'The laughter of my children is what matters': former Antrim footballer and Creggan manager Kevin Madden
EVERY day Kevin and Maria Madden open their bedroom curtains they can see baby Oisín’s grave across the field in Ballyscullion.
There are no more than 100 gravestones in the ancient site a stone's throw from their home.
Oisín’s little plot is quite understated. A beautiful Celtic cross, carved out of the finest mahogany wood. Inscribed are the words: ‘Baby Oisín ‘Kevin’ Madden, died 7th November 2015.’
No two skylines are ever the same.
“It’s funny,” says Kevin Madden, “whenever it rains at our house you’ll always see a huge arc of the rainbow over the top of the church.
“We lived in Randalstown after we got married - between 2009 to 2012 - and we moved to Moneyglass (Ballyscullion) where we are now.
“It’s a lovely house in the country. We live close to the graveyard. In the morning when you open the curtains you can actually see his grave. For us, it’s a beautiful thing to be able to do.”
From a relatively early stage of the pregnancy, Maria and Kevin knew the odds were stacked against Oisín making it.
Just seven hours after Maria gave birth to Oisín, the little man died peacefully in his sleep.
“If you’d looked at Oisín when he was born, he was over 5lb in weight, he was absolutely perfect.
“The one thing that struck us when Oisín was brought up into the neonatal intensive care unit, where he lived for about seven hours, was the number of wee babies fighting for their lives; wee babies who are probably thriving now and they were half the size of what Oisín was.
“Everybody was fighting their own personal battle…”
The family will remain indebted to Fr Monsignor Dolan who left a wedding reception in Bellaghy and rushed to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast to baptise Oisín...
Having three kids would be our family unit complete… So we were heading to the 20-week scan full of optimism
IT’S a rainy Thursday morning in Lisburn. We meet in a coffee shop beside Kevin’s workplace.
The clatter of coffee cups and teapots and general chatter around the place is probably welcome noise because it’s the first time Kevin has talked publicly about the devastating loss of their son almost three years ago.
“I remember going to the 12-week scan just to see the image and we actually thought we might be having twins,” he says.
“Everything was fine. At the 20-week scan we wanted to find out the sex of the baby. We hadn’t done that previously with Aoife (8) Étaín (4) [their two daughters].
“So we were a bit more relaxed. Having three kids would be our family unit complete… So we were heading to the 20-week scan full of optimism.
"It emerged there were complications, fluid problems that were stopping Oisin’s development. It was stopping his kidneys and lungs from developing and that’s what the issues were. Everything else was fine, he was growing normally and we were told he would probably go full term and that there was a chance he would be still-born, or that he would be born and he would live for a short period of time, or that he might pull through and have a complicated life.”
The weeks and months after being given the news were a “roller-coaster of emotions" for the couple.
During this interview, the former Antrim footballer and current Creggan manager purses his lips and shortens his sentences for his own good at times.
“It just tightens your senses,” he says.
“One consultant wanted to let Maria go two or three weeks early because she was giving Oisín little to no chance. Another consultant was quite adamant that Maria should go the full term to give the wee man the best possible chance. We were fully behind the latter. We could understand both perspectives. It was really testament to Maria’s courage and strength.”
It will be three years ago next month that they kissed baby Oisín goodbye, but the pain is just beneath the surface. Always.
“You hear all the clichés – time is a great healer and you’ve got other children. To lose a child, to bury your own child is something you can never comprehend until it happens.
“To do that was absolutely devastating. It doesn’t go away. Yes, it gets easier but he’s in our thoughts every single day and we wouldn’t have it any other way. As a family unit we talk about him every day and although our daughters didn’t get to meet him, they are very much mindful that they have a wee angel Oisín in heaven.”
If anything, the tragic loss of their son has strengthened Kevin and Maria's marriage, their lives forever framed before and after Oisín.
“It changes you; it changes you as a person,” Kevin says.
“Until Oisín passed away I thought about the number of times that I’ve cried in my life.
“I couldn’t remember one occasion where I actually felt that emotional about something. I was so [he pauses] hard, maybe not in touch with my emotions.
“But with Oisín, it changed everything. I wouldn’t say it makes me a better person but it has made me a more compassionate person. It has made me really appreciate the important things in life; how important your family is and how they really do come first.
