The Man Over The Bridge

I’ve been here before. Different computer, but the same scenario. Cursor flashing ominously on a blank screen. No idea where to begin. The intended subject matter is the same. Albeit in a different context, yet no less emotionally difficult to do. Now read on…

Perhaps ironically, it’s nearly 15 years to the day. An occurrence which we all knew had to happen someday yet some minuscule, maybe romantic part of us thought it never would. The phone call is recalled with clarity as if it was only yesterday. His aide de camp – who is mine too – Eoghan Lynch said “Are you sitting down?” – don’t worry, we both laughed – but what he said next nearly threw my out of the wheelchair, “He’s not going forward”…

So there it was. The proclamation we all dreaded, though at the same time, it wasn’t the earth-shattering shock it might have been. The King was leaving his throne. With that, the greatest era in many of our lives had ended. Sean Boylan’s glory-laden reign over Meath football was no more. Please understand when I say it was like a death in the family, it sums the emotional volcano up perfectly.

No, we are not related. I’ve known the man all my life, lived beside him all my life. Got his post by mistake. After all, to some extent,there was only Dunboyne’s railway bridge – more commonly referred to locally as ‘Boylan’s Bridge’ – between us.

Regularly, every few days, even now, it’ll be a case of “That’s another one for the man over the bridge”. Then there were the phone calls, not as often nowadays as modern technology makes tracking people down and communication a whole world easier. Back then, though, as I was mostly the only one at home, every so often I’d get the familiar shout – “What’s Sean’s number?”

Doubtless, you must think it strange with us being as close to him and his family as is blessedly the case, that the number would not be on the tip of the tongue. Well, it is with yours truly, long ago was it noticed that phone numbers and car, jeep or tractor registration numbers could be retained better than Johnny-5 could store input in Short Circuit! However, be mindful that the elder states people in this Boylan establishment are nearly 80 and gone 90 respectively. Besides that, given the profile of the person involved and the reality that, despite a public persona, Sean and his family are intensely private people, so there’s always an extreme reluctance to disclose the number. Even though it’d be the clinic number and nothing else.

In many ways, Sean Boylan saved my life. Those of plenty of family members and friends as well. More than that, he gave me countless instances of the happiest days of my life. Not only through the deeds of his magnificent, wholly under-appreciated, wrongly vilified teams either. Though mention of those mighty men regrettably sends our story in a direction it was earnestly hoped could be avoided. However, there are only so many sly digs anybody can take before the primal instinct to defend oneself kicks in.

Friend, neighbour, inspiration, healer, minder

By now, the majority of people will have seen or at least heard of the excellent documentary aired on the life – sporting and otherwise – of Sean Boylan by RTE. Sean gave a unique insight into the man, his life, his beliefs and, yes, his remarkable sporting career. In 99.9% of cases, the response was overwhelmingly positive, as should be the case. Granted, an old advert once concluded with the line  “There’s always the one”…

That, however, wouldn’t excuse the bilious, scandalous, unwarranted, disgraceful and frankly wrong pile of scour unloaded by Tommy Conlon in the Sunday Independent days after the wonderful programme was aired. Temptation was to express surprise that a so-called publication of repute would allow such garbage defile their pages, but then, is it really that big of a surprise? Ask the people of Derry.

Allowing such a biased, bitter, jealous diatribe into print was bad enough, but, a little bit of balance wouldn’t have gone astray. It wasn’t as if Meath were the only ones playing hard, physical, manly football back then – the way it should still be played. Instead, it has become a sanitized version of the game many of us grew up with and were enthralled by. Pandering to a society obsessed with PC bovine excrement.

If the piece was to be remotely fair instead of an all out assault on one of the best, most respected and important people in Ireland – not just in terms of sporting figures either – and the wonderful people who under his guidance brought such glory to the county and so much joy to their people at home and abroad, they might have at least partially acknowledged that Meath were as much sinned against, if not more so, than the ‘wrongs’ they took such glee in pointing out. As evidenced by the following.

