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Ulster SFC Final Fermanagh v Donegal: Fr Brian D'Arcy: I would die very happy if Fermanagh were to win

Priest, columnist and broadcaster Fr Brian D'Arcy on a lifelong love affair with his county GAA team

By Declan Bogue

A few Sundays ago on that baking Omagh pitch, Fr Brian D'Arcy got caught up in the late winner that Fermanagh grabbed to defeat Monaghan and make it only their sixth Ulster final.

He attempted to sprint on to the pitch but a knee replacement a couple of years ago turned down the request. Still, as he explains, "I certainly went as quick as I could! And I got lifted up and hugged and kissed and all the rest of it by strangers I never saw in my life before, as well as by the team," he says, and then unleashes that famous hearty laugh.

As a living, breathing Polymath, he wears many hats. Passionist priest. Renegade cleric that speaks his mind about the injustices of the Catholic Church he serves. Newspaper columnist. Broadcaster. Confidant of a range of celebrities and the humble. But the one constant in his life has been his devotion to the Fermanagh Gaelic football team.

His father, Hugh, played wing-back on the Fermanagh team that lost the 1935 final to Cavan in Belturbet.

He himself was destined for a football career before he felt his calling. He played one game for Fermanagh minors against Monaghan at 17 in 1962.

At the time his club Belnaleck had no team at minor level so he togged out for Kinawley and ended up coming on as a sub in their county semi-final win. The final was the following Sunday against Roslea but in between times, he entered St Gabriel's Retreat just outside Enniskillen.

For the only time in our talk, his famous cackling laugh disappears as he recalls: "There was no contact with the outside world. On Christmas morning, I got a letter from my family which had been written in September, but was held until Christmas Day and then I discovered that Kinawley had lost the county final that year to Roslea."

He kept up his football through his wandering vocation. He played for a clerical team in UCD and made sporadic appearances for various clubs in the Wicklow and Sligo Championships.

By the time Fermanagh made the 1982 Ulster final he was based in Mount Argus in Dublin. He was the Chaplain of Shamrock Rovers and grew close to their players, officiating at the marriage ceremonies of the likes of Liam O'Brien, David O'Leary and Niall Quinn.

He also had the outlet of the 'Jimmy Magee All-Stars', a charitable venture that gave him the chance to man the midfield with Jack Kerry's O'Shea and catch kick-outs from Dublin's Paddy Cullen and he played across four decades until his knees gave out altogether.

"We always played good teams that had won something, like the Galway three in a row team," he says.

"The Kerry side whatever number of times, we played all of them and it was wonderful. I once played midfield for the All-Stars and marking - and I can tell you there wasn't much marking done on my behalf - was the great Mick O'Connell.

"I literally said to them at one point: 'Lads, would you give me a kick of the ball?'"

It was when he resumed his career at The Graan in 1990 that he walked back into his county and Fermanagh manager PJ McGowan's dressing room.

He became a fixture at training sessions and said mass before big games for the team, always respectful not to interfere with what can be a brutal game played on uncompromising terms. Twelve managers have passed through the county since and hundreds of players, but Fr Brian remains.

"If they need anything done, I do it for them," he explains.

"You go into dressing rooms and you gee up a fella, talk to a fell if he wants to be talked to. Chat to a fella who was taken off.

"But you do it quietly. You don't big a big scene of it. You go to training, see who is going well and who is injured and you would tend to spend more time with the guy who is injured, a wee chat of them, give him the opportunity to recognise how good he is and a bit of encouragement."

He adds: "If it felt awkward, I wouldn't go there. I always wanted to go in when we were beaten, because there are too many going in when we win.

"And I always felt it was my loyalty to the boys, no matter what generation of boys you are talking about, it was my loyalty to them to say, 'I am not here for the glory, but when you lose I will most certainly be here.'"

There have been times when - can you believe it - God has got in the road of GAA.

In 2004, Fermanagh reached the All-Ireland quarter-final against Armagh. The date had already been reserved for a wedding he had promised to conduct in Mayo.

He takes up the story: "And Mayo were playing Tyrone the same day in that All-Ireland double-header.

"So, anyway, I met the (Fermanagh) boys and told them I would go to Knock and offer mass but if they won the match, then I wouldn't mind missing it.

"I was doing the wedding, on the altar, and there was a priest from Mayo beside me. We came to the last blessing and he said to me, 'Do you want to know anything about the match?' And I said, 'Well, we will have to wait until the end of the mass.'

"And he said, 'No, I have been following it on my phone here!'"

He continues: "That must have been a very interesting sermon for him! So at communion time he said, 'Fermanagh have won by a point'. I said I didn't believe him but he took out his phone and sure enough.

"So my final blessing was, 'Fermanagh have won, and going to Knock has helped them. And I hope it helps Mayo to beat Tyrone as well.' And so it happened!"

Prior to the 2008 Ulster final which also featured Fermanagh, he called a mass at The Graan the day before, encouraging everyone to wear green.

"And of course, I wore green and white vestments, even though I wasn't supposed to!"

The pull to home is still so strong. Based now in Tobar Mhuire Retreat in Crossgar, Co Down, he makes the journey to Fermanagh at least once a week to attend training. He loves the fact that his home club of Belnaleck, of whom his brother was chairman and his father played for, has the second-highest representation on the panel and particularly enjoyed Che Cullen's man of the match performance in that dramatic win over Monaghan.

Last week a call went out on social media for fans to turn up at the famous Blake's of the Hollow pub in Enniskillen, to shoot a video for a song 'Wake Me Up' commemorating the final appearance. Fr Brian was there in the front row, lapping it up.

"Sport, in the proper context, is the best education for life that anybody could get," he maintains.

"It's hard work, it's achievement, it's being the best you can be and learning to take joy and sorrow in equal measure and to hold your head in both. There is no better character-builder than having sport in your life."

Fermanagh, along with Wicklow, are the only counties in Ireland not to have won a provincial title. Time is running out for this 73-year-old to see his football dreams become a reality, as he states: "I would love to die happy, and I would die very happy, if Fermanagh were to win an Ulster Championship. It would be my last ambition."

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