“If that’s part of Oisin’s legacy, it is we are a closer unit.
“You appreciate the simple things more: your two daughters playing together, having fun and listening to their laughter.”
IN his younger days Kevin Madden felt invincible. He was one of the best forwards in Ulster at the turn of the ‘Noughties’.
Hailing from Roger Casement’s GAC in Portglenone, he made his Championship debut in 1997 under the late Ray McDonnell - but it was a couple of years later Antrim were airborne.
O’Donovan Rossa clubman Brian White had taken the reins that nobody wanted.
Winning the All-Ireland ‘B’ Championship in December 1999 stitched a thick layer of confidence and belief onto the backs of White’s players.
Six months later, Antrim sent Pete McGrath’s Down team hurtling out of the Ulster Championship at a heaving Casement Park, ending an 18-year wait for a provincial win.
Sadly, Madden had been sidelined with a broken jaw he'd sustained against Westmeath in Mullingar five weeks earlier.
After the Westmeath game, Madden was in a bad way.
He remembers county officer Eamonn McMahon and team doctor Joe Duggan driving him straight to the Royal Victoria Hospital.
Laughing at the memory, Kevin says: “Joe had the wee shooter out and we stopped a couple of times up the road and he gave me a couple of jags on the posterior for the pain.”
It was a strange twist of fate that Kevin had suffered a broken jaw and stayed in hospital for a couple of days as the various medical checks revealed a serious heart condition.
He remembers receiving a letter from the hospital a couple of months later asking him to make an appointment with the cardiology department.
He’d been diagnosed with a heart murmur from birth and automatically assumed the doctors had discovered this during their tests.
So he ignored the first and second letters but couldn’t ignore the third.
It was initially thought he was suffering from a faulty heart valve and that doctors wanted him to know that he would probably need open-heart surgery in later life to repair the problem.
A week or so passed when he received a phone call.
“I remember the cardiologist rang me - Norman Campbell, a brilliant man – and he said: ‘Kevin, I’ve bad news for you. This is a lot worse than I initially thought. Your aortic valve is leaking and it’s also narrowing, so we need to get you in here quickly.’”
More tests revealed that his heart was so enlarged that he was in danger of a “serious cardiac event”.
“When I look back during that season I broke my jaw I slept a bit more, I was taking naps in the afternoon, my bleep test results had dipped a bit.
“I just thought I wasn’t training hard enough. At the time, in the moment, I’d no symptoms, which is so dangerous because when athletes have cardiac events their fitness disguises the problem.”
He was faced with two surgical options: have a mechanical valve inserted and take warfarin [a blood-thinning medication] for the rest of his life, or go for a donor [homograft] valve, which would eventually need replacing by a mechanical one in later life.
Kevin opted for the second option.
Italian surgeon Gianfranco Campilani carried out the operation - “You just knew you were in safe hands with Gianfranco” – and within 11 weeks of open-heart surgery he was back playing for Portglenone against Davitt’s
“I was out longer with groin and hamstring injuries,” he laughs.
“I remember I wore this farcical looking chest guard; it was strapped around my back. It was something you’d see in American football… just to cushion any blows.”
In 2003, Madden was at his peak. That summer he produced arguably his best form in an Antrim jersey.
In the space of six days the Saffrons faced Tyrone, who would be crowned All-Ireland champions that summer, and Armagh, who were defending All-Ireland champions.
Madden hit 1-5 against Tyrone and 0-9 against Armagh.
“Any time I played against Derry, Tyrone or Armagh I believed I was better than the man who was marking me,” he says matter-of-factly.
Two years later, he wound up his inter-county career as more surgery beckoned.
The donor valve he had inserted in 2001 was expected to last for 10 or 15 years, but he got just six years out of his.
‘I shouldn’t be doing this, it’s too dangerous.’
IN 2007, Kevin was approached by the hospital about taking part in a BBC fly-on-the-wall documentary, entitled ‘Super Docs’, and asked him if he wanted his second heart operation to be filmed.
“My immediate reaction was: ‘The surgeon is going to be under enough pressure, and if there is a TV camera on him…’
“The second emotion was: ‘Hang on a minute, he’s going to be on the top of his game; he’s not going to want somebody to die on the operating table when it’s being televised.’