  1. Liam Smith getting his jaw broken against Connacht opposition in the early 1980s
  2. Brendan Reilly have his shoulder busted against Louth in 1988.
  3. Brian Stafford requiring a double-figured number of stitches to a lip wound against Cork in the drawn All Ireland Final of 1988
  4. Colm O’Rourke being pushed into a wall during the league semi final against Cork in 1990.
  5. Brendan Reilly sustaining severe bruising, leaving him unable to work for several days after the All Ireland semi final against Donegal in 1990.
  6. Keith Barr and Eamon Heery making a sandwich out of Colm O’Rourke (not even booked) in the fourth game of the 1991 saga.
  7. Conlon’s fellow Leitrim man Seamus Prior playing the grand total of 18 seconds at the end of the 1991 All Ireland
  8. Tommy Dowd’s head resembling a chopping block after several unpunished challenges during the 1996 Leinster Final.
  9. Graham Geraghty having teeth knocked out in the same game.
  10. Mark O’Reilly sustained broke n ribs in that year’s All Ireland semi final against Tyrone which ruled the Summerhill man out of the U-21 equivalent (draw and replay) against Cavan.
  11. Nigel Crawford being punched in the face straight front of referee John Bannon and the Longford official did nothing – except admit three days later on national radio he got it wrong. Damn all use that was.
  12. Graham Geraghty being deliberately targeted and ultimately knocked unconscious in the International Rules against Australia – leading to the first and possibly only occasion I or anybody witnessed Sean becoming really irate at all – let alone publicly.
A battle scarred Tommy Dowd after the 1996 Leinster Final

All of the above only occurred during Sean’s tenure. If one really wanted to talk about injustice, even after the great man vacating the throne, see Graham Geraghty’s goal against Dublin in 2007 being ridiculously ruled out. It was pointed out to the referee how farcical his decision was – it was so clear on the big screen Stevie Wonder would’ve copped it. Yet the Armagh official inexplicably chose to ignore the indisputable evidence in front of him and do absolutely nothing.

Or, in conclusion to this particular part of our journey, there was no mention of Stephen Bray incurring broken ribs against Kerry in the 2009 All Ireland semi final or the fact media darling Colm Cooper diving, conning the referee and getting a bogus penalty was what ultimately won them the game.

Ignoring all of the above might be forgivable and put down to bitter, jealous begrudgery were it not for the fact that (a) the documentary was about Sean’s entire life, not his football teams, which were only a small part thereof and (b) using selective quotes from deceased journalists, one of whom was as renowned for being anti-Meath as Christy Moore is for sweating buckets. Not to mention pulling one (very general) quote from he who will always be Ireland’s greatest man of letters which made no direct reference to Meath – or the other team for that matter.

If it was an attempt at proper journalism instead of a petty cheap shot, the author could have found myriad quotes from the said literary giant that demonstrated the esteem in which he held Sean and those teams, which was reflective of the fondness there was and is for the wordsmith in the Royal County.

However, if further proof that the author must have sucked an entire box of lemons before commencing the catastrophe was required, his indignant tone when moaning about the film being entitled Sean as “Too cozy” and “Re-writing of history” garnished it thus. At the same time exposing the bitter little man behind the words. A perception embellished by the absolutely disrespectful guff that everyone knew him as “Boylan”. Methinks he doth protest too much and is fairly isolated in his ignorance.

Crowning Glory: The last of Sean’s four All Ireland triumphs in 1999

Maybe most unpalatable was the almost sneery mention of Meath “Blaming the media” for the (mis) perception supposedly widely held (utter dung, by the way) about those wonderful players. Eh, that might have something to do with the fact that (sections of) the gutter press were the only ones who had a problem with them. I wonder have they mirrors in Leitrim?

Who better to pass judgement on the issue than those who went into battle against them during those years. Thus, it was no surprise, yet reinvigoratingly reassuring to read Joe Brolly not only lambast the “Cheap, pathetic piece” but to go on and opine: “That Meath team were superb. The first time I played against them, it opened my eyes to the way the game should be played. A great team, filled with men of substance”.

Leaning on the shoulders of giants: With Eamon O’Brien, Frank Foley, John Mc, Sean and Coyler at Brendan Reilly’s Wedding, December 1999.

