Clinging to the basics in times of indescribable heartache

At the outset, an admission: If you’ve even stumbled across my Facebook page in the last month or so, please forgive the opening few acres of what is to follow. They are repeated solely for context and, I suppose, by way of aiding at least the beginning of a grieving process and what must follow on from it.
What follows immediately hereafter is undoubtedly the most difficult piece of writing undertaken by yours truly. I know he wouldn’t want a fuss made over him, but, when somebody has the impact on your life that Sean Nealon Snr. had on mine it is simply impossible to say all that needs to be said.

Our paths first crossed in the summer of 1987, shortly after he’d taken over Brady’s. My sister used to bring my down to the old Nippy Chippy – at that time under the Big Tree in the village – on a Sunday evening and we’d often encounter Sean pottering around at the front of the pub doing something or other as was his way. I can’t tell you how difficult it is to be writing that in the past tense.

With hindsight, it now seems poignantly fitting that the next encounter remembered was not only in his territory – Carrick-On-Shannon – but also in that landmark year for Leitrim, 1994. The occasion was the second round of a National League which Meath eventually won. Sean had Joe Murray with him, I think, admittedly I didn’t recognise him but was amazed that he remembered me.

Two years thereafter, something happened which changed my life forever. On the night of Meath’s All Ireland victory over Mayo, I had my first pint in, well, outside, actually, Brady’s. Yes, if you do the maths I was a little bit early. But that was something he knocked great craic out of for years. Compounded by the fact on the night of my 18th birthday Pepsi was the tipple of choice!

Now, some will know that, towards the end of the 1990s, yours truly hit a bit of a bumpy patch in terms of education. It’s well known that several colourful versions of events did the rounds at the time but the truth of the matter is this – Sean, his family and his staff took me under their collective wing and became a second family to me. A bond that has endured to this day and one hopes eternally will.

Did I take solace in the pub at the time? You can bet your Sunday dinner I did. Not, however, to the extent of imbibing every night, and certainly not in the manner which was being pontificated around the locality.

As an aside, think of those instances where people can instantly recall where they were when significant happenings in history occurred – i.e. the Moon Landing, the assassination of JFK, whichever you choose. For me, see the Omagh bombing, September 11th 2001 and the ensuing US invasion of Iraq – all of which were observed from Brady’s.

More than that, though, it was there I loved and lost (repeatedly), at least tried to come to terms with my own mental health situation and grieved for the loss of far too many held near and dear in the recent and distant past. But nothing or nobody could prepare a soul for the most unexpected, gut-wrenching jolt of them all. To whom do you turn for counsel when the greatest advisor of them all has been called to the bar counter above?

When last we lifted the Keegan Cup in 2005, to some derision, I headlined one particular piece done thereafter ‘Dunboyne Fulfil Their Destiny’. Scoffing at such inclinations was wholly understandable given the circuitous route by which we circumnavigated our way to title number two.

However, what many obviously didn’t cop the much deeper personal meaning one was trying to imply. Remember, on April 23rd that year – my 24th birthday – Tom Yourell the greatest pillar in my life at the time (He will remain eternally so from afar) and one of the founding fathers of the football section of our club (The other actually did wear a collar!) was called to the dugout above. Thus, if fate, or the concept thereof, was to stand for anything, my gut feeling was that we would accomplish something significant to honour his memory.

Admittedly, in the last couple of seasons, similar sentiments were maintained in the hope that some of those to whom closest bonds were held would be posthumously commemorated by the landing of the big fish. Alas, at the times in question it wasn’t to be. Many will be aware, also, of the effect that our defeat to Simonstown Gaels had on me last season.

I’ve never made any secret of the fact that GAA matters mean so very much more to me than the actual results of what happens on the field. Some of the longest standing connections I have within the GAA hail from the North Navan outfit. There’s no doubt our clubs have developed something of a rivalry in recent times, but it’d be hoped that it would be seen as a friendly one a both sides.

Now, it may have come in only the second round, but, it’s probable that many shared the feeling that overcoming Ciaran Kenny’s side was a huge moment in the season. Yes, there were bumps in the road, none more so than when Michael Dunne – very fittingly – nabbed a very late winner against Donaghmore/Ashbourne after his cousin, Andy Tormey, had caused our defence no end of problems. A good thing, too, that the Sheridan boys left the shooting boots in Beauparc the night we played Seneschalstown.

In another sense though, if  one was to pinpoint the really significant turning point – psychologically at least – it was in Dunshaughlin on a dark September evening. It’s probable that this corner wasn’t alone in having something of a mental block pertaining to Championship quarter finals. They’ve never been too kind to Dunboyne.

