GAA Football

Cahair O'Kane: Sport's importance is that it reminds us of its unimportance

Philip Bonny, a club footballer with Bryansford, was diagnosed with cancer in October 2017. Pictured with his daughter Sofia, he recovered to score a vital goal for his club in last year's Down SFC. Picture by Mal McCann

AS he went to his final resting place on Saturday morning, John Morrison’s coffin left his home draped in the flags of his beloved county and club.

Lined up alongside the hearse as it weaved through Armagh city towards St Malachy’s church were on one side a line of his clubmen, all in their Armagh Harps jackets.

On the other side were members of the current Armagh panel and officialdom in their county gear. Hundreds of mourners marched behind, many of them heeding the family’s request that they attend wearing the colours of their club or county.

“That’s the way he would have loved it,” his family said.

Sure, you’ll get a laugh from the eccentricity of the Valentine’s Day cards to the Mayo players or emptying negative thoughts into the skip, but for each of those stories there is another that seems to reveal his true character.

Above all, the way in which he offered endless support to players and coaches, to whom he gave his time so freely down the years, was what really struck a chord.

John Morrison dedicated his life to football, and it gave so much back to him. The GAA community who paid all forms of tribute and who attended the family home in droves during his wake and funeral will doubtless have given so much comfort to his grieving family.

It’s often said that it’s in times of sorrow, the GAA is at its best in the way that it puts its arm around broken families and holds them upright across those first few days. Stewarding, parking cars, guards of honour, emotional support, it all comes as standard.

But its impact on people’s lives is so deep-rooted that you don’t even see the most of it.

Across these pages today you’ll find the thoughts of Odhrán MacNiallais. He had a fine game for Gaoth Dobhair on Saturday but not quite enough to see them past an awesome Corofin side going for back-to-back All-Irelands.

Having become the first Donegal club in almost half a century to win the Ulster club title, the wave was carrying them towards one of the biggest days of their lives.

But on the last Sunday evening of January, news filtered through of an horrific car crash that claimed the lives of four young men. A few days later, in the space of just over four hours, they were all laid to rest.

It was a cruel reminder of how fragile life is.

“There is no greater weight than the coffin of your son, your brother or your friend on your shoulders,” said Fr Brian Ó Fearraigh during Micheál Roarty’s funeral mass.

MacNiallais was a close personal friend of Roarty’s and for him, the biggest football match in his club’s history became something that he could focus on to numb the pain.

It seemed that way for an entire parish. Tom Beag Gillespie is another of those rare diamonds like Morrison who’s offered his life’s service to Gaelic football. He smiled and laughed and spoke softly over two hours in his home last Monday.

But when the tragedy came into the conversation, this sadness swept across his face. The same sadness that was in MacNiallais’ boyish eyes as he stood freezing in the tunnel in Leitrim on Saturday.

For a few hours, football took the pain away. The parish congregated en-masse in the main stand some 90 minutes before the game, leaving no room for Corofin supporters who were banished to the old far-over terrace.

They threw their souls into the game, feeling the early fall of Gary Sice’s goal and the rise of Kevin Cassidy’s riposte, the dip of Farragher’s finish and the rush of a rally that cut the gap back to two. It wasn’t quite enough, but very little would have been against a side as good as Corofin.

“You played a great game,” said one elderly woman to Mervyn O’Donnell on the pitch, draped in the green and white and with a set of rosary beads around her neck.

It doesn’t take the pain away. But when life comes at you as harshly as it has to them in the last month, you have to find hope in whatever you can.

And that’s what sport essentially is.

There have been so many different examples in the last year alone.

The first one that comes to mind is Philip Bonny, the fit and healthy 27-year-old club footballer with Bryansford who was diagnosed with cancer.

He had a three-month old daughter Sofia when the doctors told him in October 2017 that he had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

There were times in the few months after when he wasn’t allowed near his daughter because his immune system was so weak, as he told my colleague Neil Loughran in an interview last year.

His first thoughts were of his daughter, his girlfriend, his family. They’re everything.

But in the hard times, he’d dreamt too of getting back in the green and gold some day.

Fast forward ten months and he’s springing from the bench to score a last-minute goal and rescue his club’s championship hopes from the flames.

In that moment, the game is all-consuming.

Football, hurling, camogie, rugby, soccer, whatever, they’re there to remind us that we’re living, and that we should enjoy life when we can.

But when the adrenaline of the game itself settles, sport’s true importance is revealed.

You think too of the joy it brings to Ciaran McAleer leading out the Tyrone team in Healy Park, to John McKillop having his place at the heart of the community in Cushendall, to young Michael O’Brien having the promise that Davy Fitz made to him at Christmas upheld.

Sport’s place in society is to sometimes be a beacon for hope, a candle in the dark. To grab its people under the oxters and hold them up when they feel like they can’t do it themselves. To replace tears with smiles.

Even if it’s just for an hour once a week, that’s where the GAA really stands out.

Sometimes we need sport to feel like it’s the most important thing in the world.

Other times we need it to remind us that it’s not.

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