Fondest memories of a friend for life in Dermot McCoy
Sundown, sundown. They’re taking all the tents down. Where have you gone my handsome Billy?
The Last Carnival by Bruce Springsteen
THE first time I encountered Dermot McCoy was watching him play at Jennings Park, Newry some time in the early 1990s.
Jennings Park hosted a soccer competition during the summer months. Presumably to add a bit of spice to the games, invitations were extended to a few Belfast teams. It was a hugely popular tournament.
On this particular summer's evening, Dermot was playing for a Belfast side called Shamrock against one of the local teams. It was a feisty match. Both sidelines were thronged with spectators.
During the second-half, I vividly remember a local spectator shouting a bit of harmless abuse at Dermot and laughing with his mates. The spectator picked the wrong man to mock. From the middle of the pitch, Dermot told the spectator in no uncertain terms that he would knock seven shades out of him after the match. The colour drained from the spectator’s face.
Dermot, who wasn't the most imposing figure, noticed the guy had slightly protruding front teeth and, for the next three or four minutes, he called him Bugs Bunny, chewed on an imaginary carrot, shouting 'What's up Doc?'. All this took place while the game was going on.
A year or so later, Dermot joined our club Malachians FC. Just before a pre-season game at Star of the Sea's pitch, I introduced myself and welcomed him to the club. Wearing a broad smile, his handshake was firm. From that moment, we became great friends.
Dermot had recently returned home after seven or eight years working as a painter and decorator in London. There were 10 years between us. He was coming to the end of his playing career; mine was only starting.
After games, Dermot, me and Patrick, another good friend, would gravitate to one another and discuss anything from football, music, current affairs to politics. Dermot was the funniest man I ever met. He was eccentric and charismatic. He was funny one minute, serious the next. He was a born entertainer. His faith was important to him too. If you needed a prayer said, Dermot would be your man.
Sitting in a quiet corner of The Kitchen Bar or Muldoon's Bar most Saturdays, he loved nothing more than a good debate. He would explain how Irish freedom could be best achieved before inviting you to a holy week in Medjugorje. He loved Gaelic football and the Irish language. He played for St Enda's, Glengormley. He loved Guinness and the occasional glass of red wine. He loved Elvis and Roy Orbison.
Everyone in the bar would roar with laughter when he sang GI Blues by Elvis, while a goose-bumped quiet would descend on the room whenever he sang Orbison's famous ballad In Dreams so softly. Eyes closed, Dermot seemed in a far-away place when he sang that song. He had that rare gift of endearing himself to any group of people in any situation.
His party piece was The Jungle Book song I Wanna Be Like You, replete with all the moves of the animated orangutan. Even though we’d observed this piece of comic genius a thousand times over the years, it never failed to have us rolling on the floor.
Dermot battled with depression for most of his adult life. He was incredibly open, matter-of-fact about this. But the last thing he wanted was pity. And yet, here he was - the funniest, most generous, engaging man in the room…
For Patrick, Dermot and me, these were friendships that would outlast our playing days. Soon enough, we were too old to play football but, by 1997, we’d established a firm tradition of going away for a weekend together to different parts of Ireland. The group mushroomed to six. For years, our favourite haunt was the West County Hotel, Ennis, county Clare. Later, we went to Galway, Kinsale and Kilkenny.
Fifteen years ago, standing in an upstairs hostel room in Galway overlooking the Quay’s Bar, Dermot said to me: “I’ve always wanted to do something and you’re the man to do it with.”
“What’s that Dermot?” I asked.
“Cycle around the west of Ireland,” We shook hands right there.
I always said, in Ann-Marie he’d married an angel. The following June we were on our mountain bikes on the main street of Bundoran, our gateway into the west. Not a single training session done between us. Sligo. Ballina. Westport. Achill Island. Galway. Ennis. With the wind in our faces, we were ready for our epic journey.
Of course, we thought it only right and proper to have a few pints the night before we set off. The following afternoon, before embarking on our first leg to Sligo, Dermot decided to rehydrate his body with five or six pints of Guinness. Nothing too crazy. What was the rush?
The craic was mighty in the bar. Dermot eventually dragged himself away. A small number of friends came to the front door of the pub to bid us a fond farewell.
“Stay safe, lads.”
We gave them the thumbs up. I remember Dermot needed a couple of attempts to actually mount his bike. This was it. Our own Inca Trail was about to begin.
Attracting the attention of a dozen or so passers-by, Dermot had taken one or two unsteady pedals on his bike before his panniers fell off. His clothes lay strewn on the main street of Bundoran. Our friends at the door of the pub and passers-by were bent over with laughter. Dermot climbed off his bike and laughed as hard them.
We did well to make it to Sligo in one piece. We slept like babies that night.
Ballina was the second leg of our three-week bike tour. We’ll never forget the N59. It broke our hearts. A few miles outside Sligo, we concluded that there was nothing worse on God’s earth than the N59. We stopped at a pub in Dromore West for some food. We were too tired, too sore to speak. We couldn’t ride another yard of the road.
We had a plan. Under a hot afternoon sun we slept in a field for two hours, catching flies. We woke sun-burned, got on our bikes again and just about made it to Ballina. That was the last time we used the bikes on the trip.
They were stowed away in the under-carriage of Bus Éireann for the remainder. We did Westport, Galway, Achill, Ennis and back again - all by bus. We had an absolute ball. I'll never forget the summer of '01. We knew each other like the backs of our hands.
It's a pity some things never stay the same. Although we both lived in Belfast, I didn't see much of Dermot in recent years. But only two weeks ago, he'd promised to join the old group for a weekend in Kilkenny. Everyone was happy he was going.
Sadly, Dermot didn't make it. None of us did. Instead, we all attended his funeral mass last Saturday morning. Depression is such a cruel thing. To those who knew him, his passing was an unspeakable tragedy.
Dermot was a great friend, so fragile at heart. He always made me laugh and everyone loved him. He was the genuine article.