GAA Football

Keeping going: Derry's All-Ireland winner Danny Quinn on how football's challenges helped him deal with grief

Danny Quinn had been Derry's tower of strength at full-back for close to a decade but was dropped for the All-Ireland final in 1993. That paled into insignificance when his wife Catherine was diagnosed with a terminal lung disorder, from which she passed away in 2011 after a nine-year battle. He spoke to Cahair O'Kane about how dealing with football's challenges helped him deal with the ones life threw at him…

1993 All-Ireland winner Danny Quinn at Páirc Sean de Brún, Bellaghy. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

“I’d just come in from under-14 training and Catherine was standing at the window shouting: ‘They’ve rung’. You know the way it never clicks with you? Because we had suitcases sitting for two years ready to go. I’m soaking and I go: ‘Who rung ye?’ She said: ‘Papworth rang, I’m going over, I’m going over!’”

*****

NEW Year’s Eve, 1986. Danny Quinn is in Clubland, in the heart of Cookstown, talking to Mickey Boyle and Cathal Murray when the latter’s sister, and the former’s cousin, Catherine sidles over.

“I says: ‘Here, look, I’m bound to get a kiss on New Year’s Eve’. Chancing my hand. Met her the following week and that was it,” smiles Danny, the Anahorish Primary School principal of 12 years.

The romance blossomed and the pair were married on August 5, 1993. Catherine moved across from her beloved Ballinascreen to the house they’d bought next door to Danny’s parents, Frank and Mona.

Two weeks before the wedding, Danny had been dropped for Derry’s Ulster final win over Donegal. But before the newlyweds headed for a week’s honeymoon in Mallorca, Eamonn Coleman came across for a word.

“He said to me to keep in good shape. We played Dublin in the National League and I was marking Vinnie Murphy, and I’d a real clinker of a match on him. Eamonn was maybe thinking to himself he needed me to mark him.”

Every morning he did a training session on the beach, and every evening he ran with the late Martin Mulholland from Slaughtneil, who happened to be there with his wife Eileen.

When he came back, Coleman did indeed restore him. But after 19 minutes, Dublin were in control and Murphy was doing damage. Karl Diamond came on, Tony Scullion switched across to full-back and the battle continued.

“Coming off after 20 minutes of the semi-final to sit down was absolutely brutal. But by the end of the game, I was probably the first man over with Henry and lifted him up.

“It was so important for the group to get to the final. I think that’s how you know you’ve got a good team, when people are willing to do things for the group.”

He knew then that his chances of playing in Derry’s first All-Ireland final for 35 years were slim. He went well in training for the four weeks between semi-final and final, but well wasn’t enough.

Their last training session before the team was named was on Quinn’s home patch in Bellaghy. Eamonn came over again, but it wasn’t going to be the same conversation. He knew it was coming.

“He came over to me and I just said: ‘Eamonn, you don’t have to tell me, I know’.

“I knew myself I wasn’t playing well. I knew when I came off after 20 minutes against Dublin that other boys had come on and done better.

“I’d known him from ’83, ’84. I’d had ten years of Eamonn, so him coming to say something to me like that probably wasn’t easy for him. But I made it easy for him.

“I said: ‘Eamonn, I know. I’m long enough here to know when I’m playing well and when I’m not playing well. As long as Derry win. You make the decisions to make Derry win, and I’m one of your decisions. That’s it.’”

Fergal McCusker came in, Tony Scullion stayed across at full-back. As the heavens opened, like they seemed to do every Sunday that summer, Derry got over Cork to emulate the Down and Donegal sides that had gone before them.

It’s part of football. Part of life. Some get to play, some don’t.

Danny Quinn had won three MacRory Cups, including 1984 as captain, when he was only denied the climb to lift the Hogan Cup by a last-gasp loss to St Jarlath’s Tuam. He even flirted with hurling, losing an O’Keefe final in Croke Park the following week after Joe McGurk hastily enlisted him and Enda Gormley.

By the time Derry won Ulster in ’87, Quinn had progressed to full-back. He stayed there right through for the next six years.

But he knew there was no lock on the number three jersey. And he knew there were others feeling it too.

