Our story begins in O’Toole Park, #Dublin, on a balmy summer evening in 1995. Wheels transporting yours truly had parked on the sideline thence twice previously. For Dublin #IFC clashes involving St Brigid’s in 1992. The occasion this time round was a #Leinster U-21 FC encounter between the host county and #Meath. As far as can be recalled, #Dunboyne’s Denis Gallagher was in goal for the latter.
Despite having been in the ground previously, its location or how to get there wouldn’t have crossed my mind. Evidently, it’d been a while since dad was there too, so enquiries were made. Anyway, we knew Stannaway Road was roughly where we were looking for. So, we asked a passer-by for directions. The individual proceeded to give us a maze of directions that would’ve flummoxed Houdini – only to then halt and declare “Oh wait, this is Stannaway Road, there’s the football ground there!”
It struck me then, and has stayed with me since, that here was a person, presumably a local, with absolutely no interest in O’Toole Park or what went on there. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The other abiding memory of that night, though, was meeting GAA President – as he was then – Jack Boothman.
There was something instantly warm and likeable about the gentle giant of a vet from Wicklow. Jack’s was a unique spell of stewardship, for some reasons which aren’t going to be regurgitated. What will be recalled however is his affectionate warmth. His scolding of me for titling him “Mr Boothman” – countered with – “I’m just an ordinary man, proud to lead the GAA for all of us” and his surprise at my interest in and knowledge of farming and his line of employment.
What amazed me still further was that when next our paths crossed – on All Ireland Final day the following year – he remembered me. That was the mark of the man. Also easily recalled was the President’s reaction to what went on that day. On the following evening’s news, he said “I’m not going to condone anyone, but, certainly, I’m not going to condemn anybody either”.
As someone who was a part of the Meath backroom staff for many years recalled following his recent passing “He was a friend to us when we hadn’t many”. Stark, maybe, but the vitriol directed at Meath for many years won’t be easily forgotten either. On a more non partisan note, there was something strangely fitting about somebody with Boothman’s conciliatory tone being at the helm of the GAA when Crossmaglen Rangers made their breakthrough in the mid 1990s.
Go back to Stannaway Road. The bystander with no interest in GAA. Now compare that to what the Association means to the people of Cross’. Thing is, you can’t, really. In many ways, it’s indefinable. As was so brilliantly portrayed in Thomas Niblock’s spine-tingling, moving documentary recently aired on the BBC about the great Armagh club.
Mrs Margaret McConville, mother of Oisin, around who much of Niblock’s film revolved, said, basically, without the GAA their people had nothing. This all too easily resonated. I was in Crossmaglen twice in the mid to late eighties when tensions up there were at their most heightened. Things were seen that nobody of my age – or any age – should’ve witnessed. A toxic, fear-fuelled atmosphere, laced with intimidation. The constant howl British Army helicopters coming and going. The sheer trepidation gripping people – including kids – doing nothing more than going out to kick a ball.
All of which serves to magnify the magnificence of what Cross’ have achieved for nigh on two decades. Purely in a football sense, their accomplishments may never be equalled. Add in the back story and – in a way – their achievements serve as sombre reminders of the gifts we – the membership of the GAA – have.
The adversity encountered by Cross’ is, sadly, far from unique. Just that the profile they’ve brilliantly created for themselves affords their story more exposure. One cannot but think of the late Aidan McAnespie, immortalised in a beautiful, heartbreaking ballad, or more acutely from a personal perspective, the late Sean Browne, former chairman of Bellaghy GAA Club in Co Derry.
I met Sean on what was a tough day on the field for Meath Gaels – the All Ireland U-21 FC Final of 1997 – as a team representing the Oak Leaf County – driven by Enda Muldoon and Johnny McBride – easily accounted for Gerry Cooney’s Meath side. What wasn’t realised, admittedly, was just how soon after that match Sean lost his life. That realisation only dawned when coming across tributes from Bellaghy GAA on social media to mark the anniversary of Sean’s death.
Now here’s the thing, rather than dwell on the strife which often encumbered people, perhaps it’s best to highlight how the GAA has facilitated negotiation of this and promoted inclusiveness. Towards the end of Niblock’s production, McConville was shown meeting a former member of the security forces – an unthinkable scenario not all that long ago.
Consider, too, Mayo’s Shairoze Akram, who recently became the second Pakistani player to attain an All Ireland medal (regrettably the name of the other player is unknown to me but the competition was U-16 C Hurling) with the county. Akram was one of numerous players to perform excellently in Mayo’s All Ireland U-21 win. It would be no surprise to see him feature with Stephen Rochford’s seniors. His story is another glowing example of the GAA at its best.