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All Ireland Football Championship: Down star Joe Byrne can't bear the heartache

By Micheal McGeary

Down's much anticipated All Ireland football semi-final against Kildare will revive a host of mixed memories for Joe Byrne.

In his playing days in the 70s, the Down ace delighted in putting the fear of God into opposing defences.

Wearing a distinctive headband and blessed with blistering pace, he was idolised by Down fans.

More often than not he was able to turn impending defeat into improbable victory often against all the odds.

The Tullylish flying machine won Ulster championship honours with the Mourne county in 1978 before enjoying Railway Cup success with Ulster under the legendary Sean O’Neill.

But then in 1981 his world fell apart when, without any warning, he suffered a severe stroke.

It was a life changing experience of the worst possible kind for Joe and his devoted wife June.

Only rarely does he now watch football on television and there’s no guarantee he’ll sit through Down’s big match against Kildare on Sunday week.

“I can watch it for no more than five or 10 minutes and then I either turn it off or go outside and cry my eyes out,” he explains.

“It brings me back to my playing days and I wonder why I can’t still be a part of that.

“There are times when I still get cross with God for taking it all away from me, but I can understand it better now.

“I’ve been to Lourdes twice and I would like to get back again.”

Joe’s short term memory isn’t the best but his long term recollections would surprise you.

Now 58, he can still describe with great clarity and in considerable detail the events and people that shaped his life in the 70s.

Nobody made a bigger impression on him through all those days than big James McCartan, father of current Down manager wee James.

“Big James was like a god to me. He was a real icon, a man who won All Irelands in both 1960 and 1961,” he said.

“He had this remarkable gift of being able to lift and inspire all those around him.

“He’s still the best of them all. I remember him playing for Tullylish and wee James couldn’t tie his laces.”

Byrne was still only 17 when he first played for Down, coming on as a sub in Newry and he also sampled hurling in Croke Park.

He was back there in 1968 when Down lifted the Sam Magurie trophy for a third time.

“I can remember like it was yesterday Down keeper Danny Kelly catching a ball and stepping back over the line with it,” he added.

“I was standing right behind the goals and I could hardly believe my eyes.”

Joe also has the distinction of playing for both Down and Ulster on successive days and provincial recognition meant so much to him.

“I remember one night arriving home from Down training and my wife June told me that Sean O’Neill had phoned to say I had been chosen to play for Ulster,” he said.

“I just sat on the bed and cried my eyes out. That’s how much it meant to me.

“Sean O’Neill was one of the best men I ever worked with, a true gentleman, but the best of all in my book was Paddy Doherty.”

A bus driver with Ulsterbus, his work took him to the Armagh and Dublin 1977 All Ireland final.

“I’ll never forget the way big Jimmy Keaveney destroyed Armagh that afternoon,” he said.

“The only Armagh man to stand out was Joe Kernan who wasn’t afraid of anything.”

Joe speaks with great affection of both Mickey Linden and Conor Deegan, who presented him with their All Ireland jerseys the same night he got his hands on the Sam Maguire in McCartan’s pub in Donacloney.

One of Joe’s daughters is actually named after the Kerry team as she was born the night before The Kingdom came north for the official opening of Castlewellan’s new playing pitch.

Joe never smoked or drank and regularly walked from Portadown bus depot to his Gilford home most Saturday nights, a true fitness fanatic.

The arrival of his grandchildren Sophie (13), Nathan (6), Ellie (4) and Alex (2) have given Joe Byrne a new lease of of life and that’s good news for his dedicated and devoted wife June and children Kerry (30) and Ryan (26).

Belfast Telegraph

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