Paths crossed in poignant healing

One of the greatest things garnered from 11 years on the Executive Committee of St Peter’s, Dunboyne were the friendships formed with people from nearly every club in the county. And plenty outside of Meath as well. Now read on…

Yes, there are a few clubs in particular with which special affinity will forever be maintained due to the enormous impact members thereof have had on my life. In some cases maybe without even knowing it. Atop any such amalgam would unquestionably be Dunshaughlin.

From a certain perspective, it’s entirely fitting that the situation is such. Given that one grandfather was born in The Workhouse in 1914 and the other worked behind the counter in The Arch Bar. Aside from that, the folks would’ve had great friends in people like Anthony Gogan, Larry O’Brien, John Sullivan, Mick O’Brien, Gerry Flanagan and Fergus O’Rourke, to name but a few.

Many of whom – or their descendents – yours truly became good friends with over the years that followed. That’s one hell of an understatement. What could never have been envisaged, though, was just how strong the bonds have become.

Sometimes, though, sport matters so much more than the eventual outcomes of what goes on between the lines. Never more so than for the occupant of this seat. In this web space no secret has ever been made of the difficulties yours truly has encountered with mental health over the years. Or, for that matter, the immeasurable role sport has always – and God willing will continue to – play in staving off the most grueling effects of same.

Most basically due to the people encountered along the way. With representatives of three clubs in particular proving invaluable confidants and sources of strength at times when the dreaded black cloud was at its most surpressing.

At the moment, those in Dunshaughlin and Donaghmore/Ashbourne are to the forefront of my thoughts. Following the sudden and untimely passing of Ger Dowd, which has caused indescribable shock and very deep sadness in the sporting and wider community.

Dual stars in sport may be a decling species, in GAA terms at least, but there have been many instances of sporting crossovers. For example, trailblazing pugilist Katie Taylor is also a gifted footballer, hurling legend DJ Carey was a talented handball player and golfer and former Mayo football star Liam McHale also displayed particular acumen as part of a great Ballina basketball team.

Ger Dowd is assured of a place in the annals of Meath sporting legends

In some ways, Ger Dowd was ahead of his time in terms of being a dual sporting star. Yes, there were always those who played football and hurling. Often with distinction. Consider Jack Lynch, Teddy McCarthy, Brian Corcoran and Sean Og OhAilpin from Cork, Steven Lucey of Limerick and the Wexford duo of Redmond Barry and Lee Chin. Again, just a small sample. However, to excel in two sporting codes as diverse as horse racing and GAA, in those days at least, must have been unheard of.

Yet that is exactly what Ger did. A fine footballer, he was a Meath minor in 1972 before going on to be part of a county U-21 side which also included no less than Colm O’Rourke and Gerry McEntee. It will, however, be for his distinguished career in the black and amber of Dunshaughlin he will be best remembered in football circles.

His elongated service to the three time Keegan Cup winners coming either side of a spell with Donaghmore/Ashbourne. In whose catchment area Ger and his wife Bernie resided and raised their family. Their son, Ian, captained the green and whites to win the Meath Intermediate Football Championship in 2007. A team managed by current Meath supremo Andy McEntee.

Ian Dowd lifts the Mattie McDonnell Cup in 2007

Following his sudden passing on Saturday last, former Dunshaughlin stalwarts Colum Bracken, Shane Kelly, Ger’s nephew Graham and the Gogan brothers, Ronan and Ferghal, were among those paying tribute to the fallen versatile sportsman. Those mentioned above formed part of the greatest generation that club has ever had. One of the finest club teams Meath has seen in fact. And each of those referred to in their tributes to the inspiring honour it was to line out alongside Ger on a team managed by his brother Val as his career headed for its swansong as theirs was only beginning.

Or it would be more accurate to say that part of his career. For, you see, Ger Dowd was a dual sports star with a difference. For most people, a career in the kingdom of horse racing that was Dreapers back then, in fact, just to have been there for a day would have been a dream come true for most of us. It still would be for this corner, believe me.

Ger aboard Brown Lad in 1978

But Ger managed to intertwine a highly successful GAA career with also reaching stardom in the greatest jump racing yard of them all when steering Brown Lad to win Ireland’s most important National Hunt race, the Grand National, at his local track, Fairyhouse. Such stories only jump racing can deliver.

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It was only in the last decade or so that I got to know of Ger’s sporting deeds and actually got to know him in person. The one of our racing-related meetings which beyond question will now eternally supersedes all others being the unveiling of the Arkle statue in Ashbourne.

What could never have been foreseen on my part was that Bernie and I would cross paths and become part of a unique poignantly healing community that is the RehabCare Centre in Dunboyne. To my utmost embarrassment, it took my Occupational Therapist Megan far too long to convince me to go over. Because of a silly psychological hang up I had about being the youngest one over there and not knowing anybody there.

Well, that and a rather brash, ignorant HSE official who delightfully told my mother that I “Wasn’t disabled enough” to attend the Centre. Thankfully, Megan is representative of a more forward thinking breed in the health service because persuasion to get me over there has quite literally been a life saver for me.

A wealth of webspace has been devoted to the travails I’ve encountered with regard to my mental health. In more recent years, it was never worse than at the time I began to attend Rehab. Being honest, my emotions were a chaotic cacophony at that exact time. On one hand, part of me was over the moon as Dunboyne had won the Meath Senior Football Championship for the third time. However, overshadowing everything in the village that weekend was the death of Sean Nealon of Brady’s. He wasn’t just like a second father to me, he was a father figure to the entire area.

Every one of us in the Rehab have our own stories, our own journey. For me it was a case of no longer feeling alone. Being safe among equals. The moment I rolled in the door, the late, great Donie Fitzpatrick took me under his wing and immersed me in the centre’s family.

That is exactly what my fellow service users and the staff of the centre have become to me – a second family. When Donie passed away in July 2019, it was accepted among all of us that we had lost the father of our place. If he was the father of the place, there can be absolutely no doubt as to who the mammy is – Bernie Dowd. On my first day in the place, I was directed towards Bernie as the lady who collected the subs for lunch. It quickly became apparent, mind you, that the grub money was only a fraction of the Dunshaughlin native’s contribution to our escape hatch.

From getting stuck into all the activities that make up life in the centre – most especially in her beloved garden – to leading the fight in the whatever battles need to be waged on our behalf.

Personally speaking, instantly once I started over there it was clear her enthusiasm was infectious and so easy to feed off on days when playing into the wind. More than that, once I discovered she was Ger’s wife, we’d found our common ground, and the conversation always ended up in the same place.

And so shall it always be. Even though it is our turn to support Bernie and her family in their time of grief and sadness. May they take solace in knowing the memories and legacy of Ger Dowd will live on as long as the stories of Dunshaughlin GAA and Dreaper Racing and Brown Lad are told. No doubt himself and Nicky O’Connor and Liam McLoughlin are casting a keen eye on matters on the gallops up yonder. May you rest in peace Ger.

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