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Trailblazer Maurice Hayes was in a league of his own

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By Declan Bogue

The world has lost one of its greatest minds with the passing of Dr Maurice Hayes at the age of 90.

When compiling a list of his achievements, it is necessary to do some editing, such is the embarrassment of riches.

First Catholic Ombudsman in Northern Ireland. Chairman of the Ireland Funds. Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health and Social Services. Co-author of the Patten Report into policing. Governor of the Linenhall Library. Chairman of the National Forum on Europe.

He sat on numerous boards and committees, and also penned three memoirs - 'Sweet Killough, Let Go Your Anchor', 'Black Puddings With Slim' and 'Minority Verdict', which was a salty and indiscreet account of life as a senior civil servant.

In the sporting world, the native of Killough was a former inter-county hurler - possibly influenced by his father who was from Waterford, while his mother hailed from Listowel in Kerry - and he progressed into administration in his 20s.

Down had never won an Ulster Senior Football title, but with Hayes as their new county secretary, selling an idea and a dream to players and fellow county board members, they landed their first in 1959, which acted as a springboard for All-Ireland crowns in 1960, '61 and a further title in 1968.

Under his watch, they formed an all-county league. They raised the standard with an inter-barony league. They provided the best of medical care from the medics in Downpatrick Hospital. They wore snazzy tracksuits. He told me: "That would have been at the time of the drainpipe trousers! And you would be trying to get a sub out and he wouldn't be able to get his trousers off."

Down also became the first county to wear coloured shorts in order to help the peripheral vision of the players.

They got Paddy Doherty back on board after he played soccer for Lincoln City. PJ McElroy was summoned from deepest Wales where he was working in forestry. Joe Lennon was splitting his time between the Shetlands and the Persian Gulf and James McCartan, Hayes once recalled with a chuckle, "had played a game or two with Glenavon I think, in a fit of pique!"

When news came through on Saturday evening of Haye's death, I counted myself exceptionally fortunate to have taken the chance during the summer in asking if I could visit him in his home and speak to him about his life and Down GAA.

If it sounds trite to say that just over an hour in someone's company could deeply affect the parameters of the world, then I can live with that.

He was easily the most incredible individual I have interviewed.

The conversation was held together by the thread of the GAA and his observations were on a different plane. Sean O'Neill was a 'cerebral' player. Paddy Doherty was 'instinctive, like Christy Ring'.

Football itself was 'coming out of a dark night of the soul'.

Mayo and their never ending quest for All-Ireland glory? "I always took the view that if you left Mayo out on the field on their own, they would still find a way to lose," he observed.

As we went on, the diversions leading to the byways of his life devoured our time.

His father had been in the British Army and he produced some old pictures from his time in Mesopotamia, which became Iraq, and added: "I tell you this much, if Tony Blair or George Bush had ever met my father, they wouldn't have put a foot in the place!"

On his work in reshaping the police in Northern Ireland, he spoke of Chris Patten, his co-author of the report that eventually formed the PSNI, with real affection and some awe.

"A Rolls-Royce," was his verdict.

And we touched briefly on his journalism and writing. He was a tough columnist and the thing was, he said he would still love to be writing. "But you get lazy," he said with a grin.

The chat meandered spectacularly. He told a yarn about the circumstances of how a Fine Gael senator ended up being a witness for Brendan Behan's marriage to wife Beatrice, with the best man not turning up.

The Irish Language Act was madness, he felt. The DUP's stance led to the glorious line: "I mean, they remind me of the 17th century religious pamphleteers, they couldn't pass anything without giving it a kick."

He was frail. He clung to a portable oxygen tank. After an hour, the answers became shorter. He was out of breath and said out of nowhere: "What are you going to do with all this stuff anyway?" That was my cue to exit.

My final question concerned the trivialities of his days now. Reading and writing, he said. Challenging himself. Doing the crossword and in a delicious example of dark humour, eye-balled me and said with a great grin: "Gently freewheeling down the hill, really."

He wasn't treated with the utmost of class. Plenty of Down officials openly scoffed at his masterplan but when it came together, the stampede to jump on the bandwagon dislodged him. He was voted out to Assistant Secretary in 1962, after which he largely stepped away from the hurly-burly world of GAA politics - he had many miles to go before he slept.

But it is said that a grounding in the GAA steels a man for public office.

"There's one thing we did very well," he said in the final analysis of his impact on Down GAA.

"Preparing guys for life after football, when they wouldn't have the tumult and the crowds and all the rest. We did try to get guys jobs and settled.

"The one thing is that the 1960 team, every one of them, was a good citizen afterwards. They made a contribution in one way or another to the society they were in."

Nobody made more than himself.

Requiem Mass for Maurice Hayes will be held in St Patrick's Church, Downpatrick tomorrow, Wednesday, December 27, at 12pm noon. Burial is afterwards in Down Cathedral Graveyard.

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