After eventually escaping Intermediate in 1992, last eight exits were our fate for three consecutive seasons – to Skryne in 1993 and 1994 and Kilmainhamwood the following year. And the reversals of the last two seasons scarcely need further elaboration. So, even though the very talented Gaeil Colmcille forward Brian Hanlon proved a handful throughout what was a very long night and it took two outstanding saves from our netminder Cian Flynn to keep our ship afloat, gut feeling was that we weren’t for turning.

In the semi final against the blue and navy half of Navan (yet again) the lads produced the best display I have ever seen from a Dunboyne team – eventually! Nerves were palpable in the first half – and that was only in the wheelchair ‘shed’! Again, that man Flynn saved our bacon with another outstanding stop – this time from a Mark McCabe penalty. Easy to say it now, but, another little sign that we weren’t about to be denied. Yet, in this seat at least, it was only after Cathal Lacey’s late ‘major’ that the heart rate could subside to non life threatening levels!

I’m forever wary of naming names in these situations, for fear of upsetting or annoying someone, and especially given the complete nature of the performance against Simonstown. However, if there were an accolade for most improved player in the county it’d surely be a 50/50 ball between Shane McEntee and Niall Jones, and that was the day which proved it. Incidentally, as for the ‘Find’ of the season – again a tight finish between Sean Ryan and Mr Lacey. All that’s only filler compared to what follows hereafter though.

2.

At this point, it has probably been noticed that no mention has been made of the outstanding achievement accomplished in winning the Junior A Football Championship with our second team. A feat last managed by Walterstown in 1978. Admittedly, initially that was down to superstition. What with the Junior final taking place after the Senior semi but before the Keegan Cup decider with Summerhill. Was I dreaming of the double? Of course, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to do anything to jeopardise annexation of the Holy Grail.

But then something happened which put my entire world into a tailspin. Will I come out of it? Somehow, someday. How, I’ve absolutely no idea. And please don’t ask me when. October 11th should’ve been a happy day. A day reminiscing about one of the happiest days of my life, for it was the actual 20th anniversary of our first Keegan Cup success. But…

One phonecall, that’s all it took. At 12:15, when the dreaded call – the one I’d been steeling myself for since the previous Sunday – from the Mater Private came, a very large chunk of my world fell apart. Along came the realisation that when we would bid farewell to Sean Nealon a sizable portion of me would go with him.

In one way, I’m not sure how I made it from that Thursday to the County Final on the Sunday. If ever there was doubt about the existence of Auto Pilot, let me confirm for you, it’s real. The closeness that has always been there for me with Sean, his family and his staff was never more treasured than at that time (and even more so since). It allowed me give a (very) small dig out with the funeral arrangements which, surreal and heart breaking as it obviously was, kept me somewhat busy.

From another viewpoint, though, it was very much a case of clinging to the basics of what makes life worth living in times of indescribable heartache. Which is probably when the enormity of the lads winning the JFC fully dawned. In truth, I was a latecomer to their exploits.

However, nearly 30 years of watching Meath football (Yes, you did read that correctly) has taught me that if you’re lucky enough to overcome a team trained by Eamonn Barry it’s a fair indicator that you may be quite useful. So it was when Sean McGarrell’s late point guided us past Moylagh in the quarter final at Trim.

Which threw of the first in a set of bizarre and, I don’t mind saying, difficult circumstances. For, in the semi final, we would be facing one of our own, with Paul Fagan now domiciled in Ballivor. Ironically, it became something of a battle between the Slevin’s barmen, past and present, and thankfully, it was in a very big way, the intervention of our former pint puller, Sean McGrath, that steered us into the Peter McDermott Cup decider. That, and a large slice of something else.

Further discourse on the horrors which befell the Cox family on the day after my birthday will be forthcoming in the offering which follows this one – it won’t be as long, I promise – but when recounting how all comers were repelled by our second team, the overriding recollection has to be the contribution of Jack Cox.

That he has had an outstanding season and demonstrated the potential to be a star for us going forward would be commendable enough at any time. Though to consider the horrors which Jack, his mother Martina and sisters Shauna and Emma have gone through and continue and it makes his sporting achievements all the more incalculable. Then again, their campaign was emotionally driven in many ways.

One of the foremost thoughts once St Vincent’s were overcome following an epic encounter was that all of our team, bar a handful, was made up of players who brought us our first Minor Football Championship win in 2002 – a team I was honoured to be a selector with – and our second in 2014.

Foremost among them was our captain on this occasion and one of the lynchpins of that maiden Minor magnificence, Barry Comer. At the recent reunion of our 1998 winners – which will also be covered later – in paying tribute to Martin O’Toole, Gerry Cooney (correctly) opined that every team needs a ‘Tooler’. To my mind, Barry is the current version of the great man. A workhorse, a warrior, a leader.