“Here, there were worse decisions to be made. Going to tell somebody you’re not in the 24 for an All-Ireland final, can you imagine how difficult that would have been as well?

“I would have loved to have got a minute. Even a minute at the end would’ve been class. But Eamonn had to be strong in his position, and he was. He’d have listened to you, but it was hard to argue.”

He never started another championship game for Derry after that All-Ireland semi-final, stepping away at the end of 1995, but the lessons of it helped him give the best football of his career to his club.

Danny Quinn led the club to an Ulster club title in ‘94 as both captain and trainer at 28, only narrowly losing the All-Ireland final to Kilmacud Crokes.

The county final that year was against Ballinascreen. The Bellaghy players travelled to Swatragh in their cars, and Catherine sat in the passenger seat nervous over how ‘Screen and her brother Conor would do, while Danny and team-mate Louis McPeake planned to end their dreams.

The John McLaughlin Cup came back in the car with them.

“Catherine had to come home to Bellaghy after us not winning the championship for eight years, me sitting in the car with the cup, and it out through the sunroof listening to the Bellaghy ones going down the town. But she came around! She’d have supported us the rest of the time.”

At one stage he was training Derry under-21s, playing with and training Bellaghy, doing a Masters at St Mary’s (where he won a Sigerson in ’89 and went back in the mid-90s) and teaching in The Loup Primary School.

He coached Derry seniors when they won their last Ulster title in 1998, and Danny didn’t finish up playing until Bellaghy lost the county final to Ballinderry in 2001.

The arrival of their first child Amy in ’96 had changed his priorities a bit. Then Conor came along. Then Dara. Three in six years.

Life had gotten very busy for Danny and Catherine, who worked as a secretary in Paddy Toner’s shop at home in Ballinascreen.

This was happiness.

*****

JOHN Quinn, Danny’s sole sibling, got married in the summer of 2002.

Baby Dara was just a few weeks old at the time. Catherine had fluid issues after the birth and felt unwell at the wedding, struggling for breath.

When they arrived home, Danny phoned the local GP and Derry team doctor, Dr Ben Glancy, who arranged for them to go straight to Antrim Hospital.

They sent her to the Royal Victoria in Belfast, where she remained for two months.

Catherine and Danny Quinn pictured with the Sam Maguire Cup after Derry's All-Ireland success in 1993.

Just four days into her stay in Antrim, a registrar came to them. Catherine had been diagnosed with Primary Pulmonary Hypertension, a very rare terminal disorder that affects the lungs and subsequently the heart.

It came into their lives with neither reason nor warning.

Nebulising treatments and medication offered a quality of life but there was nothing that would buy them the time they wanted other than a double lung transplant, which could have possibly given them 15 years if things had gone well.

“All we talked about from the start was trying to get the weans up to a certain age. That’s what you’re trying to do through transplant.

“We never talked about death, because that meant you were giving up.”

Papworth Hospital, just outside Cambridge, is a specialist centre for respiratory illnesses. They were over two, three times a year for assessment when Catherine was on treatment, all the while waiting for the call to say that a set of lungs had been found.

And then it came.

“Papworth rang, I’m going over, I’m going over!”

*****

CATHERINE Quinn underwent a double lung transplant on May 20, 2010. The operation took 16-and-a-half hours, and every hour she spent in theatre reduced the chances of success.

For a while afterwards she was extremely ill and lost a lot of weight, but she came through it.

“Next thing she’s up on her feet walking. New set of lungs in and they take off the ventilator that’s been doing the breathing for you, and that sensation of breathing… Watching her take her first breath…” says Danny now at the kitchen table of their home, smiling with pride at his love’s resilience while fighting to keep in the tears for her absence.

Catherine got home at the end of July and followed the daily advice to the letter. From achieving the goal of three steps with the aid of a physio, soon she was walking a mile-and-a-quarter around Páirc Séan de Brún.

“To watch the determination and improvement in her from that first breath through to her pushing herself to get home. She was on bikes, she was on treadmills. She got to the stage where she was going really well.

“And then suddenly this rejection started.”

Back over to Papworth. Initially they thought medication had stabilised things, but just over six months after the operation, Catherine’s body rejected the new lungs.

