tears rolling down his cheeks and there wasn't much he could do about it.

"Never mind son," an elderly Dublin lady told him as she clung to his massive frame, "You'll always be a hero to us." It sounds almost saccharine, but at that point the Dubs massive began chanting; "Whelo, Whelo, Whelo..."

That's when it struck Brolly. He was 24 when he won his All-Ireland. At the start of that campaign in 1993 he wasn't even on the starting fifteen through exam commitments. It all happened to him in a flash and from the moment he collected his All-Ireland medal he took it for granted.

On Monday, the An Rinn club from outside Dungarvan hosted the annual Comórtas Peile na Gaeltachta, a festival of football for men and ladies' every June bank holiday Monday. It takes place in a wider context of a weekend celebrating the Irish language, with teams speaking exclusively in Irish on and off the pitch, with all the usual hokey trappings that might not be to everyone's taste, such as the Festival Queen and all that.

"Yes, they all have lovely bottoms", as Father Ted might say. Fanad Gaels of Donegal emerged victorious in the Junior Championship and the footage broadcast by TG4 was a sight to gladden the heart when Paddy McConigley basked in the glow of victory.

McConigley had been a footballer with London before tempted back to the homes of Donegal. Brian McIver was in the middle of establishing something and McConigley was his kind of footballer.

After establishing himself in the summer of 2007, a pre-season November bonding trip at a paintballing venue in Milford ended with him being hit in the eye when he momentarily removed his mask to wipe steam from it. A blood clot formed in his right retina robbing him of all but about 5% of sight in his right eye.

He might continue to play for his club, but from that day forward, county football was out. And with that, the prospect of being on the Donegal team that delivered Sam last September. Still, on a glorious Bank Holiday Monday he became an All-Ireland winner.

As soon as Fanad Gaels had won their match, Gaoth Dobhair were putting their title on the line in the senior decider against the host club.

Three McGee brothers and Odhran MacNiallais might have been excused from Donegal duty to take part, but the man that outshone them all was Kevin Cassidy. All day long the opposition bounced off him as he dictated the game from midfield. He may not be a county footballer anymore, but he has maintained an awesome strength, shape and stamina.

The TG4 analysts named him Man of the Match with about four minutes to go and after that he took out completely, scoring 1-1 and hitting the post, as if to put an exclamation mark after the achievement.

Neither man was there to be a part of Donegal's finest hour, but we should be thankful that TG4 feel the Comórtas important enough to cover. There's more to the GAA than just inter-county competition.

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