He’s all that and more. Yet, those qualities and everything he brings to the table are surely magnified still further when one considers the tragedy he and his family have been through in the past couple of years following the untimely passing of his wife Lyndsey. In his speech upon accepting the cup named after The Man With The Cap, he poignantly dedicated the success to her memory. Many would agree, I think, that most of us dedicate the success to him.

3.

As is often the case when your own are involved, County Final day itself was a blur. That was even more the case this time round. Mention was given earlier to the fact I was able to give a very small hand making Sean’s funeral arrangements. Some of you may have heard at this stage, but, contained within was a stipulation that has final journey wasn’t to interfere with preparations for or the aftermath of the final. What it also did, for me at least, was remove any doubt as to whether we would claim the spoils. Yours truly would be extremely superstitious at the best of times – more of that anon – but, for a multiplicity of reasons, there was no way we were coming home without the silverware.

It started as such too, as we opened a lead of 0-03 to 0-00. Of course Summerhill were going to have their spell of dominance. Indeed, it was such that they led by 0-05 to 0-04 at half way. Cue my anxiety levels rocketing. However, very quickly in the second half it became obvious that all which had gone before would drive us over the line. Be that as it may, it wasn’t until Stuart Lowndes latched onto a speculative lob and blasted past Tony McDonnell that one could truly relax.

After the week I’d had leading in to the game, being honest it was hard to know what to feel in the immediate aftermath. There was some comfort in knowing that he whose loss we so desperately mourned would have got as great a kick out of it as any of us.

The same of course could be said of Sean Cox whose strength, bravery and courage in the face of what he has gone through has been nothing short of inspirational. Which was rightly and very movingly acknowledged by our captain Cathal Finn when he was introduced to Tom Keegan. It was a time also to remember all the Gaels who in the recent or not so distant past were called ashore to the dugout in the sky.

4.

Temptation was to begin this segment commenting on the mix of emotions once the initial euphoria of the win had dissipated. But, the truth is – for me at least – that wouldn’t be the word to describe emotions at that time. Primarily for reasons which should be glaringly obvious. Also, however, owing to an overwhelming sense of relief. For three consecutive seasons we had been vanquished by those who went on to harvest autumnal gold. On a much deeper, more personal level it might finally allow me to move on from the ghost of 2017, I think/hope.

In normal circumstances, above wouldn’t have been the terminology deployed, but everything about the occasion was tinged by the shadow of what was to come a few days after. For me at least, but I suspect many more too. Tom Yourell’s were the first remains I ever saw ‘laid out’ and though glad I did it’s not something that’s done too often. In this case, a conscious decision was taken that I didn’t want to see Sean, preferring to remember him as he always was.

That said, given the position one is privileged to hold within the Brady’s ‘circle’, it was known that there was going to be some role within the funeral. Thus, with carrying the coffin obviously not an option, with a broken heart I was humbled and very honoured to be allowed to give the Boss a one-man escort from the funeral home to the church. Thing was, when given an inch a mile was taken – these wheels went all the way on his final journey. There was no way he was going to his resting place without me.

For their patience in allowing me pay me own simple tribute – there was only one person to get the treatment before – my eternal thanks to Ian and Robert Cunningham and their staff for their care and understanding. As several people pointed out to me after, it was payback time for all the years he escorted me home with the Flashing Lights when the footpaths weren’t an option!

To my own family, the Nealon family, Brady’s staff – past and present – and all associated as well as the GAA community at large (I’ll go into that end of it in more detail in a bit) my sincere thanks for getting me through one of the toughest yet proudest days of my life. Most especially, however, my thanks to the person who came to my aid at the graveside when it all caved in on me. You know who you are. While knowing full well he wouldn’t want a fuss made over himself, I think he would reluctantly, shyly know he impacted on the lives of an awful lot of people. What is certain is that he’d want us all to look out for each other and it’s fairly certain that’s what will happen. It’s certainly brought me and my saviour on funeral day closer and you can be fairly sure that was him at work.

                                                                        5.

The days surrounding Sean’s death and funeral were some of the toughest I’ve ever put in. There have been more in the interim and are likely to be numerous others. The thing is, there have been tough days in this corner long before the latest heartache came crashing onto me. It’s hard and would be unfair to say any one of them hit harder than the next – though that’s only natural – but the cumulative effect of the whole lot of them, along with some other stuff it must be admitted, has led to a situation whereby I’ve struggled with my mental health for some time now.

GAA has been one of the saving graces which has kept me going. Not just the action on the pitch but some very special people on and off the field also. Which in one case led to a few very awkward weeks in the lead up to the final. For it was another case of coming up against one of our own. Friendship with David Clare has so many strands to it – GAA, rugby, Brady’s and in more recent times some cherished very personal support.

