The longer we spent together, the more we had in common

It would hardly be considered divulging State secrets to point out that a depressing amount of so-called public places have been found over the years to be off limit those of us who depend on wheels to navigate our way through life. One such building being so could be whipped into a national or international scandal, but today is not that day.

Thankfully, outside of the fact that Croke Park which is an absolute disgrace considering it’s the GAA’s flagship venue, there are only three inter county grounds where there’s been hassle gaining access. Three too many, absolutely, but not bad in the general scheme of things. One, whom I won’t name to save their embarrassment, asked me could I go through a turnstile, another was an absolute shambles considering the county’s circumstances, though, credit where it’s due, the venue in question have not only redeemed themselves but gone above and beyond the call of duty.

Which only leaves one of the three grounds to come up for mention. The one which very poignantly came back to mind this evening. Again, no names to ensure the culprits maintain their dignity – though they scarcely deserve it – but, the bright sparks in question wanted da to lift me out of the wheelchair and plonk me on one of ordinary concrete seats in the stand. Yes, you did read that correctly!

Until, that is, Ultan Fitzpatrick, who was Secretary of the Meath Minor Board at the time, intervened. Having initially ushered me in at the back of the stand where the dressing rooms were, he informed the uppity individual with the Maor bib I was “only stopping to say hello” but when the old curmudgeon kept prattling on, Ulty had to come up with a Plan B fairly lively. So, for around 40 minutes, I was PRO of the Meath Minor Board.

That’s just one example of Ultan going above and beyond for those of us who loved Meath GAA as much as he did himself. And to which he gave so much. Writing that in the past tense is both shuddering and heartbreaking as those of us who were fortunate enough to have crossed paths with Ultan comprehend his passing this morning and contemplate the void which his loss will leave in the lives of so many.

Most obviously, to his wife Mary and their family and his brother Gerry who – like Ultan – is immersed in GAA, in Simonstown. But the loss of Ultan will be felt by many. Those who were blessed to have known him through his career in education and the other organisations to which he contributed greatly.

Ultan Fitzpatrick’s legacy will be one of success. Now, I’m not even sure if Vocational Schools football is even played at inter county level anymore but when himself was on the VEC Football Committee Meath would always field a team – and most of the time a bloody good one too.

There was a time the All Ireland Vocational Schools competition was a very big deal. With the final thereof acting as curtain raiser to the National Football League Final. This was back in the days when there was only one of the latter!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the last VS Championship I can recall was in 2002 when a team managed by Dudley Farrell and Ultan – and including seven players from St Peter’s College, Dunboyne – beat Donegal in Clones to claim All Ireland honours.

Quite a few of that team would have gone on to feature with Benny Reddy’s Meath Minor ensemble that made it all the way to the All Ireland MFC Final. Though the lads were ultimately defeated by Derry, that they arrived on Jones’s Road was another endorsement of the work Ultan and those along with him on the Meath Minor Board were doing.

It will be for his tireless work thereon and the successes that accrued to our county on foot of those efforts he will be best remembered. It was on his watch and with the help of other great Gaels who had gone to the meeting room above before him – people like Johnny Sullivan, Benny Gartland, Brian Reilly, Patsy Duff, Oliver Harding and Tommy Mahon – that the greatest chapters in the county’s underage history were written.

With Ultan (left) and Liam Gaffney on my first evening back in the Shed after all the Covid-19 lockdowns.

In the form of All Ireland Minor titles in 1990 and 1992, a Final appearance in 1993 and an All Ireland U-21 title in 1993. The latter strangely coming under the remit of the Minor Board at the time. As far as can be recalled, he had moved from Secretary to Chairman of Coiste Fe 18 by the time the team managed by his fellow Gaeil Colmcille clubman Benny Reddy made it all the to the All Ireland Final where they were unfortunately upskuttled by Derry. Indeed, he may well still have been involved when provincial titles were attained in 2006 and 2008.

Peter Sullivan lifts the Tom Markham Cup in 1992

I often wondered why he never went for the top job of County Board Chairman, though it’s probable that if another Gaeil Colmcille legend – the late, great Fintan Ginnitty – hadn’t been in possession of the top job, he may well have thrown his hat in the ring. If past form was anything to go by, success would surely have followed either way.

As seems to be something of a rite of passage within GAA these days, when he eventually did take a step back from Co Board level – aside from representing his club “Through the Chair”, he devoted his time to stewarding in Pairc Tailteann on match days. Specifically, to the Wheelchair Shed – thus christened by me who helped design it – where he took his duties as wheelchair parking attendant – in conjunction with Liam Gaffney – with the utmost seriousness.

Hardly surprising, then, that in his discharge of that particular role, he and I would’ve spent a lot of time in each other’s company and got to know each other better. And, it soon became apparent that, the longer we spent together the more we had in common. Some of which surprised me and more which had him with utterly puzzled looks on his face. Now read on…

At the time of the 1990 World Cup one very high ranking GAA official snarled with angry derision when asked if he’d be watching the action in Italy. Probably naively, I assumed that, being in the same age bracket, Ulty would’ve been of similar mindset. But no, the more we talked, the more we discovered we shared many of the same interests. No sport was off limits it seemed and he even wasn’t averse to a punt.

Now that’s what you call finding common ground. However, methinks we were as surprised as each other when the mutual love of farming entered the fray. On my part, I suppose I just never envisaged a teacher diversifying their interests from the clean cut classroom to the dung and grind of a farmyard, but there we were.

Comparing cattle prices and grain prices and the merits of baling straw as opposed to chopping it. A back-and-forth we agreed to continue when our paths crossed again. Alas, neither of us knew that day would never come. Rest easy Ultan, you’ve some Minor Board up there to work with.

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