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Shane Mulholland will be our 16th man at Croke

By Declan Bogue

Sometime this morning, a team bus will pull up in sleepy Derrylin, Co Fermanagh, outside the Chapel of St Ninnidh's.

Forty people in Fermanagh hurling tracksuits will disembark and make their way to the graveside of Shane Mulholland. Their county team-mate. Hurling coach with Cavan County Board. A proud Loughgiel man. A uniting force wherever he went and, most importantly, a husband and father.

He should have been joining them on that bus, heading down to contest the Lory Meagher Cup final against Sligo in Croke Park.

Shane was snatched from this life on April 24. He was travelling home to Derrylin after making a physio appointment, trying to get himself right for Fermanagh's Lory Meagher Cup opener against Warwickshire a week later when he was involved in a two-car collision.

It was a few days from his first wedding anniversary to Vanessa. They had been blessed with a daughter, Aisling, in February.

He didn't make it home.

In his short time in Derrylin, Fr Fintan McKiernan married him, Christened his daughter and buried him.

"Although he hadn't lived in Derrylin for long, everybody knew him," he said prior to the funeral. "He's the type of man who could have got on with people in any company.

"Shane had really built bridges with local people. He had a big personality."

On that Friday night, a group of Fermanagh hurlers were meeting in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter for a few drinks to celebrate Decky McGarry's recent engagement to his girlfriend Bernadette.

Along with friends from work and college, McGarry had his brothers Brendan, Cathal and Kevin with him and all have spent many years hurling for Fermanagh, along with a fifth brother, John Paul. Their father Kevin senior is a county selector.

When the news came through, they retreated back to Decky's apartment and sat up for most of the night talking about Shane, trying to process the news.

Only the night before, they had been training together.

By the Sunday, the county management had arranged a get-together in an Enniskillen hotel. County secretary Thomas Eddie Boyle had been through this before when Brian Óg Maguire of the football panel was killed in an industrial accident in September 2012.

He shared the story of Brian Óg, and how the Fermanagh team adopted the Irish word 'Cróga', with the O and G larger for 'Óg', printing it on the collar of their jerseys. The word means 'Brave', and they felt that best encapsulated Maguire's spirit.

Boyle felt that something similar might have been fitting for the hurlers.

Corner-back David McGorman used his architecture student training to come up with a few designs and they produced something beautifully defiant. Just on the nape of the neck is a shamrock in Loughgiel's scarlet colour, but also tying in with his local club in Fermanagh, Lisbellaw St Patrick's.

'Uallach' is underneath it; a variation of the name 'Mulholland' in Irish, meaning 'Proud'.

They will tell you in Fermanagh that pride underpinned everything Mulholland did.

At the funeral on Tuesday, his coffin was carried by his team-mates. One particularly close friend, John Duffy, read 'The Hurler's Prayer' with its poignant lines resonating with everyone.

"Shane was the first man to say that the Lory Meagher was our Holy Grail," recalled Seamus McCusker, joint-manager of the team.

He had Mulholland's name pencilled in for a corner-back spot that Saturday against Warwickshire. A few days ago he was going over his old team sheets and noticed the word 'Mully' in his handwriting. Painful moments.

For their game that Saturday, they left a space in the line-up where he should have been. Croke Park granted them permission to retire the No 2 jersey for the rest of the competition.

In the dressing room before the game, the other joint-manager, Sean Duffy, never mentioned winning the game, just playing the way Shane would have wanted; hard and fair. After 15 minutes, they were 1-6 to 0-0 up.

After the win, Vanessa's brother Justin came into the dressing room. He told them how much it meant for Vanessa and the family to be there, his delight that they won and his hope that they would make it to their third Meagher final in four years.

"It showed that we could do something for the family," recalled McGarry.

They have since beaten Lancashire and Leitrim to face off with Sligo in today's decider (TG4, throw-in 3.30pm).

McGarry and Mulholland had many things in common. Mulholland came with no baggage when he joined Lisbellaw. Some of his closest friends were members of the Lisnaskea club and in days gone by the two factions might have sat at different ends of the team bus.

"I would say in the last three or four years his involvement was key to breaking that down," recalled McGarry.

"He didn't care about it. He just cared about hurling and we fed off that."

McCusker points out that the day after Shane was killed, he was due to start a series of under-eight training sessions in Derrylin with his brother-in-law, Ashton.

"That shows how much he wanted Fermanagh to succeed," McCusker said.

"He was sowing the seeds. He brought pure leadership. Fermanagh hurling in years to come will be at a loss with Shane's absence."

Vanessa will take her place in Croke Park today with family and friends.

"In certain ways the games have been helpful," she said this week.

"Both the team and management have continued to remember Shane in many different ways and have provided great support to my family and I."

Last year, McGarry produced an almost superhuman performance to end up with 3-1 to his name in the decider, but at the final whistle, Longford had beaten them by two points. He sank to the turf.

Mulholland was with him in a flash.

"He came up to me and said, 'Don't ever let them see you are on your knees'. That was his attitude, play like a man and keep going," McGarry recalled.

"It's not about the winning or the losing, it's about how you conduct yourself and that's what we want to take into the final."

Just like the closing words that Duffy read from the alter at the funeral, from 'The Hurler's Prayer.'

'When the final whistle for me has blown,

And I stand at last before God's judgement throne,

May the great referee when he calls my name,

Say, you hurled like a man; you played the game.'

Belfast Telegraph


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