It’s safe enough to reveal now that the gentle giant popped in to see me in the days prior to Sean’s passing and before a very awkward hour when we would occupy opposite corners in pursuit of the greatest prize of them all. Apart from comfort in a time of unspeakable upset, it was only fitting that we parted with a smile pondering the craic he’d have derived from, as Dave put it, “Two of his surrogate sons, ‘Smerso’ and ‘Big Gally’ slugging it out”.

For that reason, the former pint-pulling ex-prop forward was the first one I wanted to see after the full time whistle. Firstly as friendship runs much deeper than anything which occurs on a football field but also because it was known all too well, too often, what it was like to be in the vanquished corner.

Now, anyone that was at a certain wedding nearly a dozen years ago would’ve borne witness to something very unusual and special. Namely, a giant of our game in Dunboyne, Meath and Ireland – the aforementioned ‘Big Gally’ getting soppy about, well, little old me!

I’d always admired him of course. Going back to the days when he and his classmates used to look after me at lunchtime in school. There was something poignantly fitting about the first time I’d noticed him on a football pitch. Primarily because it was his late father, Paddy, and my teacher at the time, John Moriarity, who brought me to an U-12 game in Oldcastle where he was playing centre field.

Little did I know at the time that Paddy would become one of my nearest and dearest friends, that his passing in June 2017 would have such a devastating effect on me or, for that matter, that such a treasured, unbreakable bond would develop with his youngest and biggest offspring.

I’ve been in the fortunate position over the years to have many heroes who have become friends, but the big fella is a friend who became my greatest hero. Ever since The Speech every time he’s gone out on a pitch the No. 8 jersey has had two bodies in it, not one – no wonder his back is banjaxed! Seriously though, I know this part of the journey I’ve been blessed to share with him – and his family – is nearing an end. It could scarcely have a more fitting conclusion if such is to be the case.

6.

Whatever about either of the Davids, there was one person I was desperate to get to at full time above all others. Someone without whom I wouldn’t have been there. Not in terms of actual driving but something much deeper than that. Mention was given earlier to the very superstitious nature of yours truly – example: During the successful 1998 campaign I ended up getting my hair cut before every game. Even though on more than occasion that ended up meaning getting the mop chopped one week after the next.

Fast forward to this term and the stroke of good luck seemed to coincide with travelling arrangements for the games. That and one other very special factor which will be expanded on momentarily. But, no matter who else was aboard – and that’s a hat-tip to Knockbridge Senior and Junior – it was crucial to me that Sean Ryan and Eoghan Lynch were aboard – didn’t turn it too bad either!

Seasons like the one we are in the midst of don’t come about too often. Thus, they are cherished and treasured. Other days, however, merely keeping going when playing into the wind can be a gruelling task. Quite simply, it couldn’t be done without the support of some very special people. It’s true what they say, everybody needs good neighbours.

Which takes me to something that’s partly superstition but also treasured much more deeply than that. More so than anything to do with football in fact. Aisling McEntee was the first person I met in Navan on County Final day and I’m being wholly honest when it’s said that it was knowing she would be there to greet me which persuaded me to go at a time when my brain was scrambled worse than a half dozen eggs.

Ask me when it became clear that ours was an extra special friendship – in my heart and soul I know exactly when it was but that’s for another day, maybe. It’s the simple things – the text to coax me to get out to a game, ensuring we get to spend even a few minutes together when these wheels do make it or keeping me in the loop with what’s happening if the body or spirit aren’t strong enough to tog out.

Even more treasured is something which runs even deeper than anything to do football. It’s the days when there’s not a ball anywhere close on the horizon. Just checking in to make sure these wheels are still turning. Coaxing, reassuring and encouraging to ensure that they do.

There are only a couple of people within the GAA ‘circle’ in whom one confided as to the battle that has been engaged in regarding my mental health. It’s ongoing, and will be, but without those few very special ‘minders’ the wheels would get hard to keep turning. Thank you.

It’s  been the best of times, it’s been the worst of times.

3 comments

  1. Lovely words my old dear friend, you keep your head up, I love reading your outlook on life and sport, keep it up ❤️

  2. Brendan, thank you for sharing this very beautiful, heartfelt and true piece of writing. The people you mentioned, have undoubtedly impacted hugely on your life and are very special to you. Bare in mind also though, how much you mean/meant to them. You are one incredible man Brendan and while I didn’t have the opportunity to get to know you very well before leaving Dunboyne, I certainly had the pleasure of meeting you many a time in Brady’s and on a sideline. Thanks so much for sharing & wishing you strength & happiness in the years to come.

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