It’s worth pointing out, mind you, that the most recent slurry agitator was far from alone with his effluent emissions. With other supposedly emminent scribes referring to them as a “Black mark on the game” and “brutish”, though in one case that was purely down to sour grapes because the author in question repeatedly refused to leave one of the team’s training sessions after turning up unannounced and especially unwanted.

That episode gave rise to one of the great stories of the Boylan era. Ever the gentleman, rather than blow his top as many of us would have, Sean simply gathered the players in a huddle before all and sundry left the pitch giving the impression that the session was over when in fact they hadn’t even started, which they did once the intruder had left the premises!

Needless to say, the spiteful spouting section were very much in the minority. As is unfortuntely always the case, wonderful, fair-minded and highly complimentary columns such as Roy Curtis’s wonderful article titled “Why can’t everyone in sport be more like Sean? ” from 1996, or Philip Reid’s insightful observation about the Tyrone game which generated all the sensationalised brouhaha that same year get lost in the din.

” But Meath won, rather than Tyrone losing, and the sheer power and guile of Sean Boylan’s men in fashioning an unlikely 2-15 to 0-12 semi final win, to set up a September 15 final showdown with Mayo, was, in its own way, rather heartwarming”.

Hence the roundabout or scant consolation in knowing that the mudslingers were very much in the minority. Again, even though there should be no need to be going down this road at all, those whose opinions should carry the most weight are those who lined out against them and, after a chat with another good friend, former Laois player and Blackhall Gaels manager Leo Turley who said the following while we discussed what was masquerading as journalism: “Brendan, I played against Meath loads of times in championship, league and O’Byrne Cup. It was tough football but never dirty. Sean Boylan is gent and a giant”.

A hero who became a treasured friend – Graham Geragthy.

The O’Dempseys clubman continued “I’ll tell you the truth, opposing players were sussed out for special attention, but anything that happened on the pitch was player driven – we didn’t need anyone to tell us to do it”. No team did. Yet, in Meath’s case at least, those who, if cynics were to be believed, would’ve had most reason to feel aggrieved actually share strong bonds witb our much maligned maestroes. The heroes from both sides in the 1991 saga against Dublin regularly convene for golf outings while the Meath and Cork sides of 1980’s, who had a relationship that was tempestuous at best, were reunited by reunited by tragedy with the untimely passings of two stars of that wonderful Cork team – John Kerins and Mick McCarthy.

However, for me, Leo’s line summed it up best – Sean is indeed a gent and a giant among men. After that unfortunate yet wholly necessary diversion to see life from both sides now because the stirrer of the dung really didn’t go anywhere near reflecting the standing of Sean and his teams are held in by their peers, it’s time to get back on course.

For, you see, football was and is only a small particle of Sean’s life and, more pointedly, his contribution to the people of Dunboyne, Meath, Ireland and around the world. No, the last part of that is not an exaggeration. There was one case – which I played a very small part in helping myself – which illustrates the point more than anybody or anything could. A school friend of mine was, as she told me herself all those years ago “Horsing around” in her garden at home when she met with an accident and ended up with a broken neck.

This probably seems an absurd assertion, but, breaking her neck actually ended up saving her life because whilst treating the injury medics discovered that she had, in fact, cancer in her spine. At the time, to say the outlook was bleak would be akin to stating that The Fonze wasn’t nervous around the ladies!

Like a lot of other significant happenings during my lifetime, the next chapter of our story takes place in Brady’s of Dunboyne. One evening, I met the girl’s father in my sanctuary, office and second home. At that juncture, I had no idea as to what she was going through, but, once a modicum of composure was re-gathered, my instinct was to try and help howsoever I could.

The thing is, at that exact moment, the line of thought seemingly was that there was very little anybody could do. However, I, feeling the need to say something as one does when caught off guard, reached for a line that has sustained me on more occasions than can be counted on two hands “Where there’s life, there’s hope”, before inquiring as to whether they had told Sean Boylan of their plight.

Without going into detail about the situation, where the prospects appeared bleak that evening in Brady’s, the family did indeed pay Sean a visit. And even though the lady effected emigrated shortly thereafter, Sean’s herbs were available to her all the time. As a result of which, my friend is not only back in Ireland, but, working with Sean and a mother of two.

