Only a game? It is in my a**e

On the morning after his brother Tom was laid to rest, da met his namesake the Meath manager in the shop. Meath were playing Dublin in a ‘regulation’ National League match in Croker later that day.

Initial inclinations here were for there to be no family representation in GAA HQ that afternoon. Until the herbalist correctly pointed out that the man who’d left us would’ve liked nothing more than to be in situ himself.

What a momentous day it turned out to be. Not only because it was the first of four draws between the sides during 1991. Also because a big gangly young lad came on wearing No. 23 and nobody had a clue who he was – John McDermott!

Some might say GAA is only a game – or a few different ones actually – but it is in my a***e. If the above is not example enough, consider what follows hereafter…

Though it’s not something anybody would take any pleasure in acknowledging, the GAA – in fact most sports clubs – come into their own when their people and/or community are in need.

Regrettably, the GAA community in Meath and much further afield were plunged into almost unspeakable sadness and shock once news of former inter county referee Fergus Smyth’s devastating diagnosis with Motor Nueron Disease became public.

The concept of GAA families is something which, it would be wagered, is, in fact, unique to our national sport. And they don’t come much more thoroughbred than the Smyth clan. After all, Fergus’s uncle Brian was the first Meath man to lift Sam Maguire in 1949.

He’d won an All Ireland medal in Junior Hurling the previous year, attained another Celtic cross in 1954, went on to referee at the highest level and then gave more than five decades of dedicated service to the Association in administration.

So it was hardly any surprise when his entire family – several generations thereof – became immersed therein also. His brothers, his late son Bernard, grandchildren and, central to this piece, his nephews.

Bernard was once awarded Meath Hurler Of The Year, nephews Darragh and Tommy collected SFC medals with St Peter’s, Dunboyne and also hurled with distinction, another nephew, Fionan also looked destined to have a great career in hurling until it was cruelly ended by an eye injury.

Fergus actually emulated his illustrious uncle in attaining an All Ireland JHC but it was in taking up the whistle and the administrator’s pen that he and his brother Enda really followed Brian’s lead.

Sometimes, there’s no explaining how bonds form. For whatever reason, shortly after the lads’ mother Kathleen passed away in June of 1997, Enda and I became extremely close. To the extent that, for more Christmas nights than can be recalled, cards were played, stories spun and matches and GAA occasions recalled. There might have even been a bit of politics thrown in!

Then Enda married the lovely Caroline, which thrust him into another hurling mad household – that of the Muldoon dynasty in Kilskyre. And, though nobody ever intends as such, there’s an inevitability that people will drift apart once weddings happen.

Ironically, it was something which emerged after Enda’s wedding which put us back in touch. That being the fact that it was my uncle, Austin Geoghegan, and his wife Ger who taught Enda to play the guitar so that he could sing The Voyage at the wedding reception. Without the groom ever knowing the connection between myself and his music teachers!

The overlap didn’t end there. Like Austin, eventually Enda got to a point where he needed a break from GAA. Also similarly though, not one to sit idle, eventually he followed him onto the golf course.

However, just as with myself and farming, if it’s in your blood, it never leaves you. Nor would you want it to. So while slightly surprising given the circumstances, I cannot tell you the lift it has been to me personally to see him back aboard.

To return to point mind you, with Fergus having officiated at hurling matches to the very highest level and, given his back story, it was absolutely no surprise in the last few years to see himself and Enda ‘togging out’ as umpires with burgeoning Dunshaughlin referee Andrew Smith (no relation).

Indeed, the young (from my perspective!) black and amber whistler has built up a backroom team of Galactico quality for himself. Comprising but not limited to his father, Jim, Fergus, Enda and Neil O’Dwyer, who himself has Reitoir blood flowing in his veins as well.

Except, one night recently – for the first round of the Meath SFC between Dunboyne and Seneschalstown – one of the crew was missing. At this point, it will be openly admitted that I initially hadn’t copped.

However, when he was coming in after doing his warm up, Andrew beckoned me over and said “Did you hear about Fergus?” Immediately in my mind, that was “Oh f***, what?” because the last time somebody put a question to me that way was the night Aisling McEntee asked “Did you hear about Sean Cox”?

Cue the same dread, the same twisting pain in my gut awaiting the follow up and the same stunned, heartbroken horror upon revelation of the full extent of the situation.

Motor Neuron Disease. The worst bas**** of an affliction anybody could have foisted on them. Or their family. Out of respect for Fergus and his family, and as a means of maintaining a degree of composure to keep going here, I have no intention of going into the nuts and bolts of the situation.

Other than to say that, having seen how the vile thing plays out, those effected and their loved ones need every bit of support and assistance they can get.

To that end, and not that anything else would’ve been expected, the GAA community in Meath and much further afield have stepped up to the plate and gone above and beyond in the Smyth family’s time of greatest need.

Fergus Smyth is presented with his SHC Final Referee’s jersey by Meath Referee’s Chairman Frank Gallogly

Over the past couple of weekends, referees in Meath and Kildare – where Fergus resides with his wife Marie and sons Evan and Cormac – have donated their match fees to the fundraising efforts.

But there’s always need for more and each and every scent will be extraordinarily appreciated. At the time of typing, there’s over €40,000 on the GoFundMe page which has been set up to aid the battle Fergus and his family are currently embroiled in.

I know there are plans to run off a Golf Classic in the near future and the occupant of seat has an idea for a fundraiser circulating in the computation department upstairs but won’t say anything yet in case it comes to nought and I make the same mistake twice.

But in the meantime please stay tuned and continue to support Fergus and his family in any and every way you can.

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