“And my third emotion was that it would be good to show people that regardless of your age or your fitness levels, this can happen to anybody. So I decided to run with it.”
A TV crew followed the Portglenone man around for a couple of months before and after surgery.
“It was surreal to sit down and watch the programme and see the surgeon cutting into your breastbone… There was a worrying moment at the start of the operation that I was unaware of until the programme was screened.
“Basically, the narrator of the programme said ‘Mr Campilani has just cut into Kevin’s breastbone and he has quite a serious bleed. If he doesn’t get this bleed stopped within two minutes he will be brain dead.’
“Of course, it’s something that can happen in surgery.
“I remember Gianfranco coming around the next morning and saying: ‘Everything was fine. It went really, really well. We had a minor issue at the start when we were opening you up but nothing to worry about.’
“But what a brilliant surgeon. I'm deeply thankful to him.”
The net result of the second surgery was being prescribed warfarin for the rest of his life. At that stage retirement was an easy enough decision. The risks were too high to continue playing.
He’d also dipped his toe into managerial waters and alongside Liam ‘Baker’ Bradley they won a county championship with Glenullin at the end of 2007.
He assisted Damian Cassidy with Derry for a couple of seasons but the idea that he didn’t get to finish his playing days on his own terms ate away at him.
“I found it really hard to come to terms with that,” he says.
“So, one day I said: F*** this, I’m going back to play Championship with Portglenone this year .’
“I hadn’t played a competitive game in three years.”
He wore a thick sweatband around his head for fear of suffering a head injury that could prove fatal given the blood-thinning medication he was taking.
In a memorable semi-final against St Brigid’s, Madden struck the winning point to book Portglenone’s place in the county final.
It was fairytale stuff.
“I thought I was 19 again. Three weeks later we played St Gall’s in the final – they won the All-Ireland that following March – and they completely wiped the floor with us.
“It was then I said to myself: ‘I shouldn’t be doing this, it’s too dangerous.’ And I think I was able to draw a line under my football career. It gave me a bit of closure.”
Management is more about listening than talking
SINCE then he has fashioned a weighty coaching reputation around Ulster.
After spells with Glenullin and Derry, he spent three fruitful years with the Loup, a couple of seasons in Dungiven and the last three at Creggan.
After losing Oisín, Kevin had planned to take a year out.
One night ‘Rocky’ McCann rang and asked him would he take the Kickhams job.
Maria, his wife, urged him to take it. That was three years ago and he's been there ever since.
Tomorrow, the Kickhams return to the county final stage in Ahoghill for the first time in 41 years where they will face Erin’s Own, Cargin.
It’s 74 years since the club last tasted senior county championship success.
Just turned 41, Madden has picked up a well of experience along the way.
“What have I learned?” he muses.
“Management, I think, is more about listening than talking. Everybody has different ways of learning.
“For me the most important thing about managing a football team is the culture – the culture of the team has to be right. That’s more important than strategy, it’s much more important than talent. If the culture isn’t right everything else is immaterial.”
He adds: “I have to say I’ve loved the last three years with Creggan… When we lived in Randalstown, Maria always said to me that Creggan would be a good job for me, and I always thought we would be a good fit.
“The Creggan players are the type of boys you’d be proud if you reared them. They are emotionally intelligent and are eager to develop and learn.”
Grief comes at you like waves in an ocean
WHEN Kevin Madden opens his bedroom curtains tomorrow morning he will see Oisín’s grave as he always does beneath the autumn light.
Maria, Aoife and Étaín will be an unruly bundle of nerves behind the wire in Ahoghill at throw-in, with dear Oisín in their hearts.
“Anybody who has lost somebody in tragic circumstances, they don’t want people to forget,” Kevin says. “It’s nearly three years since we lost Oisín.
“I read a great metaphor about grief one time. It was described as waves in the ocean.
“At the beginning the waves come fast, they come hard and they’re constant. And through time they don’t come as often but when they come they’re like a tsunami. It really hits you.”
For 60 minutes or more tomorrow, winning a football match will count for a lot.
But it’s not everything. Life’s hard lessons have taught Maria and Kevin Madden that much.