Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

The passion of Joe Brolly

His bombastic judgments can often be incorrect or lapse into poor taste as was argued last weekend, but RTE know they have a born entertainer in Joe Brolly. It's in his genes, writes Declan Bogue

Joe Brolly

The pundit we know as Joe Brolly lived the first year of his life as Padraig Joseph Brolly, before his paternal grandfather, Joe, died after an industrial accident. And so he inherited the name.

Interest in Brolly peaked this week after his stinging criticism of Tyrone player Sean Cavanagh, who pulled down an opponent as he made his way to what might have been a likely goal.

What emerged was two things; that people are frightened of genuine emotion on television, not of the faked 'Let's-see-your-best-bets' insincere unreality sort. It also was a demonstration of the occasional social media explosion.

Those convinced that he lost control for those few dramatic minutes, should be assured that he is permanently full-blooded. His bombastic judgments can often be incorrect or lapse into poor taste, but RTE know they have a born entertainer. It's in his genes.

His father, Francie, is a Latin-speaking academic who married Ann Corey from Brackaville, Co Tyrone, and they formed a folk music alliance.

Ann was an All-Ireland singing champion and a cousin of Maisie Donaghy, the mother of former Tyrone midfielder Plunkett and who went by the stage name Eileen. Her rendering of My Lagan Love featured on the BBC's Hundred Best Tunes.

Francie was interned in Long Kesh for almost three years, until one day a neighbour received a phone call telling the family to collect him as he was being released.

"That evening," Brolly recalls, "I was sitting on his knee and he was having a bowl of oxtail soup. It was as if he was never away."

The couple had five children, of which Joe was the eldest.

Another uncle, Bill 'Shawn' Corey, was a dance double in Hollywood, who performed with Gene Kelly, Rita Hayworth and Ginger Rogers. He became the Voice of the Forces as a wartime radio anchor.

Joe attended St Patrick's school in Armagh as a border, an experience that released all his potential. He stepped in with a fortnight's notice to play the lead of Curly McLain in a school production of Oklahoma.

He won two Irish titles in basketball with St Pat's and played in a European schoolboy international tournament in Israel.

Back home, his performances for the two Dungiven clubs – football for St Canice's, hurling for Kevin Lynch's – drew admiration. He played hurling for his county before football.

By his own admission he "drifted into law" and attended Trinity College. He completed a post-grad at Queen's University to become a barrister, where he joined a star-studded line-up, including Kieran McGeeney, Cathal O'Rourke, Paul McGrane, and Paul Brewster as they cruised to the 1993 Sigerson Cup.

Later that year, he was a waspish corner forward with an accurate left foot and pace on the Derry team that won the All-Ireland football Championship under the late Eamonn Coleman, a figure who was loved by his players, but not universally, as he lost his job after the 1994 Ulster Championship first round defeat to Down, who went on to win the All-Ireland.

Mickey Moran took over the role, but Brolly sat out the early stages of his reign on a point of principle and a show of support for Coleman.

On his return, he displayed a maturity beyond his years, when he said: "We stayed out for very genuine reasons. We felt there was a clear perception that the board behaved possibly dishonestly in relation to Eamonn Coleman. We were in a very, very difficult position and ultimately we realised that Derry football is bigger than the 25 men who won All-Ireland medals." His silverware haul includes four National League titles, one All-Ireland and two Ulster titles, as well as All-Star awards for the 1996 and 1997 seasons.

His calling card would be a flamboyant, most un-GAA habit of blowing kisses to the opposition supporters whenever he would score a goal, something that would incense the crowd and opposition alike. He describes it as his "expression of unbridled joy".

He is an ardent opponent of the Gaelic Players' Association, a body he feels run parallel to the spirit of the GAA, and credits that with becoming a member of the fledgling St Brigid's club in south Belfast, playing with them during their rise through the ranks and getting to see up close how a community can form and bond through the association.

Away from the football field, he married Emma-Rose McCann from Ballymena, a first cousin of the actor Liam Neeson. She followed her father, Jack, a noted raconteur, into law as a solicitor. The couple live in Belfast with their five children and a niece.

In his working life, Brolly has been involved in a number of high-profile cases, including defending Darren Moore in the 'Supergrass' trials of 2010, as well as representing Raymond McCartney and Eamonn McDermott in the landmark Supreme Court case for compensation for those that were wrongly convicted.

It was through St Brigid's that Brolly first met Shane Finnegan, when they teamed up to take an underage team. On learning of Finnegan's condition and constant dialysis treatment, he offered him a kidney.

Since Finnegan's transplant failed, the two have become ceaseless campaigners to change the law from an 'opt-in' culture of organ donation to that of a 'soft opt-out', where those who do not want to donate their organs can register online, as practised by other countries, which do not have the same mortality rates for those awaiting transplants.

Most of his social time is taken up supporting GAA club events, attending hundreds of fundraisers, acting as a Strictly Come Dancing judge, guest speaker, boxing announcer – anything asked of him.

It is at the charity match that he most comes alive. In the dressing room, he will dominate the conversation, relating male-bonding stuff from his playing days before going out and lobbing the goalkeeper, following that up by blowing kisses to the crowd.

His friends describe him as a polymath, with an expanse of knowledge, wit and skills in cookery, piano playing, and his latest interest, cycling. He writes an unmissable weekly column for the Irish Mail on Sunday, The Derry Journal and Gaelic Life.

Last weekend was just the latest flare-up involving Brolly, who repeatedly points out that they are merely trivial moments of fun.

Earlier this year, his criticism of Armagh manager Paul Grimley caused outrage. His detailing of Mayo fouling just prior to the All-Ireland final last year left a nasty taste with the Connacht champions. He branded Colm Cooper – accepted by most as the most naturally-talented forward in the game today – as a 'choker' and claimed that Kerry GAA folk have never rated Cork.

His attitude to punditry is unlikely to change, given that he recently penned: "The whole point of sports punditry – if it has any point at all – is to express an honest view and let the dice fall where they may. The trick is to be interesting and at the same time entertaining. In essence, the viewer has to rise to your personality. Whether they like or hate it is irrelevant."

Few have that outlook, but Joe Brolly's strength of character makes him the most compelling sports pundit out there.

A life so far

Born in Dungiven, Joe Brolly emerged from a long line of entertainers and musicians to become the GAA's most talked-about sports pundit for his views and the means of expressing them.

Married to Emma-Rose, the couple have five children. Joe is a barrister, Emma-Rose is a solicitor. They live in Belfast.

Brolly also came to the notice of many last winter, when he donated a kidney to Shane Finnegan, a fellow coach of their club, St Brigid's.

A clip of his criticism of Tyrone's Sean Cavanagh has led to thousands of internet hits, when he describes a foul as, among other things, "an absolute disgrace".