She wasn’t well enough to get straight back on the list for a second transplant. The prognosis was devastating.

“That was brutal. We had three children.

“We sat them down in the living room. Coming home to tell three children ‘this is not good’, that’s deadly. It was just before Christmas and we had to tell them ‘this whole thing’s fallen apart on us’. That’s exactly the way it was.

“We told them straight. You can’t put hope into somebody if it’s not there. We told them Mummy’s not well, they’re trying to get it sorted but we don’t know what way it’s going to be.”

Her condition deteriorated to the point where she spent ten days in the City Hospital with a cough, and doctors didn’t think she’d get through it. But they didn’t know how hard Catherine Quinn would fight.

“She was thick enough about it: ‘I want home to my weans’.”

And she got home to them once more. She fought to live just that little bit longer with her husband and her children. For them.

But having been readmitted again just under a year after the transplant operation, she went from sitting up joking to struggling for breath across a heartbreaking 24-hour period.

Catherine Quinn lost her long, brave battle on May 13, 2011, at just 42 years of age. Not a single day has passed since that she hasn’t been thought of, spoken about and missed.

*****

77 DAYS after Catherine’s death, the Derry ’93 team, the St Mary’s ’89 team and the Bellaghy and Ballinascreen teams that had met in the 1994 county final came together for Cairde Catherine, a day held at the Wolfe Tones club in her honour.

A huge crowd turned out in the sunshine. Sam Maguire and the Sigerson Cup were in attendance with all manner of playing legends, including Catherine’s cousin Joe Brolly, whose organ donation campaign was motivated largely by her battle.

Over £30,000 was lifted on the day which went towards the hospitals that cared for Catherine during her illness. But the day was really about organ donation. Over 700 people registered as donors that afternoon, when the person who’d have loved it most was looking down on it from above.

Gaelic football has given Danny Quinn great comfort. He threw himself in to taking Conor’s team right up from under-6, and they won with regularity until they lost the minor championship final last year. Still goes to Bellaghy’s matches, and looks upon on Derry’s future as potentially radiant.

Danny Quinn encourages his young team from Anahorish Primary School after a narrow loss during the Cumann na mBunscol Derry boys football finals at Owenbeg. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

You’d think Danny Quinn has every right to look upon life and be bitter, to wonder why him. But he doesn’t.

That natural positivity has helped him throughout his life, and never more than in the last seven years. But in their three brilliant children Amy, Conor and Dara, their mother’s spirit and wit and zest lives on.

“We’re very lucky – there’s people worse than us. I’m very lucky I’m beside home. Catherine’s family are brilliant. We’re lucky we’re not in the situation where Catherine died and there’s nobody around me to help me.

“There’s massive support and I’m very lucky to have it. That’s very important to get you through those things.

“I look at it that I’m more lucky than unlucky. Lucky I had the experiences.

“You go into Papworth and you see somebody at 21 years of age dying from a respiratory illness and they haven’t had the opportunity to have a life and have those experiences, that really opens your eyes to what’s going on.”

Catherine and Danny were just teenagers in Clubland, with no idea what lay ahead of them. But they took life on, and they did it together.

As Danny walks back on to the Croke Park turf next Sunday, his best friend, wife and loving mother to their three children will be at the very fore of his mind.

Amy, Conor and Dara will be there in the crowd. He’ll scan it to find them, and his pride will swell for them, far more than for anything he ever did in his football career.

Winning an All-Ireland was important, but only a small part of life.

Football prepared him for the challenges at home. He turned from gleaming every nugget he could about football to being taught by Catherine how to cook and use the washing machine.

The skills different, but the coaching methods the same.

Many men would struggle to make the transition from teacher to pupil but, just as when Eamonn Coleman pulled him to one side in Bellaghy, Danny accepted it.

It hurt, but there was a bigger picture.

If it’s self-pity you’re looking, he’s not your man. That’s not how Frank and Mona reared him.

Rather you’ll see Danny in the playground at Anahorish School having a quiet word with a child having a bad day, or leaning over the fence at a Bellaghy match, and the message will be simple.

‘Keep going’.

Because that’s what Catherine told him to do.

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