Belfast Telegraph

I've lost a friend and a brother... pal leads tribute to father-of-one who passed away at the weekend

By Brett Campbell

A Co Down man who worked in a New York City bar "always had a big smile no matter what", his best friend has said following his death on Saturday.

Father-of-one Conal McKee (26), who spent the last four years working in the US, died in Miami's West Boca Medical Centre shortly after 6am local time on Saturday.

It is understood his heartbroken parents Steven and Deborah and younger brother Niall had travelled from their home in Dundrum to be by his bedside, where he was in a coma for eight days before succumbing to his injuries.

His older sister Natasha, who has a young family, was unable to join them.

Last night his former next-door neighbour and Dundrum Football Club team-mate Brendan Cunningham said he was numb with grief as he paid tribute to his best friend.

"I have lost a friend, but more than that, I have lost a brother," he said.

"We did everything together, we grew up together and we played GAA and soccer together - we always backed each other up.

"He's the best player I've ever played with.

"He was strong and talented, even in training he was hard to go up against."

In 2011, the then 18-year-olds quit their plastering course and set off for Australia, but Conal returned home from Sydney after three months.

When Brendan returned in 2012, the pair enjoyed league success with Dundrum GAA and helped the club win the Down Junior Championship.

A year later, Conal moved to San Francisco where he worked in the construction industry and joined a GAA club in the city. He returned home briefly in 2014 to renew his visa before moving to the east coast of the States.

"That's the last time I saw him, it's the last I will ever see him," Brendan said as he choked back tears.

"But we always kept in touch and have so many great memories.

"He was on the team for Dundrum FC's very first game, it was against Castlewellan.

"We hadn't had a club for 25 years - we were beaten 1-0 in a last-minute penalty but it was a great wee piece of history and I'm so glad he was a part of it."

Shortly after returning to the US, Conal met his Colombian girlfriend Kata who gave birth to their first child just seven months ago.

"He fell in love around two years ago," Brendan said.

"They had a wee boy, Danny, and Conal was over the moon, he was so happy.

"He always had a big smile on no matter what. I will never forget his big grin."

The couple had only relocated to Florida around six weeks ago.

Colleagues from St Pat's Bar and Grill in Manhattan have expressed shock and sadness after losing "a little brother".

General manager Ciaran Hughes said staff and customers have been numb ever since Conal was admitted to hospital.

"The impact of his death has been even worse," he said.

"He was like a little brother to everyone here and slotted right in.

"We were colleagues, but we were friends too. Conal never had a bad word to say about anyone and he was always smiling, even under pressure."

Conal, who was planning his son's christening, had recently asked Mr Hughes to be Danny's godfather.

"We are beyond devastated - people call in here from all over just to see Conal and now we have to break this terrible news to them."

Regular visitors to the West 46th Street bar include an army of New York City FC fans.

"This is a supporters bar and they absolutely loved Conal," Ciaran said.

"They nicknamed him El Capitan because of the black armband which he wore. He will be greatly missed."

Dundrum GAA chairman Mark Fitzsimons said everyone at the club is feeling "very raw" following the death of their former full-back.

"There is a profound sense of disbelief here and we are all in mourning over the loss of such a talented and popular member of our club," he added.

Belfast Telegraph

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