Sean has been a healing and reassuring influence in my life – physically and emotionally – more than there are words to express

There are innumerable similar instances which might have been deployed here. Sean’s standing in society is such that his gravitas transcends sport and politics and all other polarising topics. Consider that his father, also, Sean, was a very close associate of Michael Collins, yet the late Taoiseach Jack Lynch and his wife Mairin were regular visitors to Edenmore and it was none other than Bertie Ahern who launched his book at Croke Park.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are a collection of comparable commendable interventions very close to home here. Involving myself and practically every member of my family. In my case, apart from the obvious matter of my disability from a physical perspective, it was he, working in conjuction with the most wonderful GP I’ve ever been blessed to have – who, to my utmost regret, is temporarily out of my support team – came up with a solution to the most undignified, upsetting aspect of my disability there is.

Of most relevance at present, though, one thinks of the way in which he helped both my parents when both were effected by serious illness in recent years. However, it will scarcely come as a jolting shock to anybody that a few of the most poignant occasion during which Sean was the anchor which stopped the wobbly ship wheelchair from running aground.

Firstly, at a time of almost indescribable personal grief at the passing of my friend, mentor, inspiration and auxilliary grandfather, Tom Yourell. Being too emotionally distraught to deliver the graveside oration I’d been requested by the family to write, there was only one individual on planet earth I wanted to take on the task.

The second such instance surrounded the even more delicate matter of the relationship between St Peter’s GAA Club and Tom’s Field and/or the Coogan family moving to its next phase following his death. Both from my own personal perspective and for the sake of our community, there could not have been a better person to – with the aid of the great and shabbily treated Monsignor Ted Dunne – lead the negotiating team during what were enormously delicate and sensitive discussions.

And the final such recollection of relevence to today’s output concerns when the tentative talking took things towards an amicable agreement allowing both peace to be ensured between the club and the family whilst enshrining Tom’s legacy as the Godfather of our club and one of the absolute pillars of our community.

The completion of which was the most generous, indisputably fitting and – I hope – wholly appreciated decision by the club with a Cup in Tom’s name. Now, all too easily the furore surrounding the family’s request that I decide what the Tom Yourell Cup be awarded for.

There were those, comparatively speaking, not a wet weekend in the place, spouting that it should be for an internal club seven-a-side or this or that. I’d my mind made up almost instantly, though, that it could only go to club’s Young Footballer of the Year.

A proud and emotional moment as I – along with former Club Chairman Sean Cox – present the Tom Yourell Cup to Ciaran Boylan in 2012

For two historically crucial reasons. One, Tom was responsible for the formation of the first ever footbali team in Dunboyne in 1947 and secondly, generations of club and county stars had their grounding in the basic rudiments of the game on those beloved 5.25 acres.

I’ll be honest, even though it was known in my heart of heart that the right decision had been made, as much to put my own heart and mind at ease as anything else, I ran my thought process by Sean minutes before the function where the handover of the trophy was to take place commenced.

Once I had the confidence of Tom’s family and, yes, my namesake, what anybody else thought mattered not a jot to me. What would never have been figured, mind you, was just how much belief he whom my da titles ‘The Famous Man’ has in me.

Around the same time, I was in dire need of an upgraded wheelchair. The referral letter hadn gone in from my Occupational Therapist in mid March and by the time of the Galway Races there wasn’t a scintilla of progress. So, very reluctantly – as it is known very well the neighbour tends to be exceedingly busy as it is – this corner agreed to a request going over the bridge purely due to the gravity of the pain I was in for what could be best described as a reference letter.

Well, as with anything Sean ever put his imprint on, to say the content of what he came up with was glowing would be similar to opining the moon would be an unusual spot to take a flight to. Somewhere in the document – which ran to several pages, the great herbalist referred to yours truly as the Lord Mayor of Dunboyne. A title scarcely more fitting for anybody other than the individual who bestowed it upon me except it wouldn’t go within light years of being adequate.

Anyway, the moniker stuck to such an extent that Val, one of my carers from the Cameroon, calls me nothing but Lord Mayor! I couldn’t help think of that whole episode when, near the end of the Bradley brothers’ excellent production, Sean quipped with some of the shyness Paraic Lyons told him to put in his arse pocket long ago, “Am I running for President?!” He should. He’d win that too.

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